STANFORD, Calif. -- At the beginning of the season, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer told her players to write down three goals for themselves for the upcoming season.
Mikaela Ruef's tenets of self-accountability are still propped up on the inside of her locker six months later.
Remember Why You Came Back.
Be a Better Leader.
Do the Necessary Work.
That last one clearly wasn't going to be an issue.
Ruef has spent her final collegiate season on The Farm finishing one career and laying the groundwork for another.
While the redshirt senior forward has started all but one game this season for the Cardinal -- who are preparing for Sunday's regional semifinal matchup with third-seeded Penn State (ESPN2, 4:30 p.m. ET) at Maples Pavilion -- she also has been working as an project engineering intern for Preston Pipelines, a construction company doing energy conversion projects on the Stanford campus.
Ruef is up before dawn most days, at the job site by 6:30 a.m., delivering plans, photographing projects, coordinating the delivery of necessary supplies and equipment.
Then she is off to class as she completes her master's degree in engineering, and finally to the gym for either practice or games.
During the season, she has worked approximately 16 hours a week over five days when the team is not on the road.
"I've had a chance to see how work is done in the field," said Ruef, whose major is environmental engineering.
Getting up early doesn't faze Ruef.
She is, by nature, an early riser, one of the founding members of the "Coffee Club" on the Stanford team, leading a group of teammates and support staff on road trips to the latest, greatest spot for a cup of coffee to start the day.
It's the days that start at 5 a.m. and end after midnight which are most painful. The pain is worth the gain for the Beavercreek, Ohio, native.
"I don't mind getting up," Ruef said. "I honestly never imagined myself working in construction, but I have loved this job more than I could possibly imagine."
Ruef had a fifth year of eligibility after missing the majority of the 2011-12 season with a foot injury.
She always intended to return to Stanford, to work on her master's degree while she closed out her eligibility. But at the end of last year, it was not clear whether there would be a scholarship available for her. Ruef started working at Preston in the spring, upped her time to 30 hours a week through the summer and was prepared to use that money to pay her way through Stanford for two more quarters. Student-athletes cannot access financial aid once they've been on scholarship. The full tuition for a quarter at Stanford is more than $14,000.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said Ruef would have been the first student-athlete she coached to pay her way through a fifth season.
"It hadn't happened before that I can remember," VanDerveer said. "It made sense because she wanted to get her master's degree and she only needed two more quarters."
When guard Toni Kokenis was forced to retire because of concussion issues, her scholarship went to freshman Bree Roberson. And Ruef was still prepared to pay. But when highly regarded recruit Aly Beebe was also forced into retirement because of knee injuries, a scholarship opened up for Ruef.
She decided to keep working anyway.
"I figured I'd try and see if it would work with basketball and if it didn't I would quit," Ruef said. "But I never really ran into any problems."
VanDerveer hasn't had any issues with Ruef's dual responsibilities.
"She does her job on the court and she works hard and it hasn't been a problem," the coach said.
Ruef has often been called a "glue" player for the Cardinal this season, holding things together with timely rebounding, good passing and leadership.
Ruef opened her career at Stanford at the end of the bench but has played her most prominent role for the team in her final season. She is averaging career highs of 6.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists. She has pulled down double-digit rebounds in 16 games, with five double-doubles.
"She has been a facilitator for us," VanDerveer said. "She works hard when she's out there."
Ruef took her last final exam last week. She has earned her master's and plans to continue to work for Preston.
"I've talked to the guys at work and they want me to stick around," she said.
The biggest side benefit of her job has been turning her construction co-workers into women's basketball fans. They watch games on television and know exactly how she performed the night before when she shows up at the job site the next morning.
"They argue about our games sometimes and they make me laugh so hard," Ruef said.
Ruef feels the urgency of the final days of her college career and spends a lot of time thinking about those goals inside her locker.
"My priorities are in order," she said.