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Barber: Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer thriving at 66

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“I water skied over a hundred days this past summer,” Tara VanDerveer said, indirectly speaking to anyone who might wonder whether the exalted Stanford women’s basketball coach is, you know, slowing down a little bit at the age of 66.

VanDerveer spends her summers back East, at the family home in upstate New York. She still goes pretty hard at scouting and recruiting, but for VanDerveer, basketball is not a 365-day-a-year pursuit.

“When I’m here, I’m into it and it’s fresh and I’m excited,” she said. “But we do it differently at Stanford. I mean, I don’t require summer school. I want people to be really excited about what they’re doing when they’re doing it, and not make it a job — a J-O-B job.”

Of course, now the Cardinal women have a real job to do. They lost to Texas on Sunday, their first stumble of the year, and have fallen to No. 5 in the AP rankings after spending three weeks in the top spot.

Still, this looks like a bounce-back season for VanDerveer’s program. And VanDerveer probably has a little bounce in her step these days.

There was a time when that hardly would have rated as news. Stanford has fielded one of college basketball’s most dominant programs for decades, ever since VanDerveer arrived in 1985. But No.1? It has been a while. Before the Cardinal moved into the top spot on Dec. 2, the last time they visited that locale was Dec. 24, 2012.

Seven years is a long time in college sports — a couple generations of rotating student- athletes. And it’s an especially long time in Palo Alto, where VanDerveer has racked up 925 wins (the bulk of her career total of 1,077, which is second only to Pat Summitt in the sport’s history), 31 NCAA tournament appearances, 13 Final Fours and two national championships.

This team could add to VanDerveer’s legacy. It’s one of the most intriguing she’s had in years.

Not a single Cardinal player made the 2019-20 preseason All-American team, not even in the Also Receiving Votes category. It’s possible none of them will be there at the end of the season, either. No Stanford player currently appears among the Pac-12’s top 11 scorers, top 25 rebounders, top 10 assist dishers or top 10 shot blockers.

What VanDerveer has is one of the deepest rosters ever to wear the Stanford colors. Nine different players have started games so far in this young season. Eleven players are averaging 13 minutes or more. Eight are averaging more than 5 points per game.

As highly regarded as VanDerveer is in this profession, she sort of needed a season like this.

At the start of this decade, Stanford finished No. 2 in the rankings for three consecutive years (2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12). That was pretty much the paradigm for a really good West Coast program that existed in the same universe as peak UConn and Brittney Griner-era Baylor, teams that were virtually unbeatable.

Since then, Stanford’s shine had gradually diminished. The Cardinal finished the 2012-13 season ranked No. 4. The next year they were No. 6. They fell to No. 14 in 2014-15 and No. 13 in 2015-16. Stanford bounced back to occupy the No. 6 ranking in 2016-17, then dropped to No. 15 in 2017-18. VanDerveer’s team was No. 7 last year.

Again, these are perfectly acceptable seasons, even breakthrough seasons, for most college basketball programs. But not for Stanford.

No one wanted to say it, because of everything she has meant to her sport. But a lot of people were thinking it. Was VanDerveer losing her edge? Specifically, was she losing her ability to recruit the world’s best female basketball players?

The heretical notion got some reinforcement in May of 2016 when Sabrina Ionescu, a top-three national recruit, signed with Oregon. Ionescu had played at Miramonte High School in Orinda. Right there in VanDerveer’s backyard, but it was Ducks coach Kelly Graves who swooped in to get the prize athlete.

As it turns out, the past year or so has been a prolonged opportunity for VanDerveer to laugh in the faces of her doubters. In fall of 2018, Haley Jones committed to Stanford. Jones, a 6-1 guard who grew up in Santa Cruz and played at Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose, was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country.

I recently asked VanDerveer the last time she signed the national No. 1. She believes it was Nneka Ogwumike, a decade earlier. The Jones decision signaled Stanford’s return to the highest echelon, and the team has been on a roll ever since.

And no, I’m not trying to crown the Cardinal in December. There will be much to prove over the next three months.

“I texted Tara after they were voted No. 1 for the first time since 2012,” Mary Murphy, a women’s basketball analyst for Pac-12 Networks, told me. “And her comment was, ‘It’s like being on the Peloton and, you know, you just hit your first hill at the four-minute mark. There’s a long way until you’re getting off the bike.’ ”

Gone are the days of Stanford breezing through the Pac-12. The conference currently boasts three of the top five women’s teams in the nation (including Oregon and Oregon State), and four of the top 10 (including UCLA). The Pac-12 season, which begins in early January, will be grueling. VanDerveer thinks that’s a good thing.

She points to the rich variety of styles played in the Pac-12. “It’s not only that you’re playing against really good teams,” VanDerveer said. “They’re all doing different things. So one week you’re getting ready for one kind of style, maybe a running team that’s shooting threes. And then the next week it’s a defensive team.

“When I came from Ohio State, having been in the Big Ten for five years, I felt there was more of a standard Big Ten way to play, whereas the Pac-12 was all over the map.”

If VanDerveer has kept Stanford relevant (at the very least) throughout her tenure in Palo Alto, there’s an elephant in this room. The Cardinal haven’t won a national championship since 1992. It’s been so long that Kate Paye, a freshman on that team, is now in her 13th year as one of VanDerveer’s assistant coaches.

VanDerveer is philosophical about the drought.

“Obviously, so many things can happen,” She said. “I look at how many times we’ve been to the Final four. And those are opportunities. We’ve had situations where we’ve been at the Final Four and we’ve had two key people had a broken foot. Or a sprained ankle. Things have happened. I don’t think you have to say it’s an all-or-nothing thing. The experiences that I’ve had with teams going to the Final Four, competing for a national championship, have been great experiences.

“Would we like to win another national championship? Yes, of course.”

Who knows, maybe this will be the year. If not, it’s seems clearer than ever than VanDerveer will be here for a while, teaching the game to another generation of women.

I asked her whether she has contemplated retirement.

“I don’t think about it,” VanDerveer said. “I just know as long as it’s fun and I feel like I’m enjoying it, and also doing a good job — and obviously I’m at the mercy of an athletic director and university. But it’s fun. I enjoy coaching this team. I don’t have a timeline for myself. I told our team this: My nightmare is I’m way at the top of Maples (Pavilion), and I can’t get down to the bench.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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