VanDerveer eyes another NCAA title
Veteran coach has Cardinal in its fourth consecutive Final Four
STANFORD, Calif. -- Tara VanDerveer woke up restless at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday and decided it was time to get to work studying up on Stanford's next opponent.
Bring on the game film. Four hours of it, in fact. Sleep, she says, will come later.
"I just woke up and said, 'Hey, might as well. I was thinking about it so I might as well just watch it. ... Why fight it, you're thinking about it anyway,'" VanDerveer said. "I can sleep later. I feel like I have to immerse myself in watching as much as I can to really understand the team. For me that helps me the most."
VanDerveer should have quite a week ahead. Her top-seeded Cardinal (33-2) put their 27-game winning streak on the line Sunday against No. 2 seed Texas A&M in the national semifinals at Indianapolis in their fourth consecutive Final Four. She could be named to the Naismith Hall of Fame on Monday night. Then, she and her players hope, VanDerveer could capture her third career NCAA championship on Tuesday.
VanDerveer already has a lengthy resume. She joined the elite 800-win club back in December and coached the United States to Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Still, VanDerveer is pushing as hard as ever in her 32nd overall season as a college head coach, and her 25th at Stanford. Never mind that she owns a remarkable 674-146 record - that's an .822 winning percentage - with the Cardinal and seems to have had this winning thing down pat for years.
"I am very focused on preparation. For me, I really feel like I do the best job I can do when I really know a team," VanDerveer said. "Other stuff to me, that's something like maybe you look at a scrap book when you're done. This is what's real and interesting and challenging for me.''
VanDerveer has acknowledged how tough it was to fall short of the Final Four several times during a 10-year drought that ended during Candice Wiggins' sensational senior season four years ago. The veteran coach said she wondered at times if the program would ever get back to basketball's biggest stage.
Now, it's about doing the work to make the Final Four an annual trip. Four in a row is quite a run, with Louisiana State, UConn and Tennessee the only other women's teams to accomplish it.
"There aren't very many other programs that have done it," VanDerveer said. "We're in great company. (Connecticut) had their chance to win it and now we want to go back there and do that."
Especially after losing in the championship game two of the past three years, including blowing a halftime lead in last season's title game won by the Huskies.
Stanford hasn't won it all since 1992.
VanDerveer regularly gets her team geared up for the pressures of March by scheduling a preseason lineup that resembles an NCAA tournament bracket played in November and December: Rutgers, Gonzaga, Texas, DePaul, Tennessee, Xavier, UConn.
Her Cardinal, coming off their 11th consecutive Pac-10 regular-season crown and fifth consecutive title in the conference tournament, haven't lost since back-to-back road defeats at DePaul and Tennessee in mid-December.
As much as VanDerveer wants to win the championship for a team that is so special to her, her players feel the same way about doing it for their coach.
"That would be amazing," senior Kayla Pedersen said. "She definitely deserves it. To get all of those accolades, along with this team award (title) in one year would just be incredible for her and I know it would mean a lot to her, too."
VanDerveer became the fifth Division I coach to reach the 800 wins mark with a victory at San Francisco against first-year Dons coach and former Stanford star Jennifer Azzi on Dec. 22. While bittersweet, Azzi could hardly be upset - she got to see her former coach and mentor make history.
Earlier this year, VanDerveer appeared in a red Stanford singlet and headgear and hit the mat to help promote the school's wrestling team. She promotes her players just the same, and said from the start of this NCAA tournament that she wanted to keep this close-knit group together for as many more games as possible.
VanDerveer felt the same way about Wiggins as her time at Stanford wound down.
"We'd be just as happy for her as she would be for us," Pac-10 Player of the Year point guard Jeanette Pohlen said.
VanDerveer has reinvented herself along the way but stuck to her basic approach of concerning herself most with her own players and getting them ready than worrying about any possible distractions that come with a certain opponent.
The woman who nearly became a lawyer has said she's still having so much fun now in her career that she might try to stick around to win another 800 games.
"Coach VanDerveer does a tremendous job and they have one of the best programs in the country year in and year out. To keep that level of consistency - I'm amazed that Geno (Auriemma) has been able to do that every year - is so hard," said St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico, whose team lost to Stanford in the second round. "People like Tara and Geno that do that year in and year out, I just have the utmost respect for. The players in this program at Stanford are tremendous. They really play well as a team, their chemistry is really great. They have people that can do multiple things on any given night. They're going to be fighting for a national championship. I'm completely impressed in how they do things.''
VanDerveer has never hidden the fact Stanford sometimes gets overlooked - there have been several cases when she thought her team deserved a top seed in the tournament - playing out West. She also considers it her responsibility to raise the level on the left coast. And she keeps grinding, bringing in top players from around the country who fit her system.
"There are a lot of things I'm proud of with our program. Consistency is one of those," VanDerveer said.
And it all starts right there, with the top woman in charge. The early bird.