April 09, 2019

Yogi Berra and Stanford Women's Hoops

                                                                  Warren Grimes

            I had a strange dream the other night.  In the dream, Yogi Berra was a consultant for Stanford women’s hoops, commenting on the past and future of the team. 

            What possible connection could Yogi Berra have with Stanford and the women’s basketball team?   I haven’t a clue.

            Anyway, in the dream, I had an excellent exchange with Yogi.  I first asked him about the Notre Dame loss.   Yogi didn’t hesitate: “We made too many wrong mistakes.” 

            Actually, I thought, Stanford made some pretty good mistakes in that game, like holding Notre Dame to a season low 26 points in the first half.  Stanford also, mistakenly or not, shot 45.5% from the three point line. 

            Can you mistakenly make shots?  Maybe.  Perhaps we should ask Arike Ogunbowale about converting her second free throw attempt in the last seconds of the national championship game (a rebounded miss would have given Notre Dame its best chance to tie or win).

            Overall, this past season has produced some exhilarating surprises for Stanford, and a few less pleasant ones.  Upsetting Baylor (that team’s only loss of the season) and, in the Pac 12 tournament championship game, winning that sweet revenge victory over Oregon (after the debacle at Maples) are my favorites.  A less pleasant surprise was that Marta Sniezek did not play a single second during the season.  Her career at Stanford appears to be over, but it was one of achievement.  Sniezek has moxie!  She was a pivotal point guard in her sophomore season, taking the team to the Final Four after that come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame in the regional final.

            Yet another surprise--that, among the three freshmen, Lacie Hull would be the one to start 30 games, lead the team in thefts, establish an excellent assist to turnover ratio, and shoot the three ball at 33 percent.  There’s more to this story, however.  Lacie Hull got the start because her twin, Lexie Hull, was out of action for multiple games because of a foot injury.

            Lexie would likely be the freshman who got the most starts and minutes but for that injury.  In her minutes on the floor, Lexie shot the three ball at a 38.2% rate and was one of the best rebounders on the team – on a per minute basis, Lexie was behind Alanna Smith and DiJonai Carrington but ahead of Maya Dodson.

            But lets get back to Yogi.  I asked him about next year’s Stanford team.  Yogi, pondered,  “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” he said.

            I persisted: “Come on Yogi, you can do it.”

            He paused before announcing that next year’s team will “have deep depth.” 

            That confused me – I felt, dare I say, out of my depth.  But upon further reflection, I think I know what Yogi meant.

            Stanford will have nine McDonald’s High School All Americans on its roster next season.  Five of them are upperclassmen (DiJonai Carrington, Maya Dodson, Nadia Fingall, Anna Wilson, and Kiana Williams).  The other four are underclassmen (Francesca Belibi, Jenna Brown, Haley Jones, and Ashten Prechtel).  I haven’t checked, but this could well be the highest number of McDonald’s honorees in the history of the program.  And this list of nine does not include major contributors such as the Hull twins and Canadian Alyssa Jerome.

            This last season, Stanford had eleven players on its roster that averaged 8 minutes or more per game.  Two of those players will be gone (Alanna Smith and Shannon Coffee), but they’ll be replaced by four freshmen, each of whom has a shot at getting major minutes for the team.  That would make a total of thirteen players in the early season who would be getting substantial time on the floor.  That’s depth!

            Having nine players who are high school All Americans, and thirteen players who are competing for major playing time, will make Stanford the envy of just about every other team in the country.   But what about the four teams who have won the national championship in the last four years (Baylor, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Connecticut)?   Those teams may have fewer high school All-Americans on their rosters, but could still hold an edge in the number of genuinely elite players: truly exceptional recruits that ranked, say, in the top five in their recruiting classes. 

            Next year, Stanford will have a #1 recruit (Haley Jones) and a #10 recruit (Kiana Williams), but the rest of its All Americans did not make the top ten list for most of the rating services.  On the other hand, USA Today has picked its own list of the top 15 girls high schoolers for 2019.  Two of Stanford’s recruits, Belibi and Jones, are on the 1st team, meaning the top 5 in the country.  And a third recruit, Prechtel, is on the third team, meaning among the top 15 players. 

            If USA Today has it right, Stanford will have three incoming freshmen who could be truly elite players.   Add this to proven veterans like Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington.

            Maybe that’s what Yogi Berra meant by “deep depth.”

            Before walking away, I asked Yogi what advice he would give to next year's team.  He told me that the team should be decisive: "If you see a fork in the road, take it!"  he explained. 

            And, of course, avoid those "wrong mistakes."

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