January 15, 2015

A driving force behind the team

By Judy Richter, FBC feature writer and interviewer:

When the Stanford women’s basketball team gets ready to leave on a road trip, the players can always count on having a safe ride from a warm, friendly driver.

Don Van Zandt has been a bus driver for his entire career. He started with school buses for 6 ½ years before going to Peninsula Charter Lines in 1973 and staying when that company was bought by Royal Coach Tours in 2004.

The San Mateo resident doesn’t exactly recall when he began driving the team, but he does know that Dottie McCrea was head coach (she served from 1976 to 1985) and that Jeanne Ruark Hoff, ’83, was a player. Dottie was succeeded by Tara VanDerveer in 1985.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said in a recent phone interview. He enjoys getting to know the players. “That’s part of the fun of it.”

“The camaraderie is another thing that I love,” he said.

Enjoys watching players mature

He also has the pleasure of watching these studious players grow up between their freshman and senior years. “They’re like high school girls when they come in and leave as mature women.” And “some are wise beyond their years when they first step foot on campus.”

One such player was Chiney Ogwumike,’14, who played alongside her older sister, Nneka, ’12, for two years.

“The first time I saw Chiney play, I said to Nneka, ‘I think she’s going to be the best player in the country.’ ” His opinion was validated when, like Nneka two years earlier, Chiney was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft.

Eileen calls Don “the absolute best”

Don has been driving the team for so long that “he’s like another member of our team,” said Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations.

“He is the guy who’ll be there for us. He is the absolute best,” she said.

Not only does he get the team and staff safely to and from the airport or locations within driving distance (like Cal, Fresno, Davis and Sacramento), he loads their luggage and equipment. If they return to campus late at night, he’ll drive the players to their dorms, Eileen said.

On top of that, “he’s a loyal fan,” she said.

Wife joins him at home games

He and his wife attend all of the home games, sitting in Section 6 near the south baseline and the Stanford bench. They also attend the team’s annual spring banquet.

He used to go to the games alone, but when his mother-in-law moved in with them, she would join him. Finally, he convinced his wife to attend a game against Cal on Feb. 14, 2009.

As it turned out, it featured one of the most memorable plays in SWBB history. Guard Lindy La Rocque, ’12, dove under a Cal player to go after a loose ball and then – still on her stomach – pitched it to Jillian Harmon, ’09, who went to the basket for the easy layup. Stanford won that game 58-41.

“She’s been a fan ever since,” Don said. “I picked the perfect game to introduce her.”

They bring food, arrive early, watch the warmups and chat with other fans. SWBB alums attending a game stop by to say hello.

“Long after I’ve retired, I plan to keep sitting in those two seats,” Don said. He’s semi-retired at age 68. No more seven-day weeks, he said, but “I still love it.”

“I love the sportsmanship. It’s very fan-friendly.”

Don drives other teams, too

Besides the women’s basketball team, he has been driving the football team since 1976 and the baseball team since 1981. He has driven other Stanford teams from time to time. He even drove the Tennessee women’s basketball team when it visited Stanford under now-retired coach Pat Summitt.

On the pro level, he drives the Oakland Raiders and some visiting NFL teams.

What’s the mood on the bus after a bad loss? “Over the years, there haven’t been too many of these,” Don said. The players are usually upbeat, and “they’re actually grateful that we have such a fine program.”

Great regional performances

As might be expected, some of the best times on the bus have come after stirring victories. One that he cited came March 29, 2010, against Xavier in the second game of the NCAA regional in Sacramento.

With the score tied 53-53 and just a few seconds left, a Xavier player missed two easy layups. Kayla Pedersen, ’11, rebounded the second one and immediately called a time out. In the huddle, the coaches called what turned out to be the perfect play.

With only 4.4 seconds left, Kayla inbounded the ball to classmate Jeanette Pohlen under the Xavier basket. Jeanette streaked down the court and made the winning basket just in time. Clinching a 55-53 victory, Stanford was on its way to its third consecutive Final Four, this one in San Antonio.

Yet another performance that he cited came a year earlier, on March 30, 2009. Jayne Appel, ’10, scored a Stanford record 46 points against Iowa State in the Cal regional, leading the Cardinal to a 74-53 victory and a trip to the Final Four in St. Louis. 

Schedule on travel days

The team tries to get to the airport – either San Francisco or San Jose – about 90 minutes before its flight. Don arrives about a half-hour before it’s time to go to the airport. He mostly loads the bus per company policy, but “they often help me out.”

There’s a traditional order of seating, with the coaches and staff in front, seniors and back, and the others in between. The freshmen carry the equipment, but “nobody grumbles,” he said.

If he drives the team to an out-of-town tournament, he takes the players back to their hotel after the game. If it was the early game, he later returns to the arena to pick up Tara and other coaches who have stayed behind to scout the teams playing next.

Royal Coach Tours “knows that he’s our No. 1 guy,” Eileen said.

“All the kids know him. They all like him. .. He’s just so pleasant. We look forward to seeing him,” she said.

As for Don, “I’m one of the luckiest blue collar people in the country,” he said.

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