When you’re juggling playing for the sixth-ranked team in college basketball with the final quarter of your Stanford education, even a walk on the beach isn’t, well, a walk on the beach.
Coming off a low-effort loss to UCLA last Friday, the Stanford women’s basketball team got up at eight in the morning on Saturday for their COVID-19 tests. Players then got in an hour of film work from 10 a.m. to 11, before eating lunch and jumping on a bus for the ride to a high school in the Santa Cruz area where their three-hour practice took place. Then came more film, preparing for Sunday’s game against USC, and dinner.
In this schedule, there is not much time for school work.
That’s where the walk to the beach came in. Senior guard Kiana Williams needs just two classes to graduate with her Science, Technology & Society degree but is taking three: a digital media class, an STS class and ARTSTUDI 173E: “Cell Phone Photography.” As creative as Williams is on the court, she still needs to fulfill that WAY-CE.
“A really light load for me,” Williams said. “It’s my last quarter, trying to end strong.”
After dinner, Williams roped in senior forward Alyssa Jerome and junior guards Lexie and Lacie Hull to help with a project for the photography class. Supplied with two weeks worth of cell phone photography knowledge — the tip she offered to the media was to use portrait mode to produce clear pictures — Williams went looking for photography subjects and it quickly became a scavenger hunt with everyone contributing.
“She was just snapping pictures the whole time,” Lexie Hull said.
Surprisingly, Williams did not bring Anna Wilson, the team’s best shooter twice over: She’s shooting 46.7% from three and has moved past cell phone photography as an Art Practice major. That left Jerome and the Hull twins to walk around the boardwalk the night before Sunday’s conference matchup against USC.
At that point, Stanford had only played four games in its home whites, adding a fifth in Sunday’s rebound win against the Trojans. One of those “home” games took place in Cox Pavilion, the home of UNLV women’s basketball. Three — including the games against UCLA and USC — took place in Kaiser Permanente Arena, home of the Golden State Warriors G League affiliate. Just one took place in Maples Pavilion, home of, you know, Stanford women’s basketball.
In Kaiser Permanente Arena, the only touch of home in an arena painted blue and gold are the cardboard cutouts. Each player was given two, so Williams has her parents LaChelle and Michael Williams watching from the stands. Seeing the cutouts again over the weekend, Williams got emotional and made sure to take a picture standing next to the cutouts. She calls them (the human ones, not the cardboard ones) every day.
Amid all of that, Stanford was facing a must-win game against USC. Head coach Tara VanDerveer acknowledged postgame that Stanford needed the win in order to turn things around.
“Especially,” VanDerveer added, “thinking about the week coming up, going on the road — we’re always on the road — but, you know, going into someone else’s gym.”
What stood out from the comment was not that VanDerveer wanted to avoid a three-game losing streak for the first time since the 2000-01 season, but how casually the coach mentioned that Stanford is always on the road — and never at Stanford.
After the win, the Cardinal took Monday off and flew to Washington on Tuesday. The team got in a practice that night in preparation of facing Washington State (8-4, 6-4 Pac-12) twice in three days.
The path to Wednesday’s game itself was as windy as the drive from Stanford to Santa Cruz. Originally penciled in to be played at Stanford early in the season, the game was then moved to Las Vegas, postponed due to COVID-19 conflicts and has now become a Wazzu home game.
That is why Stanford will now face a Washington State team to whom it has never lost in 67 matchups in back-to-back games on the road. Crucially, Washington State is a very different team than the one picked to finish last in the Pac-12 by both the coaches and the media. Under head coach Kamie Ethridge, the Cougars made their first appearance in the AP Top 25 earlier this season and now sit at fifth in the conference standings.
Stanford’s travel itinerary leaves little time for practice. On Sunday, VanDerveer said that her team has not been able to practice as much as in a normal season. The Hall of Famer is just as quick to remind the media that Stanford is grateful just to be getting games in and that her players would rather play than practice. In the shootaround before Sunday’s game, VanDerveer gave the same message to her team.
“Just be thankful that you’re in the gym,” Williams remembered hearing from her coach.
Months ago, it seemed impossible that Stanford would be in a gym, much less playing this season. Santa Clara County’s decision to ban contact sports appeared to spell the end of the season for women’s basketball, men’s basketball and football, the three Stanford sports competing at the time. Then Stanford announced that each of its teams would take the show on the road, indefinitely.
Even then, it seemed school and a vagabond life could not coincide. Football head coach David Shaw ’95 said as much when his team made the trip to Washington over winter break: “I think this would have been really difficult to do if we were even in school, even, you know, this, this new way of doing school online, would have been really difficult. So the fact of us being out of school, I think helped us be able to map out this day, these days for our student athletes.”
Nevertheless, Stanford women’s basketball has been able to continue to play and, recently, add on school.
It hasn’t been perfect. Since winter quarter classes started on Jan. 11, Stanford has skidded to a 2-2 record and fell from the top spot in the AP Top 25 to sixth.
For much longer than that, since early December, Stanford has been displaced from their home on campus. Most often, the team has practiced at the location of their next game. At least once, Stanford returned to the Bay Area but stayed in San Mateo County. Had the Cardinal returned to Santa Clara County under the guidelines in place at the time, the team would have lost the privilege to practice.
Williams said she is “extremely thankful for the game that we’re playing, the food we’re eating, the hotel that we’re staying in. It’s not ideal, but little things to be thankful for.”
“This is the only way we can play and we understand that,” VanDerveer added.
The message from Williams was that it was difficult to be moving from hotel to hotel, but each player has adjusted. The team’s veterans — Williams, Jerome and Wilson — have taken on the role of reaching out to the rest of the team every day. When Jerome, Lexie Hull and sophomore guard Hannah Jump were in quarantine after exposure to the Arizona State women’s basketball team, Williams called each one every day.
For Williams, adding classes to the mix has been two-sided. In some circumstances, it could help her teammates to have a distraction from and a structure outside of basketball. For others, it can be a burden.
“Proud of our young players, our freshmen,” Williams said. “They have no idea what college is like and for them to be in college playing college basketball in the pandemic, they’ve handled it really well.”
For Lexie Hull, it’s been a juggling act of time management.
“It’s definitely more challenging and I think it’s taking more focus to really lock in when we’re in practice, when we’re in a game,” Hull said. “There’s a lot more going on, a lot more to think about.”
School looks different this year for the team and all other Stanford students. Instead of studying in the lounge at their dorm or talking about readings in the locker room after practice, the team has been bringing their laptops to the meal room just to do homework together.
Lexie Hull is taking a few core classes for her MS&E major and a statistics class this quarter.
“It’s been a challenge but we’re getting through it one day at a time,” she said.
Now, there is a light at the end of the boardwalk. Santa Clara County has returned to the purple tier and issued an updated directive for college athletics. Stanford announced on Tuesday night that the women would host Colorado on Feb. 5 in its own gym.
For Williams, the excitement is also building toward her hometown of San Antonio. The NCAA announced in December that the entire Division I women’s basketball tournament will take place in one geographic area and that talks had begun with San Antonio, which was originally scheduled to host the Final Four.
Between now and then, Williams will need to have many more successful shots. But the frame is coming together.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.