April is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ fourth-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. We will also be highlighting some of the best stories from the past year as well as featuring some of the trailblazers.
Two days after Stanford bowed out of the Elite Eight, the ALL-USA national teams were announced.
Cardinal signees Haley Jones and Fran Belibi graced the First Team while Ashten Prechtel was a Third Team member. Two weeks later, the ALL-USA California team was announced. The first team featured the fourth Stanford recruit of the 2019 class, five-star Hannah Jump.
Is this the best class the school has had in head coach Tara VanDerveer’s vaunted tenure?
“The very first class we had at Stanford had two Olympians in it,” VanDerveer said over the phone.
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So in other words, it’s too soon to tell. But on paper, this incoming class could help the team achieve accomplishments similar to those of Jennifer Azzi and Katy Steding, who led Stanford to its first championship in 1990.
The 2019 class has the No. 1 senior in Jones, dunking extraordinaire Belibi, a big who can grab 30 rebounds in a game and knock down 3-pointers in Prechtel and sharpshooting English U16 National Team player Hannah Jump.
“I think you’ll have to call me back in a couple years,” VanDerveer said.
Stanford women’s basketball has made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1987-88, with all those years except one (1995-96) coming with VanDerveer at the helm. She has helped Stanford become a premiere program in the country, but rarely, if ever, has VanDerveer had a recruiting class this renowned out of high school.
“Her pedigree has a lot to do with it,” Regis Jesuit (Aurora, Colo.) forward Belibi said of her decision to join Stanford in a phone call.
“She doesn’t always have the most talented team every year but she always takes what she has and makes it into a great team.”
Jones, a wing at Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.), talked to Stanford players to learn about VanDerveer.
“No matter how hard she pushes you at practice, no matter how much you guys get on each other’s nerves, the tensions are high, you still know at the end of the day that what she’s doing and how hard she’s pushing you is because she believes in you and she wants the best for you,” she said in a phone call.
“Having that trust is one of the things that drew me.”
Since 2000, no single Stanford class has had even two girls on any of the three ALL-USA national teams. Only twice have they had two girls from different classes on one year’s ALL-USA team.
From a pure ranking standpoint, 2019 is the best class the school has seen since before this crop of girls was even in high school, if not beyond. Dan Olson of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report, who creates ESPN’s women’s basketball college rankings, said the Cardinal has the No. 2 class this year, behind South Carolina.
Last year Stanford was No. 10, and it was No. 5 in 2017. In the years preceding, it was No. 9 (in 2016), No. 25, No. 10 and No. 5 (2013).
“Not every team is without their problems, because Stanford’s got theirs just like anybody else, but their degree of problem-ness is a whole different animal because you’ve got 12 kids, or however many she’s got, that are all incredibly gifted on the court and off,” Olson said. “It’s gotta be a sense of relief from a coach because you know that the kid’s going to be accountable. That you can talk to that kid and teach that kid and you’re going to get some positive result.”
It’s not just talent VanDerveer is getting, and it’s not just accountable players. These recruits already have a sense of familiarity.
Belibi said she and Jones are “attached at the hip,” and the two went on Jones’ official visit together (Belibi was already committed). Jones and Jump played on the Cal Stars EYBL team for two seasons. Jump lives close enough to VanDerveer that the coach rides her bike past the Pinewood (Los Altos Hills, Calif.) guard’s house. Jones attended a Stanford camp around sixth grade.
Stanford is also getting competitive athletes with a streak of stubbornness.
Prior to the Jordan Brand Classic, Belibi told Jones that if given the chance, she would dunk on her friend. Jones’ response? “I’m not gonna let it happen.”
That opportunity arose late in the game with a close score in the fourth quarter. Ohio State signee Kierstan Bell threw an alley-oop to Belibi. Jones contested it.
Belibi was a little mad after the game, Jones said, and reminded Belibi that she warned her. “You’re on the other team, you are now my enemy, so I’m trying to get this dub.”
It may be denying one of her best friends an opportunity to dunk, but Jones was not about to get posterized during an all-star game.
Prechtel, the other national ALL-USA team member, was told at a young age that she belonged in the post. She didn’t like that, so she practiced her shooting and pushed to be allowed to extend her game – though in the phone interview, she made clear she wouldn’t ignore her coach’s instructions if told no.
Finally, on a club team in seventh grade, the coach told her he wanted his players to be good at everything, whether it was guards learning to post up or taller players to move outside.
“That helped encourage it more for me,” Prechtel said.
So now she does both. At Discovery Canyon High School (Colorado Springs) this year, she had a game with 36 points, 32 rebounds and two three-pointers.
At the Jordan Brand Classic, VanDerveer saw Jones diving for a loose ball and winning MVP, Prechtel nailing a step-back three and Belibi playing post and perimeter defense.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to watch kids in high school situations and try to project what they can do for you in college, but I watched that game, I was like wow, I was really excited to see how well all of them did,” VanDerveer said.
She added that Jump “easily” could have been an all-star game participant. Olson thinks the guard will be a major contributor at Stanford.
“They get a zone-buster,” Olson said. “She’s one of those things that everybody would love to have, everybody needs a shooter.”
This recruitment class can provide what VanDerveer called Stanford’s biggest needs: rebounding and 3-point shooting.
And it doesn’t stop here. Stanford already has commitments from the No. 2 2020 player Cameron Brink and four-star guard Jana Van Gytenbeek, who was a first-team Colorado player this season.
Even if Stanford got no more commitments between today and the first game of 2020, the Cardinal team could begin that season with 10 players who were five-star athletes coming out of high school.
“That’s what it takes to play at the highest level. When you look at Notre Dame having five kids drafted, or Baylor’s team, any of the very top teams, you have more than one or two really outstanding players,” VanDerveer said. “I hope that all four (2019 players) reach their goals and become the type of player that they want to be and I hope those goals are very high.”