Thursday, April 24, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
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Stanford doubles down on upsetting No. 1 teams

Baylor Stanford Basketball

Stanford players celebrates after defeating Baylor 71-69 in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

STANFORD — During the football team’s most recent “movie night” held before every game, Stanford coach David Shaw quieted his players to announce that the women’s basketball team had beaten top-ranked Baylor. The room erupted in excitement, and Shaw shushed everybody again to make one more statement.

“I said, ‘OK, now it’s our turn,’” Shaw said. “It was just kind of like, ‘OK, yeah.’”

The trend started on the Hawaii hardwood, moved onto the football field in Eugene and finally floated all over Twitter, where Stanford players put the perfect label on an unforgettable weekend: Revenge of the Nerds.

Tara VanDerveer’s team ended Brittney Griner and the Lady Bears’ 42-game winning streak. Shaw and his players outsmarted No. 1 Oregon 17-14 in overtime Saturday to complete a dramatic double, and “Nerd Nation” — as athletes across all sports on this quant Silicon Valley campus call themselves — enjoyed a giant I-told-you-so celebration.

The victories went well beyond the Cardinal getting payback on the programs that ruined each team’s national title hopes last season. Both showed that success can still be reached well after Andrew Luck and Nnemkadi Ogwumike — the No. 1 overall draft picks in each sport — have left The Farm.

“I think it was special,” Shaw said Tuesday. “You could draw a parallel to say that the women’s basketball team lost one of the best players in the country, but they want to prove that they’re a good team. We can say that we fall into that category also, whereas we lost the best player in the country in our sport, and we also want to prove to ourselves as well as to other people that we’re a good football team that can compete against anybody.”

Consider it done.

Along with losing Luck to the Indianapolis Colts, three other Stanford players were selected in the top 42 picks in April’s NFL draft, and both starting safeties and wide receivers are also on NFL rosters or practice squads now. Taking down the previously undefeated Ducks at amped-up Autzen Stadium has surprisingly put the Cardinal (9-2, 7-1) in control to host the Pac-12 Conference championship game — something a Luck-led team never did — if they can beat No. 15 UCLA on Saturday.

VanDerveer is still learning how her team will play over the course of the season after losing Ogwumike to graduation and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. The Hall of Fame coach has talked to her team since training camp about what the football program has been able to accomplish long after its leader left, citing examples of defense and unselfishness that go beyond any one player.

The women’s team got even more pumped up when they were informed over the public address system during pregame warm-ups against Hawaii on Saturday that the football team had upset Oregon.

“When they did it, they could hear us cheering from Hawaii,” said VanDerveer, whose Cardinal (5-0) beat Baylor 71-69 and eventually captured the Rainbow Wahine tournament in Honolulu to become the top-ranked team in the latest Associated Press poll. “When we won, we could hear them cheering from Oregon.”

The rigorous academics, adjacent facilities and shared dining halls naturally bring Stanford athletes closer together. The football and women’s basketball teams, however, have grown even tighter behind the rallying cry of Nerd Nation.

“It’s sort of like a conspiracy,” joked junior forward Chiney Ogwumike, the younger sister of Nnemkadi.

Football players first began to embrace the stereotype when former coach Jim Harbaugh brought a more physical, run-first style to the program and opponents often teased that a team full of future venture capitalists, engineers and even politicians couldn’t be tough. The women’s team took it a step further last season, when the Ogwumike sisters created a spoof video called “Nerd City Kids” that included football players. The video went viral all over YouTube and social media.

Ogwumike said she has even lobbied for a banner to be placed at the campus’ entrance that reads: “Welcome to Nerd City.”

“It’s having a little chip on our shoulder, but also acknowledging that the culture around here for athletics is a little bit different and embracing that,” Mohawk-wearing middle linebacker Shayne Skov said.

Players for each team said the departure of their transcendent teammate drove players to prove the program went beyond any one player — a sentiment both Luck and Nnemkadi Ogwumike used to share with anybody who would listen, though few often did.

Now more than ever, no longer can anybody — including coaches — be complacent. No longer can the team depend on its most dominating player to steal a victory, and nobody’s talents — or flaws — can be covered up.

“Knowing that people are kind of like, what are you going to do without Neka? Everybody just kind of like comes together,” forward Taylor Greenfield said. “We have so many more and so many different weapons this year and so many opportunities for other people to step up, so I think people are more excited.”

Past failures also have pulled the programs together.

The Stanford women’s basketball team has reached the Final Four the last five years — losing to Baylor in its latest appearance — and never won the title. VanDerveer — not one to mix words — said her team is showing stronger signs of progression in November than it did in recent seasons. For instance, she said none of the players even knew they were No. 1 until she told them.

The football team’s only regular-season loss the previous two years had come against Oregon. Beating the seemingly unstoppable Ducks after two years of torment has made the victory even sweeter — perhaps especially for those no longer around.

“Great game by the Cardinal in Eugene,” said former Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, now the Big 12 Conference commissioner. “Sure fouled up the national championship picture.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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