In Maples Pavilion, it's a Big's World and Littles and Middles are just squirrels trying to get a nut.
—Stanford guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, from her blog last season on ncaa.com
That tongue-in-cheek lament was posted after assistant coach Kate Paye put up signs in the Cardinal locker room commanding guards to love their Bigs and GET THE BALL INSIDE! Rosalyn Gold-Onwude went on to detail the hardship, inconvenience and general second-class citizenship suffered by Stanford's Littles (backcourt players, or "peasants," as she also calls them) on a team built around Bigs (frontcourt players, a.k.a. "the czars, the emperors, the queens"): "The Littles endure harder drills and slow delivery of new gear only to tolerate yet another injustice: the plays aren't for us." A fifth-year senior point guard and a Little at 5'10", Gold-Onwude is resigned to finishing her college career as a member of the Cardinal proletariat. Led by 6'4" senior All-America center Jayne Appel, Stanford's front line, which goes 6'4" and 6'2" at the starting forward spots, and 6'3", 6'3" and 6'5" off the bench, is bigger, deeper and potentially better than it was last year, when the Cardinal made its second straight Final Four before being ousted by eventual champion Connecticut.
These Bigs aren't just tall—they're tough, they're versatile, they're skilled, and they can run the floor like the Littles (who are, it should be noted, not all that little; junior guard Jeanette Pohlen is 6 feet, and junior Michelle Harrison and freshman Mikaela Ruef are 6'3" wings). Five were McDonald's All-Americans and a sixth, Sarah Boothe, a superbly skilled 6'5" sophomore with a dangerous three-point shot, was a McDonald's honorable mention. They are, collectively, an opposing coach's nightmare.
"You think, Good, we got Jayne in foul trouble ... [but] here comes Sarah Boothe," says Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, whose Cyclones were crushed twice by Stanford last season, by a combined 59 points. "It's like USC with tailbacks. Sooner or later there's going to be a part of the game when they get you in foul trouble, they score and you can't stop them. They just wear you out." And, he adds, "they are much more athletic than people give them credit for. You look at them and think, They are tall at every position, we're going to be quicker than they are. Well, you might not be."
Associate head coach Amy Tucker insists there is no master plan behind Stanford's daunting collective wingspan. "It's the fate of admissions and the pool of kids who are available in a given class," she says. "Our policy is to recruit the very best players we can regardless of position. So we have an abundance of great big players. We wish some of them were point guards."
While Stanford's redwood-grove lineup is unique and not without potential liabilities—"The big question is, Who can all these people guard?" says coach Tara VanDerveer—it provides a compelling picture of where the women's game is headed. "Before, if you were 6'4" or 6'3", you stayed on the block," says UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell. "Now you have 6'4" and 6'3" [players] out on the perimeter. Now you have post players who run the floor like guards. That's the future for women's basketball players: You are not only big, fast, quick and athletic, you're playing every position on the floor."
Among the Cardinal Bigs, Appel is the least likely to go all Amar'e Stoudemire and launch a three. "I like the low post," she says. "I like to do the dirty work and get the rebounds. And I think it's a lot more fun to be creative with your passes down low." With big, soft hands and an 84-inch wingspan, Appel is the best passing post in the country; in addition to leading the team in scoring (16.1 points a game) and rebounding (9.2) last season, she was second in assists, with nearly three a game. "That never happens at center," says Fennelly.
But Appel is exceptional in many ways. The only Californian among Stanford's frontcourt players, she is a walking billboard for the state's fair climate and fine beaches. She wears flip-flops everywhere, loves to bask in the sun and sports powerful calves that were developed in her childhood by chasing seagulls up and down Capitola City Beach, near Santa Cruz. Blessed with an appropriately sunny disposition, legions of friends and a queen-sized bed in her own room at the Pi Beta Phi sorority house, Appel is also the most recognizable girlie girl on campus. At the Final Four in St. Louis last year, every member of the Stanford Band painted his or her nails hot pink in her honor. "Jayne," says Gold-Onwude, "is a 6'4" Paris Hilton."
But the diva analogy goes only so far. Inspired by the plight of a family member who suffers from schizophrenia, Appel, a psychology major, plans a postbasketball career in mental-health advocacy, either as a lawyer or a psychiatric nurse. "It's an area of our society that needs a lot of help," she says. "If I have a strong enough passion to do it, then why not sign myself up for it?"