Helping out and hanging out

This season, espnW is spending time with the Stanford Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players. Come to espnW every Friday throughout the season to get to know the Cardinal and how they live their lives off and on the court, from the start of practice to the last game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.

'Twas the week before Christmas,
And all through the hotel
Stanford athletes were lounging
With stories of victory to tell.

The preconference schedule
nearly done for the year,
There was hope that the holidays
soon would be here.

STANFORD, Calif. -- There was no sleeping in the day after Tuesday's emotional 97-80 win over Tennessee.

But who could sleep, anyway?

"You are so wired after the game," senior Lindy La Rocque said. "You're just so excited. It's tough to settle down."

On Wednesday morning, the Stanford players and coaches headed to St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in nearby Menlo Park to do some holiday giving.

The coaches and staff members peeled potatoes in the kitchen and worked in the dining room, serving lunch and clearing tables. Players sorted bags of cereal while breaking into spontaneous Christmas carols and helped sort a trailer full of donated toys that will be handed out to families in need on Friday.

Eileen Roche/Stanford Athletics

The players served meals, sorted toys and sang carols at St. Anthony of Padua Church in nearby Menlo Park, which has become part an annual part of the holiday season for the Cardinal.

The preholiday field trip to St. Anthony has become something of an annual ritual, organized by the team's director of operations, Eileen Roche, who has been donating her time at St. Anthony for years.

"I thought a lot about the timing this week," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "And then I figured, win or lose, the kids need a reality check. It was a big game, we won, and they were on top of the world after playing in front of 7,500 people.

But for a lot of people, life is very hard."

Nneka Ogwumike, the star of Tuesday night's game with 42 points and 17 rebounds, and Joslyn Tinkle greeted people as they came through the door for lunch. Both signed autographs.

Freshman Bonnie Samuelson bagged cereal to send home with the folks who came in for lunch, and she noticed how many children were there. Then she moved over to organizing toys in the trailer.

"We had a whole pink section and another pile of Barbies," Samuelson said. "It's crazy that this huge trailer was full, and they told us that after Friday it would all be gone."

La Rocque also greeted those coming in for lunch. She appreciates that this event has become part of the team's tradition in the week before Christmas. St. Anthony has served meals since 1974. The church doles out 600 hot meals a week, a number that rises to nearly 800 over the holidays.

"I got a chance to talk to a lot of people. It was really eye-opening," La Rocque said. "I thought this was a great thing to do this morning. I felt like everybody had a lot of really good energy."

There is another pre-Christmas ritual for the Cardinal: holing up at the Sheraton across the road from campus for the final week of the nonconference season leading into the Christmas break.

All athletes living on campus -- and this year, that's the entire Stanford roster -- must move out of campus housing after final exams. Yet the players still have another week in Palo Alto before the Christmas break. Enter the Sheraton, which housed the women's basketball team, the men's basketball team and the Fiesta Bowl-bound football team this week. The Butler men's basketball team checked in on Wednesday in advance of its game against the Cardinal on Thursday night.

"I think [Stanford athletes] are taking up like 50 percent of the hotel," Nneka said.

It's been a largely low-key stay: lots of napping, television watching and garden-variety hanging out. The only drawback is there's no Internet access in the rooms.

"Having the Internet is like breathing for me," said Chiney Ogwumike, looking pained.

Players wander down to the lobby periodically to use the computers stationed near the registration desk. Chiney pointed out a long, narrow hallway off the lobby behind the hotel lounge. That's the best place for good wireless access, she said.

"People have been going down to check on grades or sign up for classes, but it's not like you are going to be down in the lobby to Skype with your boyfriend," La Rocque said. "But in a way, I guess it's OK because you can't sit around and Facebook in your room all day."

Don Feria/isiphotos.com

A bag of clean clothes awaits freshman Taylor Greenfield in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel near campus, where the women's and men's basketball teams and the football team stay in the week after final exams, when dorms are closed.

You can, however, watch a lot of cable TV. Many dorm rooms on campus don't have TVs. Cable is a total "privilege," Samuelson said.

"But the beds are so comfortable," Samuelson said about the hotel's beds.

For a hotel lousy with active college students, it's pretty quiet in the Sheraton lobby. A large gingerbread house is in the center of the lobby, with small baskets of homemade gingerbread cookies on the display for patrons to sample.

"Yeah, I have had a lot of gingerbread," Samuelson said.

Always the social director, Chiney hosted a movie night earlier in the week with a few friends from the football team.

"My friend Ty texted me and said he had nothing to do, so some of guys came over and we watched 'Hall Pass' on HBO," Chiney said.

On Sunday, the team celebrated the dual birthdays of La Rocque and freshman Erica Payne with sparkling apple cider.

Monday night, the women's team went together to Maples to watch the men's basketball team play. On Tuesday, the football team showed up to watch the women play Tennessee.

No team meals are provided this week, so the players get their per diem, as they would if they were on the road, and are on their own for meals.

"We are texting each other constantly about what we are going to eat," Nneka said.

"And then at 10 o'clock everybody is hungry again and we figure out where we are going to get snacks," La Rocque said.

Pizza delivery is ubiquitous.

"Domino's is making constant shipments here," Chiney said. "I think that's for the football players."

Some of the players have family that came in to see the Tennessee game staying in the hotel. They are getting a jump on the chance to spend time with their loved ones before the team members will go in separate directions following Thursday afternoon's 90-48 victory over Cal State Bakersfield.

Taylor Greenfield went with her mother to a nearby family friend's house to bake Christmas cookies early in the week.

On Wednesday night, Nneka was staying behind on campus after practice to do a live television interview, La Rocque was heading to dinner with her parents, freshmen Amber Orrange and Alex Green rolled in with some fast food and Chiney was attempting to organize a night out at the movies, trying to figure out how many people she could round up.

"We do not have our social arrangements worked out yet," Chiney said as she left practice.

Mikaela Ruef was waiting out front to get picked up by Sarah Boothe and some friends to go look at Christmas lights, the light from the TV starting to get a little old.

One night, early in the week, La Rocque tweeted, "Bored as heck in this hotel…can't sleep either! #hopeless"

La Rocque laughed when she was reminded about her tweet.

"I guess it's a little boring. People are catching up on their rest, and just laying around and watching TV," La Rocque said. "Really, it's a different schedule for us. I think I've seen more movies in the last two days than I've seen all year."

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