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 on and off the court, from the start of practice to the final game of the season in March or, perhaps, April.
The road to the Final Four begins with a plane ride for the Stanford Cardinal.
A long one at that.
Three time zones from home, top-seeded Stanford starts its quest for a national championship in Norfolk, Va., against No. 16-seed Hampton. But first, the Cardinal have to get there.
For a traveling party of 80 people on short notice, commercial travel is out.
The team staff has spent much of the week arranging for a charter flight for the players, coaches, support staff and the pep band, making their way east for Stanford's most distant tournament opener since 2000, when the Cardinal played in Georgia.
The travel day started early Thursday, with the team getting in a practice at 6:45 a.m. followed a short break before boarding buses to San Jose airport's private-charter terminal.
About a half-hour before boarding, a handful of players were in the locker room, relaxing and grabbing smoothies from the collection sitting on the ledge outside the locker room door. Associate head coach Amy Tucker squeezed in a workout before going into the coaches' lounge to change.
Chiney Ogwumike sat alone in the main gym, laptop open, reading aloud from the paper she had written for her political science class.
"That's what I always do. That's how I know it sounds good," Ogwumike said.
When she was done, she emailed it to her professor. "My paper is in!" she declared as she got on the bus.
Outside at the loading dock, bus driver Don Van Zant was bent down, chatting with little Joshua, assistant coach Trina Patterson's 5-year-old son, the youngest of her three boys. Joshua and Patterson's husband, Carl, had come to see her off on the five-day trip.
"I need to get my kisses," Patterson said as she boarded the bus.
Operations director Eileen Roche handed out bag lunches for the players, placing bags on the seats of those who hadn't boarded yet. With a large group of support staff making the trip, the bus was more crowded than usual.
"The bus is full; it must be tournament time!" said senior Grace Mashore as she walked down the aisle.
"Everybody make sure you have your ID," reminded Nneka Ogwumike.
Sara James, meanwhile, ran through her packing checklist out loud.
The ride to the San Jose airport is a quick 15 minutes from the Stanford campus, but the wait to board the plane was much longer. The band bus, which arrived first, sat parked in front of a large hangar, the team bus parked behind it for more than 45 minutes while airline operators changed tires on the Boeing 737 jet transporting the team.
The players in the back of the bus kept busy. Nneka braided Joslyn Tinkle's hair while Tinkle checked the score of Montana's NCAA tournament game. Her father, Wayne, is the head coach at Montana.
Nneka moved on to Lindy La Rocque, who managed to have her hair braided, taken down and rebraided during the wait.
While the older players in the back of the bus were boisterous, taking photos of one another, laughing and, in the case of Tinkle, singing loudly, freshmen Amber Orrange and Jasmine Camp slept.
The buses finally moved to the tarmac, where Van Zant -- the bus driver is a longtime season-ticket holder and has been driving the Cardinal to and from the airport for more than seven years -- picked up the microphone and wished them good luck.
"And my wife said to say hello to all her friends on the bus," Van Zant said.
Band members, players, coaches and staff were subjected to a hand check of their carry-on bags and individual searches with a metal-detecting wand before they climbed the steps onto the jet.
The band members sat in the back of the plane, just behind the players, who each had their own row. Support staff sat in the middle, and coaches were up front in the first-class seats.
Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis, who moonlights as a band member during the football season, headed toward the back to mingle with her musician friends for a moment.
As the jet prepared for takeoff, some activity bubbled up from the back of the plane.
Band members pulled out a roll of duct tape for something that has become a tradition, and many of the players moved into the aisle seat to watch.
The duct tape was passed up to the front of the plane and placed on the floor in the aisle for takeoff. During takeoff, the tape rolls rapidly down the aisle to the back of the plane.
Usually, the band brings a Slinky.
"This is all we've got," James said as the tape was passed forward to her.
Within 30 minutes, most of the players were curled up in their rows, asleep.
Coach Tara VanDerveer was up front watching video of the Cardinal's first-round opponent, Hampton. Tucker was looking at tape of a potential second-round opponent, reviewing West Virginia's upset win over Notre Dame.
"They're fast," VanDerveer said of Hampton.
Chiney was watching a movie on her iPad.
"'No Country for Old Men,'" she explained. "Nneka had it. I have heard it's a classic."
And a little creepy.
"Is it?" she asked with a shrug.
But even Chiney didn't last long, curling up to fall asleep within an hour.
The plane made a 45-minute refueling stop in Oklahoma City before heading to Virginia.
There were signs of life again. Players were standing, tapping madly into the keyboards of their phones. Orrange, who celebrated a birthday earlier in the week, broke in her gift from her teammates, a Pillow Pet elephant named Ernie.
Nneka made her way up front to check on the coaches.
"How's everybody doing up here?" she asked.
VanDerveer asked if she'd like to stop off and play Oklahoma while they were on the ground.
"Sure," Nneka said. "I'll play anywhere. I don't care if we play on an anthill."
One of the Stanford Dollies -- the band's accompanying dance troupe -- asked a group of players if they wanted to learn a dance at some point on the trip. The players enthusiastically said yes.
As the jet took off again, the sky became dark. Up front, the lights from the laptops glowed. Assistant coach Kate Paye was studying Stanford's season-opening win over Texas, the other potential second-round opponent, while VanDerveer flipped through a magazine. The coach, usually an avid reader, didn't bring a book for this trip.
Nneka was one of the few players with her overhead light on, taking notes, studying for one of her final exams next week.
The flight landed at 10:30 p.m. in Norfolk, making it an 8½-hour travel day for the Cardinal. There was more waiting on the tarmac for luggage to be loaded before the buses could head to the hotel.
Everyone arrived at the team hotel at 11:30 p.m. in time for a very late team dinner and bed.
La Rocque might be making one of the final charter flights of her college career. Should the Cardinal advance out of the first two rounds, they will bus to Fresno, about a 3½-hour ride from campus. But there's always the hope of boarding another charter flight to the Final Four.
"It's fun to fly charter," La Rocque said. "It makes us feel special, like it's just for us."