Appel takes lead for Stanford

STANFORD, Calif. -- As Stanford guard JJ Hones tells it, when the Cardinal find themselves wandering through unfamiliar territory on a road trip, it's often Jayne Appel who takes the lead.

Occasionally, Appel even knows where she's leading her teammates. More likely, Appel, a 6-foot-4 Kokopelli in flip-flops, just wants to see how long it takes someone to call her bluff.

"I'm sure you could ask anyone on the team, and there's probably like some joke or trick she's pulled on them," Hones said. "She's very fun-loving."

But after back-to-back trips to the Final Four the past two seasons, Appel should know well which route is required to reach the sport's most desired destination. And if a veteran Stanford team blessed with almost as much size as experience is finally going to walk away smiling from its last game of the season, it's going to do so by following the best center in the country.

For an All-American poised to find the payoff of patient progress in the promise of a bright future, it comes down to mastering the moment at hand and marshaling those around her.

"She's serious about winning; she's out there, she's working and she's serious," coach Tara VanDerveer said. "But she does have a fun side -- she loves her flip-flops. She has a very -- I think she has a really rich life; it's not just one-dimensional. She does a lot of fun things; she has a lot of friends, on the team and off the team. She has her sorority. She dates a guy on the football team. She's out; she's doing a lot of stuff. She's involved in the community. She goes for the whole thing."

Perhaps the only player with a shot of unseating Connecticut's Maya Moore as player of the year, Appel is one of a kind in the college ranks because she seamlessly blends imposing size and intricate skill. Polishing the latter has been the work of three seasons for a player who explained her high school repertoire as essentially waiting for teammates to lob the ball over smaller defenders. The size -- the wide shoulders and long arms -- came with the package.

As Appel and the rest of her teammates stretched before their second practice this season, VanDerveer sat off to the side and recalled the first time she got the big post on the practice court as a freshman. With associate coach Amy Tucker feeding the ball from the top of the key in a drill, young Appel posted up VanDerveer, who was armed with a football-style tackling pad.

"I couldn't see anything," VanDerveer said. "I mean, I knew [she was big], but standing right behind her with the pad -- we had Brooke Smith and we had Kristen Newlin, and I would just beg them to get somebody in deep. Jayne put me through the wall, basically. She was posting up and I was backpedaling. What I remember about her was just she was physical and big and got right in there."

As a freshman, Appel averaged just 19.3 minutes off the bench (in large part because she also averaged 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes). Yet on raw size and strength, she still averaged 13.2 points per game, third on the team behind Candice Wiggins and Smith, in addition to 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. All of those numbers improved during her sophomore season, but Appel also finished third on the team in assists and had more assists than turnovers. Last season brought career highs in points per game, rebounds and assists -- in which she ranked second on the team -- but also a slimmer physique and an expanded leadership role without Wiggins.

Yet it's not any of those singular improvements that Appel points to as the biggest gain from her first day as a freshman to the eve of her senior season. Instead, it's something that unifies all of it, from the baby hook to the high-post passing to the conditioning.

"How to be mentally tough, No. 1, I would say," Appel said. "I definitely learned that through our coaches here, especially Kate Paye talked a lot about that. I could say physical stuff, but I think that comes naturally to college basketball players. I think being mentally tough was the hardest part, and developing into a leader on the team. That was a very tough thing, and it's still something every college player struggles with.

"There is always something -- sometimes you have to be the bad guy, and these are your best friends and that's not a fun job sometimes. But that's why they voted for you [for captain]."

With the success of the past two seasons, particularly her headlining role in last spring's Final Four run, Appel has earned the kind of recognition reserved for a scant handful of players each season. She was recently featured in a Glamour Magazine spread as the athlete among its "Top 10 College Women." And perhaps more importantly from a basketball standpoint, she was invited to training camp for the United States national team, alongside Moore and Connecticut's Tina Charles, the latter her likely competition as the No. 1 pick in next year's WNBA draft.

Appel attended the September camp but wasn't able to play, still recuperating at the time after a June knee surgery from which she said she's now fully recovered (she played 17 minutes in Stanford's first exhibition game and 16 minutes in Sunday's win -- rare exhibition appearances for her during her four seasons). But in its way, that glimpse of her future was the best preparation she could have had for the college season.

Appel will graduate this winter and already polished off enough credits to enjoy a relatively light schedule this term. The temptation to look ahead remains, ever magnified by the distractions of notoriety. But after experiencing a professional environment and then returning to a place where the whole team still waits around to go out to eat together, at least she has a sense of exactly what hue of green marks the other side's grass.

"I don't think there's going to be a similar experience to being at Stanford and being in the college game, compared to the pros," Appel said. "Even when I went to the USA training camp, it's just a completely different lifestyle. I think what I was expecting, it was completely different from that. And it was just a whole other world that I was exposed to. So I think it almost helped me to cherish this time more than looking forward."

Not that her coach won't worry, as coaches are wont to do. As she did with Wiggins, VanDerveer said she'll willingly play the role of "bad guy" in managing the demands on her star's time. There is usually a bond she establishes with her seniors, but particularly in the case of someone facing as many demands from as many directions as Appel, VanDerveer wants to remain vigilant.

"You don't want kids looking forward to something," VanDerveer said. "You want them to really be all in to this experience."

VanDerveer has regularly offered her team a simple question throughout the preseason. She has invested her life in the team; what are they going to invest in it?

If Appel takes the lead in answering that, expect the Cardinal to follow her to San Antonio.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.