Injuries can't touch Appel's playfulness

SAN ANTONIO -- Give Jayne Appel a bucket of ice and you've got yourself a personality profile.

The Kokopelli of Palo Alto, Appel is the unchallenged champion prankster of Stanford's team, seeking out -- "scheming" is the word junior guard Jeannette Pohlen used -- every opportunity to pull one over on her teammates. She's committed to her craft, no matter the hour. Before an early-morning workout a couple of years ago, she infiltrated the locker room and switched each player's sneakers, pairing lefts with lefts, rights with rights, size 13 with size 7 and generally leaving her sleepy-eyed teammates in a state of confused chaos.

An unlocked hotel door is an invitation for the 6-foot-4 Appel to army crawl her way across the floor and scare the daylights out of the room's distracted occupants. And that bucket of ice, having done its duty on her swollen right ankle, was recently an invitation for mayhem when dumped over a shower partition on unsuspecting freshman Mikaela Ruef.

Not that Appel doesn't have a heart. She later told Ruef she was originally going to wait for her to shut off the hot water to douse her but cut the kid a break in the end.

"The shower was actually still on so it wasn't as bad, but it was still freezing cold," Ruef said.

But as Appel prepares to play her final college game, win or lose, when Stanford takes on Connecticut in Tuesday night's national championship game, the bucket of ice has meaning beyond its usefulness as a prop for another prank. Slowed by a sprained ankle that won't heal until she stops running, jumping and posting up on it, the latest in a long line of physical hurdles during her four seasons at Stanford, Appel is not the same player who emerged last season as one of the best players in the nation, every bit the equal of longtime friend Tina Charles, her foe Tuesday.

The spirit of mischievousness is still there, but the body is less playful these days.

"She knows what she's capable of and so do we, and we know we're not seeing Jayne at her best," Stanford associate coach Amy Tucker said. "But she is an absolute warrior. She never complains, she gets treatment three or four times a day, she's taken shots to promote her bone health that are painful. She just wants one last shot at it and she'll do whatever it takes.

"She never complains about the pain or the injury. Whenever you ask her, she's like, 'It's great.' We know it's not, but that's her standard response."

Appel's list of medical woes runs almost as long as the list of her accomplishments on the court. There was the shoulder surgery after her sophomore season that left her unable to shoot a basketball from the time the Cardinal lost to Tennessee in the 2008 national championship game (after beating Connecticut in the semifinals, the last time the Huskies lost a game) until the start of practice the next fall, in addition to surgery on her left knee. Then there was another surgery on her left knee before this season and the sprained ankle in early March that remains swollen like a bag of chips in a pressurized airline cabin.

At least her fingernails, generally painted bright pink for each game, have largely escaped serious peril.

She wasn't able to completely deny her injury after she managed 13 points and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes against Oklahoma in Sunday's semifinal, but a grudging admission of pain was as much as she could bring herself to concede.

"I guess I'm just trying not to think about it," Appel said. "It is there a significant amount. But when I'm in a game, it's just completely block it out and play through it."

Appel has always been capable of throwing her body around. A different breed of post player than even Stanford had seen in its illustrious run under coach Tara VanDerveer, she arrived with a big résumé, broad shoulders, a huge wingspan and the kind of athletic mean streak near the basket you might expect from someone who played a lot of water polo growing up. But the mental toughness required to make full use of those gifts, and keep playing the same way when they break down, came later. She was good as a freshman, able to come along gradually as a reserve on a team with established post players, but saying she was foul prone would be an understatement.

She's closest among the coaches with Tucker, but she also credits assistant Kate Paye, who arrived after Appel's freshman season, with providing some necessary tough love.

"I thought she was a baby," Paye said. "I think Jayne will be the first to tell you, she was still very young. She played a lot her freshman year, but necessarily the weight of the team wasn't on her shoulders, with Kristen Newlin or Brooke Smith. I think Jayne would get frustrated. She would lose her composure. You're a big post player, it's going to be physical inside. And she would sometimes let that get the best of her. And sometimes I think when you're a new voice you can maybe say things that maybe someone who has been around can't say. I just told her what I saw."

The result was a fast track to All-American status, and just as importantly for the Cardinal in reaching the Final Four in each of the two seasons since program legend Candice Wiggins guided them to the title game, a path to leadership. Appel is the agent of comic mayhem on the team, but she's also one of the ones to lay down the law as needed.

Clearly, a professional future awaits Appel in the WNBA, but it's not just the politics of the moment, of focusing on the task at hand, that lead her to demur when it comes to the future. She had a taste of that life when she was invited to a national team camp last fall. What she found was an environment that had plenty of use for her basketball skills but less room for her personality. She may have already graduated, but she is, in the best sense of the phrase, a college basketball player.

"When you're a professional, you kind of go do your workout and then after that you go do your own thing all day," Appel said. "When we're used to doing our workout and coming back and having team meal and then team film and then team hangout in someone's movie room. So I definitely will miss my teammates the most. I think that's kind of what I'll look back on as having the most fun times with is on the bus and the rallies we had before the game and just hanging out with them."

Whatever happens Tuesday night, it will mark the end of an era for the Cardinal. That's good news for the next batch of gullible freshmen waiting to be pranked, but it's a major loss for the program. Appel and VanDerveer have grown closer over the course of the season. It might not be the almost maternal bond the coach had with Wiggins, but it exists nonetheless. Before each game, before VanDerveer addresses the team, she and Appel share a moment between just the two of them.

"We step outside the locker room and I just remind Jayne how much I enjoy coaching her and what a tremendous talent she is and how much she means to our team," VanDerveer said. "And I just remind her to stay out of foul trouble."

And after hearing that reminder Tuesday, Appel will look to go out the way she spent much of her career at Stanford. Having a good time.

"I'm trying not to think about it," Appel said of her final game. "I'm trying to aim for happy tears after the game."

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