For a program that's been to five of the last six Final Fours, there's a sense of urgency present among the Stanford women.

Star forward Chiney Ogwumike is closing her stellar career. And unlike in past years, the Cardinal doesn't have a clear candidate to carry the torch for the storied program. The string of elite players Stanford has enjoyed looks to be on the brink of disruption.

So might Stanford's tradition of dominance.

The pressure is especially tangible knowing that level of greatness may come to an end without capturing the ultimate prize.

"What's the elephant in the room? We want to win a national championship," Ogwumike said. "This year we said every drill we're trying to do at national championship caliber. When you use that language, national championship, that sets your expectations higher."

A portrait of Stanford University basketball player Chiney Ogwumike at Stanford University on March 28, 2014. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
A portrait of Stanford University basketball player Chiney Ogwumike at Stanford University on March 28, 2014. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) ( Dai Sugano )

If they don't meet those expectations this year, then when?

In the past, Stanford seemed to always have a new hope on the horizon. Candice Wiggins took over after the Nicole Powell era. Jayne Appel was the clear heir apparent coming out of Carondelet and led the Cardinal to a title-game loss.

Nneka Ogwumike was assurance Stanford had a chance to get back. She, Kayla Pederson and Jeanette Pohlen carried the program on their shoulders.

Now, the title hopes ride on the shoulders on the younger of the Ogwumike sisters.

"What I am seeing now," said Nneka, now with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, "Chiney was born within that era and continued it as long as she could."


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The likelihood is coach Tara VanDerveer will land the next Stanford star on the recruiting path. She's kept the cupboard stocked this long.

Perhaps the next in the lineage of All-Americans is currently on the roster, ready to emerge from the crop of talented freshmen. Or what if the new path of Stanford basketball is less about a primary star and more about a depth of talent.

It's the uncertainty of it all that has Stanford in this weird place. Maybe that is why Sunday's game against Penn State is expected to be stocked with legends of the program.

Appel, Nneka Ogwumike, Pedersen, Vanessa Nygaard, Sarah Boothe, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Lindy La Rocque -- they're all expected to be present for the Sweet 16 matchup. Maybe they, too, sense this is the last best chance.

"Don't you see the 'S' on my chest," Chiney rapped on the too-cute rap video produced by Stanford Athletics. " ... No reason to be stressed."

Actually, as far as the women's basketball empire is concerned, there is reason to be stressed.

The quality of players and programs is steadily improving. There was a time when Connecticut and Tennessee were Stanford's only perennial threats. But multiple colleges have risen to contender status. Baylor, Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville have joined the mix of those vying for a championship.

Stanford got another reminder loud and clear when South Carolina, led by women's basketball legend Dawn Staley, was given the No. 1 seed in the Stanford bracket.

Winning a championship is getting harder and harder as the talented players Connecticut doesn't swoop up now have plenty of options. It takes an elite player or two, and right now Stanford doesn't know who that is going forward.

It's hard not to wonder if the Cardinal, especially when you consider its academic standards, can keep its name in the annual championship conversation.

If it can't, that makes this last run all the more critical.

Read Marcus Thompson II's blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/thompson. Contact him at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.

SUNDAY'S GAME

Stanford Regional, at Maples Pavilion: No. 2 seed Stanford (31-3) vs. No. 3 Penn State (24-7), 1:30 p.m. ESPN2

INSIDE

Guard Thompson leads Stanford freshman class; NCAA women's tournament roundup. PAGE 5