The year was 2011.
The Dallas Mavericks had just won their first NBA title. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was named the number one song of the year. Nearly all of America had woken up at 5 a.m. to watch the Royal Wedding.
And four talented freshmen joined Penn women’s basketball, eagerly hoping to make their mark on what was, at best, a mediocre — if not downright dismal — program.
It had been a tumultuous stretch for the Red and Blue before the quartet arrived on the scene. The 2009-10 season saw the Quakers finish last in the Ivy League, winning only two games in coach Mike McLaughlin’s first season. The following season, the results improved, but only slightly, as the team finished sixth in the Ancient Eight standings.
Could these four freshmen — Kathleen Roche, Katy Allen, Kara Bonenberger and Renee Busch — be the ones to right the ship?
“I could only hope,” McLaughlin said.
Flash forward to 2015. The four girls — now seniors — comprise the winningest class in Penn women’s basketball history. They lay claim to an Ivy title, the first Big 5 title in program history and countless other accolades.
But their path to this elite status was not always so clearly defined.
“I remember all the coaches gave each person a paper,” Bonenberger said, reflecting on her freshman year. “And it said, ‘What do you want to do this year and throughout your college career?’ I remember writing actually get third place in the Ivy League.”
Like Bonenberger, Allen had hopes of turning the program around when she got to Penn. But it’s safe to say she, along with her teammates, could never have imagined the degree of success they would achieve.
“I knew coming in that I really likedcoach McLaughlin’s philosophy,” she said. “We had all the pieces to be a good team.”
Before long, the pieces began to fall into place, and the Quakers steadily moved up the ranks in the Ivy League, finishing fifth in 2012, third in 2013 and finally first in 2014.
Despite their incredible success, all four of the seniors are quick to point out that they did not achieve all these accomplishments alone.
“I think a lot of it is just the people around us,” Roche said when discussing the seniors’ feats. “The coaching staff, the girls ahead of us that taught us how to do it right, the girls behind us that are keeping us interested and motivated everyday.”
Busch also attributes her class’ achievements to the people who have surrounded them over the past four years.
“It’s the culture of the team [that has led to our success], the quality of people we have been around from when we were freshmen,” she said. “They showed us the way and how to work hard and teach the younger girls who are coming after us.”
Although the four seniors are incredibly humble in praising others for their victories, McLaughlin credits their collective success to work ethic.
“I’ve been coaching 20 years, and I’ve never had a group of four that could match their work ethic, their commitment,” he said. “I’ve just never seen it.
“They are so motivated, so driven, so committed to the program, to the teammates. It is a really special group.”
This impressive work ethic off the court has certainly proved to be beneficial on it. The senior class holds the record for the most Big 5 games won. It beat Saint Joseph’s for only the second time in 40 years. It snapped a nine-year losing streak to Harvard.
The list of accomplishments goes on and on.
One of the more notable achievements for the class has been its success against Big 5 schools. Between 2005 and 2010, the Quakers didn’t win a game against their Philadelphia rivals, going 0-20. Until this season, the Red and Blue had only won four out of 50 games against these teams in the past ten years.
However, this group was determined to change that. Bonenberger even considers this year’s Big 5 title as her favorite moment of the past four years.
“We were not feared [in the Big 5],” she said. “Penn is an Ivy League school. No one really cared about it. Now, this year, we showed we can play with anyone.
“We are part of the Big 5. We are a big Philly team.”
The idea of team pride has carried over to more than just Big 5 games — it defines the team both on and off the court.
As Roche says, supporting, bonding with and playing with teammates is about more than winning.
“The girls in my class — we have a great class — I love them to death,” she reflected “They are such hard workers. They make every day fun.”
Although the seniors’ time as members of the Red and Blue is coming to a close, Roche hopes they that have left a meaningful legacy behind.
“I hope [the underclassmen] remember that basketball is fun,” she said. “Every day, we are really lucky to play in a program like this, with coaches like this, with teammates that love the game as much as each other.”
McLaughlin doesn’t deny that the four seniors will be greatly missed by their coaches and teammates.
“It is going to be a bittersweet day when they take the jersey off.”
Now, with three games remaining in the regular season, it’s time for the seniors who changed the face of Penn women’s basketball to finish strong, take their final bow and receive nothing less than a standing ovation.Comments powered by Disqus
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