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Womens Basketball vs. La Salle Credit: Thomas Munson , Thomas Munson

This season, Penn women’s basketball captains have some big shoes to fill — and some unorthodox ways to go about filling them.

Last year, coach Mike McLaughlin’s captains were the team’s four seniors and four of its best players. Kara Bonenberger, Kathleen Roche, Renee Busch and Katy Allen broke team records and enemy hearts during their Penn tenure, compiling a program-best 74 wins, winning the first Big 5 title in program history, and leading Penn to its first three postseason wins.

Roche and Bonenberger led the team offensively, with the latter eclipsing the 1,000-point mark on her career. Busch and Allen were key members of the team’s second unit and earned several starts along the way.

In 2014-15, the four then-captains played 934, 803, 545 and 403 minutes. During that period, the four Quakers who have since inherited the captaincy logged 807, 98, 51 and zero.

That first number belongs to Sydney Stipanovich, who established herself as the star of the team while earning the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year award and becoming a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection last year. The lone junior to be named a captain this season, Stipanovich is the youngest of the bunch despite having the most on-court experience as a member of the Red and Blue.

“Sydney clearly is our best basketball player,” McLaughlin said. “As a coach, I want to see Sydney continue to grow as a person and become a bigger leader. I think she’s going to impact us on the court more than anyone, and this is the right step for her in terms of her maturity as a player and as a student-athlete at Penn.”

The zero came from Kasey Chambers, a transfer from Monmouth who sat out the entire season due to NCAA transfer rules. But the 5-foot-7 guard is now eligible and expected to play major minutes.

“She’s got tremendous love and passion for the game, and her work ethic is second to none,” McLaughlin said. “She reminds me of Renee Busch — she has that level of work ethic, which is about as high as you can get as an athlete.”

The other two captains may not make as much of an impact in the box score, but are nonetheless also crucial pieces of this team. Brooklyn Juday missed 11 games due to injury and played sparingly when healthy, seeing only 51 minutes of playing time last season. But she is, by all accounts, the heart and soul of the team, making her as easy a choice for captain as the dominant Stipanovich.

“Brooklyn is the ultimate program player,” McLaughlin said. “She continues to work and mature, she’s a tremendous student, she’s totally invested in the Penn basketball program. This is a really deserving honor for her. She’s going to lead by her maturity. She’s a very positive person, and every team needs that trait.”

“I see my role as an energy spark for the team. It’s something I really take pride in,” Juday said.

Keiera Ray played 98 minutes last season, which is, unfortunately, 98 more than she’ll play this year. Ray burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2012-13, earning several rookie honors and being named honorable mention All-Ivy.

It certainly looked as if, come November 2015, Penn would be preparing to celebrate the accolade-filled career of a terrific player. But Ray’s career was derailed by knee injuries — she played just 11 games as a sophomore and nine as a junior. As she entered her senior year at Penn, Ray made the toughest call an athlete can make.

“At the beginning of the school year, I sat down with the coaches, with my parents, with my teammates, with the doctors. And I made the best decision for me. The best decision was to stop playing so that it would not affect my life in the future.”

But that didn’t stop the team from naming her a captain.

“My aim and her aim is for to her have great value and impact us continuously until she graduates. And I think she can do that,” McLaughlin said. “She’s a great leader in the locker room right now.

“I asked her to help the freshman class get acclimated and help them in every way possible, and that’s what she’s been doing. She’s doing it with great honor. She’s at practice every day, she’s in the weight room every day with the team. She’s been a great role model.”

“I was honored that the team still wanted me to be a leader, even though I couldn’t do it on the court,” Ray said. “I know that the team knows that I’ll be there for them, and that’s why I’m still here. Because I love them to death.”

Make no mistake, Ray is not simply being taken along for the ride. The life of a Penn athlete is demanding. Whether one is starting every game or sitting on the sidelines, being a student-athlete is a huge time commitment at a school where the life of a student can be stressful enough on its own. In staying with the team, Ray is making a major sacrifice, one that is not lost on McLaughlin.

“At Penn, there’s so much for her to do, and basketball takes up a big portion of everyone’s day,” the coach said. “For Keiera to show the honor that she has, to stay in the program when there’s other things around campus that she could be doing, it shows the kind of character she has, and hopefully it shows the type of program that we run, that her impact could be felt off the court. I’m so happy that she’s made this decision to stay in the program, because many people would just walk away.”

Ultimately, McLaughlin is excited for what the future holds in store for his resilient captain, even if that future will not unfold on the hardwood floor of the Palestra.

“She’s still getting a great education, she’s getting a great experience. She’s going to get the entire Penn experience that an athlete gets, and it’s going to impact her for the rest of her life. That’s what we have to remember.

“She’s going to make a difference with this group,” he continued. “She’s impacting our program, and more importantly for her, she gets the full impact of the Penn experience until the last day she’s here.”

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