If you rode I-195 all the way up to the Jersey Shore, you’d find yourself at a small private school by the name of Monmouth University. If it sounds familiar, maybe you’re remembering their men’s basketball team, whose bench went viral last year because of their eccentric and elaborate celebrations.
That’s a bench that got a lot of press. Here’s one that might deserve more: Penn women’s basketball, a bench whose depth will be tested like never before after a last-minute change to move junior guard Beth Brzozowski into the starting lineup.
The first thing you should know about Penn’s reserve squad, however, is that it’s got as much heart as any team in the nation.
“You always have to be ready to go, you always have to be excited,” said Deja Jackson, a sophomore who’s logged about 20 minutes on the season thus far, and hungry for more.
Because she wants to play? Sure. But more importantly because she wants to make a difference, she wants to see Penn win. And until her name is called, she’s doing her part from the sidelines.
“You want to make sure there isn’t a dull moment on the bench; it keeps the energy going, especially when we’re on defense. It’s really annoying when other people have to guard us and we’re just yelling at them the whole time.”
Princess Aghayere, the sophomore on whom everyone has had their eyes trained since her breakout game against UC Riverside over winter break, is another substitute who has been fighting to earn her time on the court since day one.
“I think it was her time and I think it was her turn,” he remarked. “We were determined when we went out to California to start playing this bench. I probably held her back a bit too long but to her credit she stayed with it, she’s worked hard, she’s gotten better and she’s embraced the role. I think good things are ahead for her.”
Okay, sure. These are hardworking girls, who are going to do everything in the power to support their teammates. Who would expect anything less out of a program like Penn’s? But it makes you wonder what happens when there’s stagnation in the lineup. After all, no one wants to ride the bench forever. How does a coach that has to make so many tough decisions deal with blowback from those who get the raw end of the stick?
Well McLaughlin, who is now in is eighth season coaching the team, seems to have found a system that works for everyone. He tries to be as transparent as with his players as he can, and he meets with them regularly to allow them voice their concerns.
“I’m the kind of coach that believes I’m gonna need all of them at some point,” he explained. “I want them to want to play. I don’t want them to sit here and be happy with it. However, when we leave that office and have that conversation about a role, you have to buy into the role.”
Ashley Russell is a bench player that plays a particularly unique role. Her versatility as both a skilled guard and one of the team’s most physical rebounders makes her a player who has seen significant court time this year. More importantly, she knows how to make the most of it.
“The starting five is always going in, throwing the first punch.” Russell said, “but if they need an extra spark ... I just try to go in and do my best for whatever time I get.”
And finally, there’s Beth Brzozowski. She’s been the ultimate sixth woman, racking up almost 18 minutes a game, coming in clutch during for close wins — it was her who hit those three clutch threes against Princeton to seal the deal — and being vocal on and off the court.
But from here on out, after Lauren Whitlatch’s knee injury, she’ll have a different role on the team: starting shooting guard.
So what’s changed for Brozozowski? Nothing at all, it seems. In her words, she’s still going in with mindset of “be the energy player” and “what’s my role and how am I going to best help my teammates.”
As the Quakers head into the second half of the season, it’s becoming more and more clear that getting their bench players involved won’t be a choice in the weeks to come. The teams ahead on the schedule will test Penn women’s basketball in ways they haven’t been tested before. But the Quakers aren’t going to play nice either.