She’s easy-going. She’s the calm in the middle of the storm. She hosts Bachelor watch parties on Monday nights.
She’s also one of the three greatest players in Penn women’s basketball history.
And if you talked to her, you wouldn’t even know that she is the Ivy League’s all-time blocks leader. There’s no way you could know how pivotal she was in her team’s three title runs in four years. If you talked to her, she’d tell you that the team makes her better — not the other way around. Because that’s Syd.
But the Sydney Stipanovich success story wasn’t always going to take place in Philadelphia. While the whole world knows that the senior made the right choice four years ago, it wasn’t the obvious option at the time.
When she was a junior in high school, there weren’t that many universities looking to recruit her. She had a list of small and medium schools, mainly in California or near her home the Midwest, but she didn’t even consider Penn until late in the game. As she put it, she was “all over the place.”
Stipanovich’s mom got free flights because of an old job as a flight attendant, but only on standby. That meant that although she wanted to visit Penn, her inability to get on a full flight delayed the process time and time again, to the point that Penn coach Mike McLaughlin apparently gave up on her visit altogether.
But eventually, she made it, and the rest is history.
“This was actually one of the last places I looked,” she noted, “but I knew right away that this was the place for me.”
When Sydney arrived on campus, however, she wasn’t the first-choice center. There was Courtney Wilson, a senior who was coming off a season in which she recorded the second-most blocks in the Ivy League and had a career game to help the Quakers secure their first ever postseason win. Displacing her would be no easy feat — and this was compounded by some of the early weaknesses in Stipanovich’s game.
“Sydney’s downfall coming out of high school was her toughness,” said Chris Day, a former Penn assistant coach who is now the head coach at Vermont. “She was 6-foot-3, but she wasn’t the rough, monstrous, knock-you-in-the-mouth for a rebound type of kid. She simply didn’t pass the eye test.”
In hindsight, this makes perfect sense — of course the team’s most easy-going personality isn’t a trench fighter. But serious doubts were raised at the time how a center could find success without grinding things out in the paint.
That’s because no one had ever seen somebody in her mould before.
A Guard Playing as a Center
Syd’s playing style has always been unique. Detractors might point out that she doesn’t post up, but that’s because she doesn’t need to. While she may be a center, she often plays more like a guard.
It all comes from her family background. Her dad’s side of the family has lived and breathed basketball for generations, so she always had someone to shoot around with growing up. Her uncle even played in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers. And all four of her siblings have played basketball at points in their lives, too.
It’s only natural, then, that Sydney went with the flow and became a shooter, even if she is tall.
“Growing up, I always shot a lot with my dad and my brother outside of practice,” she said. “So that’s what I like to do.”
And so the 6-foot-3 big shoots like a small. One of her favorite locations is the elbow just outside the paint in the long two range, as other centers don’t like to guard opponents so far away from the rim.
Because of that, she has found herself open often enough to score 1,332 points in her four years so far — fifth-most in school history — with around 44 percent accuracy. In one game her sophomore year, she made 12 field goals, tied for second-most all time for Penn, scoring 29 points in the process. Simply put, those numbers don’t form the stat line of a center, but a prolific shooting guard.
The brand of basketball Stipanovich brought to the squad was the gift the Quakers didn’t know they needed. With rivals Princeton firmly established as the best in the Ivy League when she arrived on campus, Syd was the key to the breaking down the Tigers’ dynasty and creating a new world order.
A Star is Born
Eleven games into Stipanovich’s freshman season, Wilson suffered a minor injury that took her out of action for a couple weeks. The senior could have easily returned to the lineup as soon as she was healthy, but that wasn’t how it was meant to be. The rookie was bound to rise up.
“I remember Mike [McLaughlin] saying one day that if she started, she wasn’t going back,” Day said. “And she didn’t look back.”
In the season’s final 16 games, she started 15 times. Stipanovich powered Penn to its first Ancient Eight title of the McLaughlin era, as well as its first date in the NCAA Tournament, which came against against fifth-seeded Texas. When the dust had settled, she had registered 99 blocks, averaged 12 points per game, eight rebounds, and recorded ten double-doubles.
For those astounding numbers, she earned Ivy League Rookie of the Year and Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year — the first time any Quaker ever earned two Player of the Year honors in one season.
She was expected to contribute, sure, but not even Sydney’s coaches expected her to have such a standout season straight away. She was the gift the team didn’t know it got.
“Alyssa Baron [Penn’s star senior at the time] did tell us that, as good as she was, Sydney Stipanovich was the missing piece for her to get a title,” Day said. “She truly was the missing link for us to finally get over the Princeton hurdle.”
They cleared that Princeton hurdle by a long shot — in the de facto Ivy League championship game, at Princeton in the final game of the conference season, the Quakers surged past the Tigers to an 80-64 victory to take the title. Stipanovich was instrumental in that game, playing all 40 minutes and scoring 19 points. To this day, she argues it was her favorite performance for the Red and Blue, saying that she was more focused that day than ever before.
McLaughlin also acknowledged that Stipanovich was transformative in winning the first Ivy League title of his tenure at Penn.
“I thought she was gonna do really good things here, but I was wrong. She’s done special things here. She’s exceeded any expectations that I would have on the court, but off the court, she’s also exceeded that.”
Building a Dynasty
Under the lights, Stipanovich has blown competition away for four years now, securing her team two Ivy titles, with a third very possibly on the way at the end of this season. Three conference championships in four years would surely cement Penn’s status as a dynasty team — but it’s not the on-court success that has driven it all.
As McLaughlin pointed out, it was the off-court success which Sydney has achieved that has built the dynasty Penn now enjoys.
“On the court, she’s a leader, but off the court, her personality is driven, she’s very laid-back, social, team-oriented,” McLaughlin said. “I think that’s where we’re gonna miss her. She’s created the remarkable culture that we have here, and if your best player is part of that culture, the leader of it, then that’s hard to replace.”
Culture can often be hard to see in concrete ways, but just ask McLaughlin, Sydney, or any of her teammates, and they’ll tell you the myriad things she does to make the program a family.
Among them is hosting weekly watch parties of The Bachelor. The whole team has spent months debating which bachelorette should receive Nick’s rose.
It’s natural for teams to bond outside of their sport, but women’s basketball takes it to a whole new level. Sydney even went so far as to highlight the parties that she throws at the “women’s basketball house,” with the cherry on top being the new speaker system they bought.
Just don’t give her the aux cord.
“The one thing to know about Sydney is that she has a very... limited music knowledge,” her teammate, classmate and roommate Jackie Falconer said. “So she will sit on our eight-hour bus rides up to Dartmouth and listen to the same eight songs on loop. For eight hours.”
Falconer mentioned some of those eight songs, but perhaps Syd would want to be saved of the embarrassment.
“The whole team is not a fan of my music,” Stipanovich chuckled. “I never get the aux cord, to say the least. But I’m hooked up to her [Falconer’s] Spotify now, so she gives me some good music.”
She takes it in stride, because she knows it’s as if her teammates are sisters bantering with her. Besides, it’s who she is — level-headed, even-keeled.
“I’ve only seen her a handful of times in her career — and I’ve talked to her about this — that I’ve ever seen her upset,” McLaughlin said. “She is about as even-keeled as you can be. Her story is that. She’s so easy to get along with.”
A Legendary Legacy
And she’s humble, too.
If Penn goes on to win the Ivy League Tournament this year, it could have yet another chance to win its first ever NCAA Tournament game. The first two times for Stipanovich didn’t pan out, but the third time could be the charm. It would mark the end of a transformation of the program that she was responsible for driving — but again, in accordance with her personality, you’d never know it.
“All the credit, what she’s done, goes to her,” McLaughlin said. “She goes about it in such an unselfish way, in such a humble way, her success here, you wouldn’t know if she’s someone who’s the 15th player on the team, or someone who’s gonna end up in Penn’s Hall of Fame. I think that tells you who she is.”
When Stipanovich came in as a rookie, the program was saying goodbye to another of its all-time greats, then-senior Alyssa Baron. Along with Baron and 2001 graduate Diana Caramanico, she is unanimously considered one of the three greatest players the program has ever seen.
“You can write them in any order you want, but the fourth is very distant,” Day said.
Yet she deflects her accomplishments so nonchalantly. To her, all that matters is nabbing that third conference title in four years. It doesn’t matter to her that she could break 1,000 career rebounds. And the fact that she recently broke the all-time Ivy League record for career blocks (307 and counting) isn’t even on her radar right now.
“I guess it’s exciting,” she said. “You don’t really think about it when you’re out there playing, you just kind of play the game — when you get a block, you get a block. But I think when I’m all done with basketball and I look back, that’ll be something that I cherish.”
Syd has the chance to play professionally, yet she plans on going into real estate. That doesn’t mean that she’ll be saying goodbye to the game, though.
She’ll always have her family to shoot around with, and she’ll always have her second family, her teammates, to visit whenever she’s around campus. And no matter where she ends up, she’ll always have her easy-going attitude that can make the most whatever basketball she can find.
“I love basketball,” she said. “I will definitely always be watching it, and I’ll be [the Quakers’] biggest fan after graduating, watching them on the Ivy League Digital Network if I’m not in Philly. I could see myself playing for fun, or possibly coaching. I’ll be back here to play for the alumni games.”
Because at the end of the day, that’s what Sydney is all about. It hasn’t been about the accolades or the honors — it’s been for the love of the game and the love of her family, at home and at Penn. And no matter how far she goes or how long she’s gone, she’ll always be able to come back and look at the house she’s built.
Just don’t invite her to build the playlist.
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