This year, Penn women’s basketball looks much different than it did last season. Gone are the days of dominance from Michelle Nwokedi and Anna Ross, two all-time greats who graduated after last season. Now, though, the Quakers have the opportunity to write a new chapter.
That chapter, Penn hopes, will feature the five freshmen who have joined the squad ahead of the 2018-19 season. None are coming in as highly touted as now-sophomore center Eleah Parker was last year, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make an immediate impact.
Of the five, coach Mike McLaughlin has pointed to Mia Lakstigala, Meg Hair, and Kennedy Suttle as players that could be in the mix right away.
Lakstigala, a guard from Naperville, Ill., scored the second-most points in her high school’s history, behind all-time leading scorer and WNBA legend Candace Parker.
Hair, also a guard, was the New York State Basketball Player of the Year in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and won state championships with her Syracuse team those same three years.
The forward, Suttle, comes from Atlanta, Ga., and was a state champion in 2016, while setting a school record for most career rebounds.
“On the court, they’re doing well,” McLaughlin said. “I think Mia Lakstigala’s really looking good. She’s going to be somebody who’s in the mix to play for us right away. Kennedy Suttle has battled some nagging injuries but is someone that’s going to perhaps be in the mix to play. I think Hair has been really great. She’s tied up in a league with some competition there, but I think she’s someone that’s going to have a really good career here.”
While these three freshmen will likely see the most playing time in the group, center Noelle Cahill and guard Sereena Weledji each have the potential to be key contributors in the future.
“Noelle’s giving us size, gives us great effort, so she gives us that presence to her,” McLaughlin said. “And Sereena’s the one that’s trying to fill in. She’s transferring positions from high school to college; it’s a little bit of a transition for her, but she’s doing well.”
Much of the adjustment period for any freshman class involves getting used to life off of the court. So far, things have been going smoothly for the five new players. And in doing things like giving advice about quiet study spots on campus and recommending great places to eat before practice, their teammates have made that transition even easier.
“It’s been really cool. Penn’s a great place, and off the court, I feel like the community is really great,” Weledji said. “The professors are awesome, and our teammates were really helpful in telling us how to get places and how to get through stuff. So it’s been a great transition so far.”
And while these first-year players are grateful to the upperclassmen for showing them the ropes, they are not afraid to take them on in practice.
“In practice, we all are very competitive, and when we play with the older [players], I think we do really well,” Hair said.
“I see a lot of potential with these girls. I feel like we’d be getting a lot of playing time; I hope so,” Suttle added.
The Red and Blue Scrimmage on Oct. 20 was another step toward getting the freshmen to be more comfortable in the spotlight. The game was an exciting and nerve-wracking experience for this group of young players.
“It was nice to get back into a game routine,” Cahill said. “That’s where I’m personally most comfortable: being in a game, score on the board, time running down. So I was actually really comfortable, more comfortable than I thought I would be.”
Lakstigala had a solid performance in the scrimmage but took a while to get fully acclimated to the situation.
“I was really nervous before the game because it was my first college game, but it was really fun,” she said. “As I started to play, I got less nervous and I just settled into the game, and it was just really fun seeing people in the crowd, and then everybody was cheering for each other. So it was a really great atmosphere in general.”
McLaughlin and the Quakers are in a relatively unfamiliar position this year, as they have to strike the right balance between easing the freshmen into action and getting them into the rotation when necessary. According to McLaughlin, the first few weeks of the season will give the team some clarity as to how ready the freshmen are in helping fill the big shoes of last year’s seniors.
Typically, the Red and Blue have been able to afford waiting a while before throwing the new players into the fire — but this year, they might not have that luxury.
For more about the upcoming season, check out the project page for the 2018-2019 Penn basketball preview.