Seniors are hard to replace every year, but last year’s senior class for Penn women's basketball was one of a kind.
Michelle Nwokedi, Anna Ross, and Lauren Whitlatch are three names that Red and Blue fans are very used to hearing. Following the graduation of these three stars for the Red and Blue, this year’s team will face the daunting challenge of filling the sizable gaps they left behind.
All three started in every game for Penn last season, meaning more than half of the team’s starting lineup this season will be players new to that role. But the Quakers won’t be losing everyone from that Ivy League runner-up team last season. Senior captain and guard Ashley Russell started all but two games as a junior, and sophomore center Eleah Parker is returning after earning Ivy League Rookie of the Year for her breakout freshman season.
“It was very different in the beginning, but I think we’ve meshed well moving on from the identity we had last year with them," Russell said. “We’re forming a new identity this year, building it every day, and finding new people to fill their roles.”
Although each member of the departed trio contributed in different ways, they all left a deep legacy with the team.
While Ross might not have been known for her scoring, she knew how to share the ball. Playing as point guard and starting every Penn game in her four years, she smashed the program record assists in her final season, with a total of 491 over her college career.
In her absence, Penn needs a new point guard capable of controlling the pace of play and knowing where and to whom the ball needs to go. Sophomore Katie Kinum and junior Kendall Grasela, who both got minutes as guards last year while Ross was out, look to be the leading candidates, while freshman Mia Lakstigala also figures to crack the rotation.
The loss of Nwokedi will be a big one for the Red and Blue. As 2016-17 Ivy League Player of the Year and three-time first team All-Ivy selection, she was a game-changing presence whenever she stepped on the court. Last year, she led the team in points, rebounds, and blocks with game averages of 12.2, 8.7, and 2.3, respectively.
Luckily for the Quakers, Parker seems to be the one up for the job, already putting up impressive numbers herself last season. Second on the team with 11.5 points per game and posting a team-high field goal percentage of .473, the sophomore has clearly shown her ability and will look to play a larger role this time around.
“I did look up to them a lot last year as a new freshman coming in, and I still have some of my upperclassmen teammates who I can look to for help, but it definitely is more of a step from me being a freshman to stepping into more of a leadership position on the court and advising my younger teammates,” Parker said of the upcoming season.
Senior forward Princess Aghayere could also take up some of the responsibility in Nwokedi’s absence, as she played in all 31 games for Penn last year as well and notched a double-double in two of them.
From beyond the arc, Lauren Whitlatch was the Red and Blue’s go-to shooter. With 75 made threes last year, she moved into third place in all-time program history for total treys. Whitlatch also limited mistakes, allowing just 21 turnovers, the lowest of any regular starter last season. With her gone, look for Kinum, Russell, and junior guard Phoebe Sterba to continue last season’s dominance from distance for the Quakers.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment will be losing three leaders both on and off the court. Besides taking charge in gameplay, they also often served as mentors to their younger teammates.
“It’s been a real adjustment playing without them,” Russell said. “I’ve been able to lean on them my past three years, so if I wasn’t really sure of something, I knew I could look to them. But they’ve taught me a lot, so this year I feel a lot more comfortable and confident in my role.”
“They’re going to be difficult to replace,” coach Mike McLaughlin agreed. “But I like to look at it as them setting the groundwork for these younger players to seize an opportunity. They left a legacy and really inspired these kids to play basketball.”
It certainly won’t be easy to replace the missing players from last season’s team, but this year’s Quakers have the pieces to make it happen.
For more about the upcoming season, check out the project page for the 2018-2019 Penn basketball preview.