For years, women’s basketball teams across the country have been incorporating male players into their practices, and now the Quakers have a practice squad of their own.
Just two years ago, Penn women’s basketball Director of Operations Christine McCollum reached out to Penn Campus Recreation to invite interested students to apply to join the team for practices. From there, news of the practice squad began to spread by word of mouth until the Quakers had a group of male players ready to contribute.
Now in its second season of play with the Red and Blue, the practice squad, currently made up of eight players who attend practices based on the team’s needs and their own availability, has become an integral part of the program. The inclusion of these players is largely strategic, since the size, strength, and athleticism that the men offer helps to bring the intensity of real gameplay to the practice court.
“I think [the practice squad] helps prepare us physically,” sophomore center Eleah Parker said. “They’re very long and athletic, so it may be that they’ll block my shot in practice, but in a game ... I can still make that move just because I practiced against one of our practice players.”
Despite the informal application process, joining the practice squad is a significant commitment for its members, who participate in physicals, undergo sickle-cell testing, and complete all of the requisite eligibility paperwork.
“They have to do everything that the student-athletes here do, and we try to embrace them and make them part of the team,” coach Mike McLaughlin said.
In addition to fulfilling the responsibilities that come with being members of the team, practice players have to balance their schoolwork like any other student-athlete. For sophomores Chase Novak and Jonathan Roth, the commitment is entirely worthwhile because it affords them the opportunity to play competitive basketball at a high level.
“I played basketball almost every day in high school. When I came to college and started with the workload that chemical engineering has, I could no longer do that,” Novak said. “With the practice squad, I’m able to play one time a week or so and still participate in a highly competitive game, so I really appreciate that.”
For practice players both at Penn and across the country, these opportunities not only provide access to a level of competition that the students wouldn’t otherwise have, but they also create an experience unlike any other.
“I thought this was a unique, different opportunity,” Roth said. “I’ve never practiced with a women’s team before, but it’s fun. [The women] are appreciative and really good, so it’s fun to be out there and to push myself when I play against them.”
The relationship between the practice squad and the Red and Blue is a symbiotic one, since each side provides the other with a type of playing style and skill level that one can’t always find on the courts at Pottruck.
Parker, who leads the Quakers in scoring this season and ranks second in the nation with an average of 3.63 blocks per game, noted that playing against the men brings better energy to practices.
“They’re a lot bigger, stronger, and faster, so it’s good competition to compete against such athletic guys, but it’s also fun to go against them,” she said. “When we score on them and we’re making good plays against them, it gets really hype in practice and the environment is really fun.”
Novak and Roth expressed the same sentiment about getting to play against Division I basketball players. In fact, Novak pointed out that the practices have gotten so intense that he has left the court with superficial injuries multiple times.
“[The women] just love beating us up. I come out of a lot of practices bloody because I’m not used to playing against people with fingernails,” Novak joked. “I come out of many of the practices with blood coming off of my cheek or nose or some part of me, but it’s still fun. That’s not a complaint.”
While they might risk getting cuts and bruises like the athletes, the practice players also reap some of the same benefits. The practice squad is equipped with complimentary, customized team clothing and backpacks, and rumor has it that shoes are soon to follow.
In addition to apparel, though, the practice squad has on its horizon at least one more enticing prospect in the realm of material accessories.
“If we win a championship this year, [the practice players] are getting a ring,” McLaughlin said. “I would love to do that. [Having them] has been one of the coolest things since I’ve been here.”
The guarantee caught the attention of both Novak and Roth, who lit up upon hearing of McLaughlin’s pledge.
“[Getting a ring] would be amazing and I would definitely be honored,” Roth said. “I think that would be really special.”
Novak displayed a similar combination of excitement and appreciation; the Quakers’ current position atop the Ivy League after wins at Cornell and Columbia undoubtedly added to those feelings.
“I would be entirely okay with it if [the ring] said ‘Women’s Basketball,’” he exclaimed. “If it said ‘Chase Novak, Women’s Basketball,’ I would be entirely for that!”
As the Red and Blue push on through the rest of their Ivy League schedule, they can rest assured that practices will remain highly competitive. After all, it’s not just the women who have hardware to play for these days.
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