Eleah Parker is back, and she may be better than ever before.
That can mean only good things for Penn women’s basketball and, well, less good things for the rest of the Ivy League.
The junior center is coming off of an all-around dominant 2018 season in which she led the Quakers to a share of the Ivy League championship while garnering numerous individual honors, including an Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year award and a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection.
A game-changing threat at both ends of the court, Parker led the conference in both rebounds and blocks per game with 9.0 and 3.2, respectively, and she finished fifth in scoring, putting up 15.1 points per game.
Despite being less than eight months removed from leading the Red and Blue to 24 wins, their most since 2015-16, and a season-ending second-round loss to Providence in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, Parker’s outstanding sophomore campaign now lies firmly in her rearview mirror. Since the 64-54 loss to Providence in late March, she has been focused on improving each facet of her game in hopes of putting together an even more impressive junior season.
“I think every year I’ve matured, so I just expect this year to be a growth from last year as far as expanding my game,” she said. “Being more comfortable on the perimeter, for sure, and definitely getting that high-low chemistry with the other post player, I think that’ll definitely benefit us this year.”
For Parker, the use of the word “us” in response to a question about herself is as characteristic as anything else. While she is certainly willing to discuss the ways in which she aims to improve as a player and teammate on and off the court, the success of the team will always come first.
That selfless mindset is one that many top players receive praise for having, but it is not one to be taken for granted. As one of those top players — even if she does always make the team her priority — Parker is well aware of the expectations that surround her. After being in the middle of the Ivy League Player of the Year debate in 2018-19, she knows that such an honor could be awaiting her this season.
“[I keep it] in the back of my head for sure, but I’m not going to let it be my focus,” Parker said. “My focus, of course, is to do what I can to help my team win, and if [the Player of the Year award] comes along with it, then ‘hey!’”
That take-what-I-can-get approach is not unique to Parker. Coach Mike McLaughlin backed up Parker’s assertion that her main goals are much bigger than herself.
“I think her biggest goal is she wants to win championships here at Penn, and she’s had a chance to get off to a good start doing that, so I think the awards will take care of themselves,” McLaughlin said. “If the team does well, that means she has played really well, so I think [the awards] will all come in line.”
Although he was already extremely confident in Parker’s ability, McLaughlin emphasized the impressive work that she put in over the summer. He got the chance to watch Parker in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she accepted an invitation to Team USA’s Pan-Am Games tryouts. He saw the experience as one that not only confirmed Parker’s basketball acumen, but also one that prepared her to step into a greater leadership role for the Quakers than she had previously undertaken.
“I went out there and watched her play, so I can attest that she’s competing against some of the best in the country,” McLaughlin said. “I think all those experiences are going to help her to be a better leader and to be as consistently as dominant as she can be, which she has the ability to do. We’re just trying to make that more consistent on a daily basis.”
Parker got a taste of some of the country’s premier talent in Colorado, and she’ll see more once the Ivy League schedule ramps up. Her primary competition for the conference’s most prestigious awards is Princeton senior forward Bella Alarie, the two-time reigning Player of the Year.
Alarie averaged 22.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game last season, when she led the Tigers to an Ivy League Tournament title with 65-54 victory against Penn in the final. Whether or not Parker can overtake her as the League’s best player remains to be seen, but the Quakers’ star is up for the challenge.
“[Bella’s] a great player,” she said. “Just playing against her the past three years, we’ve always had that Bella-Eleah Parker not rivalry, but just kind of competition. It’s a healthy competition. This year, I’m expecting her to bring it and I’m going to bring it too, and we’ll just play it [out] on the court.”
The comparisons are difficult to avoid. Both wear the No. 31 jersey, and both tower above others on the court, each measuring 6-foot-4. In the meantime, though, just as she leads quietly and confidently, Parker prefers to let her game and passion speak for themselves.
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