Seniors Phoebe Sterba and Kendall Grasela have accomplished an impressive list of feats during their careers for Penn women’s basketball: two Ivy League regular season championships, an NCAA Tournament appearance, a Big 5 championship, and 56 combined starts. For the 2019-20 season, they have both been named captains and will be expected to lead a team that once again has championship aspirations.
But there was a moment well before any of their achievements where Sterba and Grasela were unsure whether they even wanted to be on the team. Naturally, as these moments so often tend to, it came over cheese fries.
"After our first basketball workout [freshman year] we cried and ate cheese fries,” Grasela said. “It was so hard. It was just like, ‘We don’t know if we can do this.’"
Cheese fries aside, the two have each made indelible impacts on the program.
Last season, when the Quakers shared the Ivy League regular–season title, Sterba averaged more than nine points a game and led the team in three-point shooting with 75 treys. She also played her best game in what was perhaps the team’s biggest win of the season. On the road against Princeton, she led Penn with 21 points and sat on the bench for only one minute of the Red and Blue’s 66-60 victory.
On the court, coach Mike McLaughlin doesn’t want Sterba to feel like she has to take on a bigger role than she has in the past as a stretch forward.
“Phoebe’s obviously someone who can spread the floor for us,” McLaughlin said. “She defends in the back line of the zone very well.”
As a leader, though, it seems that Sterba has already taken major strides ahead of this season.
“I think she’s matured as the years have gone on,” McLaughlin said. “She’s good, she keeps the team loose. She understands the attention to detail more than she ever has.”
Grasela, as a pass-first point guard, brings something very different to the floor than Sterba. She averaged less than four points per game last season, but even without scoring a lot, she was so valuable to the team that McLaughlin started her in every game last season other than Senior Night. This year, however, he’s hopeful that she will be more aggressive in looking for her own shot.
“I’d like to see Kendall take eight or nine shots a game,” McLaughlin said. “She has the ability, she shoots the ball phenomenally well, but she wants to get everyone involved and there are times for that, but we need her to put the ball up because it’s going to make the other players around her better.”
While Grasela will likely have the ball in her hands for more time than anyone else this season, she barely saw any time on the court as a freshman, playing behind second–team All-Ivy point guard Anna Ross. McLaughlin thinks that her development into a full-time starter has set a great example for younger players on the team forced to start their careers on the bench.
Indeed, the opportunity to help the team’s freshmen is something both Grasela and Sterba value about having their roles as captains.
“Looking back to my freshman year, I was so confused and dazed half the time that I really want to be that light for [the current freshmen],” Sterba said.
“The impact the seniors left on me as a freshman — I want to have [that in] the same way,” Grasela added.
The two have lofty goals for the season, including making it back to the NCAA Tournament, but both also say that it’s the off–court memories that they’ll carry with them more than any on-court highlights. And given that they’ve been roommates together all four years, there are plenty of shared memories between the two of them.
“I think my favorite memories have been made making banana bread, watching 'The Bachelor' with my teammates Monday night, and making hot chocolate. I think those are the ones that follow through,” Grasela said.
Perhaps all the time Sterba and Grasela — who both have blonde hair — have spent together can also help explain why they are so often confused for each other on campus. Even though Sterba is in the College of Arts and Sciences, she has often been called “Kendall” by nursing students mistaking her for Grasela.
If that bothers either of them, they don’t share it. The two teammates and friends have come a long way from that day three years ago they shared cheese fries together, and with a full season ahead of them, they’re still not done making memories together.
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