Some athletes arrive at the beginning of their freshman year and immediately rise to the top. For others, countless hours of hard work and commitment are required to claw their way there.
Senior women’s basketball captain Kendall Grasela's story was more of the latter.
The Huntingdon Valley, Pa. native has been a staple for the Red and Blue throughout her junior and senior seasons at point guard. It wasn’t always that way, however.
In her freshman and sophomore years, Grasela was a backup for then-captain Anna Ross, who graduated in 2018. Ross led the team to two Ivy League titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances. She holds the all-time program records in both career and single-season assists at 491 and 151, respectively. Ross played and started every single game of her collegiate career.
It’s the mentorship of a figure like Ross that coach Mike McLaughlin credits to Grasela’s development as a leader on and off the court.
“Having Anna Ross ahead of her was fundamental to her development. [Grasela] learned to lead people by pushing them and challenging them,” McLaughlin said. "She’s turned into a point guard who we can’t take off of the floor. This season has been a great culmination of a phenomenal career here up to this point.”
Grasela is currently second in the Ivy League in assists at 107 on the season, or 4.3 per game. Even more impressive is her assist to turnover ratio, which sits at 2.7, good for first place in the Ancient Eight by a significant margin.
“I feel like a lot of times when I actually turn the ball over it’s because I passed up my open shot to try to look for someone else. That’s just part of my nature,” Grasela said. “There’s no better feeling for me than hitting Phoebe [Sterba] for an open three and hearing her family cheer and seeing the smile on her face. Or getting Eleah [Parker] a dump pass on a fast break. Or hitting Kayla [Padilla] with a three. I love the feeling I get when I create for others and give others the opportunity to score because it just drives the environment and the crowd.”
It’s this kind of selfless approach to the game that makes Grasela a natural playmaker and team leader.
“Everyone looks to her in almost all the moments during games," senior co-captain Phoebe Sterba said. "She’s such a constant motivator; she never seems to get tired. She’s always playing full-court defense and running the offense. So I think when we’re kind of struggling we always turn to her because she has this constant drive, and I think that just motivates everyone else on the court."
As close friends, Sterba and Grasela share an inseparable bond. As captains, they’ve tried to maintain a balance between striving for excellence and enjoying the game. Before many of the team’s Friday games, senior Liz Satter will host photo shoots of the players. The most recent one features Sterba in a wedding dress alongside Grasela and fellow teammates decked out in tacky bridesmaid dresses.
The pictures are featured on the women’s basketball Instagram and were reposted by several Penn Athletics accounts. The caption? Married to the game.
While funny in its own right, the shoot encapsulates the commitment to their sport shared by the team and its co-captains. Grasela has been able to make a large impact in a leadership role on the team, all while attending the School of Nursing.
“She’s definitely one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met academically," Sterba said. "She’s very good at time management. With clinicals and all these exams and labs and prep tools, she makes it seem easy, but she’s actually just a deeply hardworking person to her core."
Whether it’s attending games during promotional nights or sending team performance updates to nursing students, the Penn Nursing faculty is almost as committed as the athletes themselves. After a huge win against Yale, Grasela awoke the next morning to an email from Dean Antonia Villarruel.
“I am so proud of you — and all our Penn Nursing athletes — you are leaders on and off the court!!!” the email read.
With eight-hour clinical shifts twice a week and an intense course load, the nursing schedule is notoriously difficult. For an athlete, it can be nearly impossible.
Regardless, the senior has balanced her academic pursuits with her role on the team, all while drastically improving her game.
“I have a great story in that it can inspire people who maybe don’t play much freshman year," Grasela said. "I’ve tried to communicate that to the freshmen and younger girls. It’s really about role identity. I know that I’m never going to be the leading scorer in every game, but I can control what I can control."
Grasela, who attended Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa., grew up watching games at the Palestra. Less than an hour from her hometown, she had her sights set on playing on the historic court from an early age.
“I was able to grow up and come to the Palestra and watch the team play and envision playing here," Grasela said. “Being given the opportunity to do so has been so incredible and so surreal."
It was this kind of nostalgic energy that pervaded her Senior Night last weekend, and one that McLaughlin witnesses every year from the senior classes.
“I’m just so happy for Kendall. She’s emotional right now. She knows that at some point, as every senior does, there comes an emotional end. You’ve been told your entire lives that you’re going to get that one last time to play, and I think they’re feeling it a little bit,” McLaughlin said.
“The community support, the atmosphere at Penn, there’s nothing like it," Grasela said. "[Senior Night] was very surreal. I never really imagined the day coming. You build such an identity, and you have so much pride to play for Penn."
With the end of their season looming, the Quakers are bleeding Red and Blue more than ever. While it was Sterba who wore the dress, Grasela is truly right alongside her, married to the game.