Kendall Grasela was on a trip to Cape Cod when she sent a routine text to Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin. There was nothing special about the text; it was just like the one she sent her former coach every few weeks.
She wanted to check in on the team as they prepared to tip-off the 2021-22 season, which was only two months away. The team had just completed its annual mile test, and McLaughlin shared his optimism about how the team looked early in its preseason preparation. He also informed Grasela of a recent change in the team’s coaching staff. Stephanie Carideo, the assistant coach who specialized in working with Penn’s guards, had left the program to accept the head coaching position at Haverford College.
At the time, Grasela, who has remained in contact with her coaches since her graduation in 2020, was unaware of Carideo’s departure. Although the news was a surprise, it made sense, considering several conversations Grasela had had with her former guards’ coach.
Carideo had asked Grasela if she had ever considered getting into coaching. The answer from Grasela — whose love for the game never wavered when her own ball stopped bouncing at the conclusion of her senior season — was a resounding yes.
The two continued to talk about what coaching could look like with Grasela’s work schedule. Grasela’s role as a registered nurse in the NICU at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offered her flexibility, as she typically worked only three days each week and did not follow a set schedule. Eventually the conversation hit what Grasela referred to as a “dead point,” and she went back to her routine.
That is, until McLaughlin brought up Carideo’s job change, and the now-open position on Penn women’s basketball’s coaching staff. At that point, Grasela connected the dots and mentioned her conversation with Carideo to McLaughlin.
From there, the rest is history. McLaughlin and Grasela began talking about her rejoining the program in the spot vacated by Carideo, and several weeks later, on Oct. 5th, Penn released a statement announcing Grasela as an assistant coach.
When Kendall Grasela arrived at Penn in the fall of 2016, Penn already had a starting point guard. The team ran through Anna Ross, a four-year starter who holds Penn records for all-time and single-season assists. Grasela spent her first two seasons studying under Ross, learning what it took to play point guard for Penn women’s basketball.
In her freshman season, she played in 12 games for a Quakers team that won both the Ivy League regular season and tournament championships. The next season, her playing time increased, and she averaged nearly seven minutes per game in 29 games.
Those first two seasons offered Grasela a unique opportunity. Not only did she get a chance to learn the point guard position while studying under one of Penn’s most decorated players, but Grasela also got to learn what it took to be both an Ivy League and Big 5 champion.
“Kendall won a lot of games at Penn,” McLaughlin said. “She’s a champion, and so she has a lot of experience to give.”
When she took over the starting point guard position for the 2018-19 season, Grasela was able to show off everything she had learned from Ross. Grasela led the Quakers to an Ivy League regular season title behind an efficient style of play that prioritized spreading the ball around and minimizing turnovers. Her 2.2 assist/turnover ratio placed her third in the Ivy League and her 105 assists were the second most on the team.
Grasela continued to build on her success as a senior and team captain. She used every single one of her 868 minutes to play a selfless kind of basketball that placed her as one of the nation’s most efficient point guards. Her 2.8 assist/turnover ratio outpaced everyone else in the Ancient Eight and ranked her seventh in the country.
By the end of her senior season, Grasela had mastered the art of team-first basketball. She had become the exact kind of on-court leader that successful point guards must be.
“That position requires leadership [and] requires selflessness,” McLaughlin said. “You have the ball in your hand, you’re the decision-maker, you’re the play-caller, [and] so there’s a lot of eyes on you. So, the expectation of that position requires a great deal of leadership in my eyes. Kendall had the experience of doing it here. She had that quality and that trait.”
The point guard position requires a lot of intangibles. It’s not enough to be skilled at getting the ball to your playmakers or to protect the ball and avoid turnovers. Successful point guards also know how to lead their team on both ends of the floor, something that makes them especially prepared for the technical basketball knowledge required of coaches.
“Since I was a point guard and I was able to command the offense and the defense, I think that is a great position to move to a coach,” Grasela said. “A lot of responsibility is on the point guard to step up and know what your coaches like. I think that will translate into my ability to help coach and be an asset because I was in that position where I was facilitating the offense [and] where I was keeping the team camaraderie up.”
There’s no doubt that Grasela’s mastery of the point guard position will help her, as she makes the jump into coaching. It will especially be useful in replacing a position previously held by a coach that specialized in working with guards. She will be able to pass along the same strategies that she learned studying under Anna Ross and that she utilized in her two years as Penn’s starter.
It’s not just that Grasela succeeded as a point guard. She didn’t play college basketball just anywhere — she played it at Penn. Her success came while donning the same red and blue uniforms that will be worn by those she’s coaching.
“I think in Kendall’s situation, she lived what it’s like to be a Penn women’s basketball player and student,” Carideo said. “When you put both those variables together, it’s just instant respect and credibility.”
Her on-court success isn’t the only thing that will give her credibility. Her off-the-court achievements have earned her just as much respect. Grasela graduated from an undergraduate nursing program that ranks among the best in the country, frequently juggling eight-hour clinical shifts with the demands of a Division I basketball season. She handled the seemingly impossible balance required of Ivy League student-athletes, serving as a perfect resource for the players she’s about to mentor.
“I feel like it’s nice to have someone that’s done it on your coaching staff because they can relate to the players and what they’re going through,” Grasela said. “I went to Penn, I was a student-athlete there, and now I am coming back as a coach, and I have maybe a different perspective because I went through all of that.”
Grasela will be working with a talented group of players in her first season on the job. The Quakers were picked to finish second in the Ivy League in the 2021 Ivy League Women’s Basketball Preseason Media Poll and received three first-place votes.
Leading the charge on the court this season will be junior captain Kayla Padilla, who played alongside Grasela in the 2019-2020 season. Padilla, a talented shooter who averaged 17.4 points per game in her freshman campaign, directly benefited from her backcourt partner’s pass-first play style. She also looked toward Grasela as a role model and resource.
“She was one of the main people, when I came here as a freshman, who really taught me the ropes in terms of learning the system and really being a good example of how to be a Penn basketball player,” Padilla said. “Now she can continue to do that with a bigger impact as a coach.”
Coaching the same players that she competed with just two years ago and one season ago is a special opportunity that Grasela hasn’t taken for granted. At practice, she often catches herself after exciting plays, remembering that she’s now their coach, not their teammate.
“Sometimes I get super excited,” Grasela said. “I almost feel like I’m out there again with them.”
Grasela brings to coaching a level of experience and poise that is advanced for someone as new to the field as she is. Her technical basketball knowledge, as well as her familiarity with McLaughlin’s coaching style and scheme, will help her to make an immediate impact. There are still some hurdles though. As was the case in her playing career, Grasela will have to spend time learning the ins and outs of coaching.
But that doesn’t mean her first year will be restricted to watching McLaughlin and the other assistants lead the charge. Grasela will carve out her own niche on the team this season, one where her relatability with the players will be an asset.
“Now [she’s] involved in a coaches’ meeting and she’s seeing that in a different eye, and that requires a little bit of time,” McLaughlin said. “For now, I think the easy thing for her is relationship-building. She played with many of these players, and there [are] a lot of new players in the program who were not here when she was here. The simple thing is getting out there on the floor with them early and shooting with them and building that relationship and that trust.”
Those that have coached Grasela have always known that she had the potential to be a great coach herself. Her leadership on the court, as well as her ability to mentor younger players and help them make the transition to college basketball, were intangibles that not every player possesses. For Grasela, they’re second nature.
“There are certain players that you coach that you kind of feel that they could translate to really help teach and mentor and grow our girls,” Carideo said. “When I had the ability to coach her, she was just one of those players, the way that she saw the game, the way that she approached the game, she could really get into coaching.”
The Ivy League has a longstanding rule that allows schools only two full-time assistant coaches and one volunteer. The rule has made it challenging at times for the Quakers, and other Ivy teams, to fill those volunteer positions with candidates that could make a measurable difference in the program.
When Carideo joined the Penn program prior to the 2019-20 season, she brought a wealth of basketball experience. Her career to that point had included stints as an assistant coach for the men’s team at Jefferson University and as the head women’s coach for Penn State Abington, where she was NEAC Coach of the Year.
Her September departure, which came late in the Penn offseason, left a hole that many thought would be difficult to fill. Carideo, though, knew exactly who was right for the job. A few phone calls later, and Penn women’s basketball had what McLaughlin repeatedly called a “home run.”
“I’m not just giving you coach speak,” McLaughlin said. “To fit someone as a volunteer, that’s why it’s a home run … it’s a perfect match for both of us. I couldn’t be any more excited that she’s back for us.”
Penn women’s basketball is currently in the heat of its preseason. After only a few more weeks of practicing and scrimmaging, the team will travel to Hartford to tip off their season against the Hawks. The game will be the team’s first since March, 2020, when Grasela was still the team’s starting point guard.
This season, Grasela’s role will look different. She won’t be taking the ball down the court and looking to feed it to Padilla for an open three. Instead, she’ll be on the sideline, taking notes and checking in with the players.
But Grasela doesn’t mind. In fact, she’s embraced her new opportunity and is prepared to savor every minute of her return to her alma mater.
“When basketball ended … I wanted to stay involved in any way I could,” Grasela said. “So, this opportunity to coach at Penn is a dream.”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.