Imagine this: it’s your sophomore year. You and your team have secured the second seed in the conference standings. You’re getting ready to play in the coveted conference tournament in hopes of reclaiming the title.
And then the whole world shuts down.
Months pass. Hopes for a season grow, and you’re itching to play some basketball again. You’re so close to tip-off. And then, a public statement shuts down your season before it even begins.
That’s the story of so many collegiate athletes last year — including Penn women's basketball's very own senior guard Mia Lakstigala.
For Lakstigala, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily affected what was supposed to be a collegiate career spent competing for the Ivy League title. Instead, the last time she played a full season of basketball was in the 2018-19 season — when she was just a freshman.
Even with the pandemic carrying on in the background, Lakstigala didn’t just spend all of that time watching TikToks and learning on Zoom. She used that time to improve as a player, so that when it was finally time to play for the Quakers again, she would be ready.
“I was able to work a lot individually,” she said. “I really tried to just go to the gym and work on my ball handling and improve my shot.”
Lakstigala also got the chance to work on her game with a future teammate: sophomore forward Jordan Obi. Both had moved to California around the same time.
While a move is usually stressful and full of uncertainties, the move for Lakstigala — from her home state of Illinois across the country to California — was a great opportunity to bond with Obi before they went to Penn. They also used the opportunity of having teammates nearby to improve their game.
“We were able to go to the parks and play pickup against guys. And I think them being stronger and faster really helped me improve my game,” Lakstigala said.
The pickup games, however, pale in comparison to playing alongside her teammates in the Palestra, as the Quakers try to reclaim the Ivy League title in her senior season.
“This year has been really nice to finally wear a Penn jersey again,” Lakstigala said. “It’s really helped me value every single game because nothing is guaranteed, so now I have a whole new perspective on being grateful for every time I get to play.”
Lakstigala had missed out on the entirety of her junior year. Now, as a senior, she has seen a significant increase in minutes.
Within the opening games of the season, Lakstigala has seen career highs in several categories. On Nov. 26 against University of California San Diego, she logged a career-high in minutes with 35. On Nov. 14, in Penn's season opener against Hartford, Lakstigala scored a career-high 18 points.
Going from playing zero minutes last year to playing with significant minutes this season has certainly been a transition — but definitely a fun one. Lakstigala cites her teammates as a major factor behind her success this year.
Over her four years as a Quaker, she has had the chance to create lifelong bonds with her teammates and watch them grow as people and players.
“It’s really been great to see everyone just grow so much – not just on the basketball court, but as individuals as well. We’re all super close, so we’re all each other’s number one’s supporters. When one person does well, it feels like an accomplishment for everyone.”
Her bond with her teammates is something that she greatly cherishes about her time at Penn. Her relationships with her teammates are what makes being on the basketball team even more special. Without these strong bonds, the team’s tournaments to exciting places like Hawaii — which she described as her favorite trip as part of the team — and California wouldn’t be as memorable and exciting.
Outside of her teammates, Lakstigala cites her family as making her into the person and player that she is today. She grew up surrounded by basketball and played from a very young age. Additionally, Lakstigala grew up in a basketball family: her father played basketball for the University of Iowa and was her assistant coach in high school.
The Lakstigala family has always been very supportive of her career. She says that her family makes sure to watch all of her games online, because they can’t be there in-person.
With everyone rallying behind her, Lakstigala is ready for what faces her next. Most importantly, she’s getting ready for the next step in her journey: New York City. Lakstigala will be moving there after graduation. While she’s nervous about the future, she’s excited for this next chapter.
But first thing is first: there’s an Ivy League title to win.
“It took a lot of hard work and dedication [to win the Ivy League regular season in 2019], so we’re trying to emulate that same type of drive each day, whether it’s at practice or just getting work in ourselves. We all try to work hard to achieve that goal of winning the Ivy League,” Lakstigala said. “If we just continue to grow and do what we’re doing, I think we’ll have a really good chance.”