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Women's basketball coach Mike Mclaughlin prepares for the game on the sideline while the team practices before the game against Stetson on Dec. 8, 2019. Credit: Son Nguyen

The Penn women’s basketball season is right around the corner, and nobody is quite sure what to expect. The Quakers, along with the rest of the Ivy League, did not compete during the 2020-2021 season. As a result, it has been difficult to forecast exactly how the Ancient Eight will shape up in the 2021-22 season. 

With Penn’s season opener at Hartford only weeks away, The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with coach Mike McLaughlin to see what can be expected from the team this year. 

The questions and answers below have been edited for clarity.  

Having missed an entire season due to the pandemic, what has your focus been during this preseason as you prepare for the return to competition?

It’s been great; I think we’re back in a normal mode. What we’ve been concentrating on a lot in the beginning, especially the first three weeks of practice, are just fundamentals. We skipped some steps along the way, not being able to have these kids here a lot last year, so we just wanted to make sure that we worked fundamentally on all their games. 

The last couple weeks, as we start to get closer, we’re focusing more on our style of play, how we’re going to run offense and how we’re going to execute on the defensive side. We’ve been doing a little bit of everything all along. 

But really, the focus the past couple of weeks has been more on the back end; getting this team as confident and prepared to play games coming up here. [We’re] trying to have them see as many plays [while] playing with each other, and [that] has really been the focus. It’s been going well; I’m really happy with our progress. 

On-court, veteran leaders like Kendall Grasela and Eleah Parker are no longer in the program, and there are a lot of younger players in their place. What are some of the things about this year’s team that might differ from the teams led by those players?

I think you touched on both of them that are really important. Your front-end of your defense and your front-end of your offense, and your back-end of your defense and your back-end of your offense, are two different people. So that’s been a little bit of the learning curve, I think, trying to play a style without a back-end stopper like Eleah was for three, four years here.

And for Kendall, [we’re replacing] a four-year player and two-year starter [who] played a ton of basketball here [and] who was an elite level defender and a true point guard that can handle the team. So, two really critical spots, [and] your front-end of both of them is going to be different. 

The style of play may be different…we’ve played a style that has been successful and that has won, so we’re trying to look at this group and what they can do, but also not run away from a style that’s been successful. 

Kayla Padilla had a big role on the team as a freshman two years ago, eventually doing enough to win 2020 Ivy league Rookie of the Year. She’s back and figures to be a leader on the team; how do you see her taking steps forward this year?

I think she did it herself. She’s a better player in terms of where she was freshman year. She’s a stronger player. She’s physically stronger, her first step is very explosive, she can score multiple ways, [and] she has game experience. You can see it; you can sense the jump in maturity as a basketball player and the confidence. 

And her role’s changing. We do need her to lead this group. Last time she played, she had Kendall Grasela, Phoebe Sterba, Eleah [Parker], Tori Crawford…she had older kids that she could just be her. Now we’re asking her to be her as she helps younger kids grow. It’s a great process, it’s a great step, and it’s natural. 

She’s gifted in a lot of ways: she’s a quiet leader, she leads by example, [and] she’s very poignant in her leadership skills and very direct. So, I think you’ll see a lot of through Kayla, around Kayla, and with Kayla. I think it’s a good starting point for this group as we continue to grow out as a unit. 

One of the younger players that Kayla has worked with is freshman guard Lizzy Groetsch. What has that relationship looked like this preseason?

You definitely hit that, because we put the kids with mentors throughout the last year when we didn’t have a whole lot of ability to play. Lizzy coming in as a freshman, we always put them with someone else that can help them navigate Penn and navigate the program [and] what the expectations are. Kayla happened to be someone that was assigned to Lizzy.

They’ve done really well. Lizzy is – I don’t know how much you recall [former Penn guard] Ashley Russell – just a physically tough kid. You’re going to get the ultimate effort every time she steps on the floor, and I think that’s an unbelievable starting point for any kid. She has very good talent, she’s playing the point guard position, which is a position where you need someone that’s really going to grind it out and play and be consistent on the effort every day, and she certainly has that. 

Kayla’s helped her through that. I think Lizzy is a good fit for us. She’ll play this year, she’ll impact us in quite a few ways, and I think the future is very bright for her. 

Another returning starter who will be a leader for this team is senior Kennedy Suttle. How has her game changed and evolved over the offseason as she prepares to take on a bigger role? 

Kennedy’s someone that just dictates the effort. She’s another one like Lizzy, where you always know what you’re getting every day. She is one of the better offensive rebounders that have been here for years— Kennedy's not one that’s going to offensive rebound by pure size and length, [but] she has a nose for the ball, and that’s a pretty unbelievable trait. 

Sometimes it’s an uncoachable trait, and she just attracts the ball. Our last two scrimmages, she probably had 12+ offensive rebounds. Kennedy is someone that’s been pretty good in that area her whole career. What I’ve seen and what I really like with her now in her new role is that we need her to put the ball in the basket a little bit more. 

Last time we played, she was playing alongside Eleah, alongside Tori Crawford, and we needed her to track down balls. Now we need her to add to her offensive repertoire. She’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter, she’s more efficient in all her offensive moves, [and] she’s done great. Her leadership on the floor [and] her effort is contagious. She’s off to a phenomenal start. I expect really big things out of her for sure. 

There are two classes of players who have not yet played college basketball. In that past, there have been players like Kayla who have been ahead of the curve and able to contribute immediately. What players have a chance to do that this year?

Jordan Obi is going to be a very good player. She’s a sophomore; she was here for the second half of last year. She hasn’t played a college game yet, but this kid is going to be pretty good. She can score it multiple ways, she’s physically gifted. 

You’re going to see her right out there with her name called. She’s going to be right in that starting group, and I think she’s going to be someone we’re going to be talking a lot about. That’s how confident I am that she's going to impact us greatly. 

Giving credit to the culture you’ve built in the program, historically, your teams have been very cohesive and have bonded well on and off the court. What has it been like to see this team start to bond now that you’re back together?

I appreciate you saying and asking that because it’s so important. You’re in class every day, and you see these kids that are athletes, and it’s challenging on them. They’re competing at the highest level and they’re also going to one of the best academic schools, so I do appreciate this. We’ve done a lot of the same, but we’ve had to do it differently in some regards. 

We had more Zoom meetings and virtual team bonding. We had a few players that were freshmen that didn’t even come to Penn because they couldn’t visit during the pandemic. Their first day of Penn in orientation was their first day at Penn, so we had that dynamic… [we’re] trying to intermingle all these new players with a veteran group that understands the power of a culture and connectivity.

We have been consistent with how we’ve done it, but prior to actually seeing everyone in August, we had to do it a little differently, and I think we’re off to a good start…I think the culture is vital for success when you hit that adversity wall, that you have someone to lean on and talk to and go through it, and we’re still growing and I think growing a group together just never ends. I love the group that we have.