Captains can be quiet and lead by example, or be loud and vocal — Mandy McGurk of Penn women's basketball is the latter.
The senior point guard is coming off of a 2021-22 season filled with numerous career-bests — 108 points, 50 rebounds, 35 assists, and 31 steals — earning her the co-captain title this season alongside fellow senior guard Kayla Padilla. But for McGurk, such a stat line didn’t come easy.
As a result of COVID-19, all Ivy League winter sports were canceled and McGurk missed out on the entirety of her sophomore season, which she considers the biggest setback of her career.
“Freshman to sophomore year is usually a huge year for growth,” McGurk said. “You are stepping out of that rookie season and plan to have a bigger role. But we didn’t have a season my sophomore year, so it was difficult for the team to gauge our improvement as we weren’t playing against anyone. The same goes for me. I was having trouble gauging if I was improving my sophomore season and what that would amount to.”
But numbers don’t lie, and they certainly indicate improvement.
McGurk jumped from the 12th to the fifth-highest scorer on the team her freshman to junior year, with her points per game average improving to 4.9 points per game from 1.1. This past season also saw her role in the starting lineup become solidified as she started 17 of the 22 games she played — averaging 22.9 minutes per game.
So what changed? How did McGurk transform into the team’s on-the-court leader? Well, she attributes much of her success to the mentorship from former assistant coach and former Quaker Kendall Grasela.
“Kendall Grasela was a volunteer coach last year, and she’s been my biggest mentor since freshman year,” McGurk said. “She was the person I always looked up to and the person my coaches always told me to look at on the court. I don’t think we have similar playing styles, but I think all the intangibles she used to bring to the court like leadership, assists, and defense are things I’m working on and things I still want to achieve while I’m here.”
Grasela also assumed the point guard position during her time with the Red and Blue, and became the person McGurk looked up to — literally.
The four-inch height difference between the two constitutes for their differing playing styles. But just because McGurk isn't as tall as Grasela, doesn’t mean she can't make up for her size in other ways.
“I was a very pass-first point guard,” Grasela said. “She’s a lot shorter than I am, and I think when you are smaller, you have to be a really good passer. If someone is taller than you, they can deflect a lot of your passes so you have to get really crafty with how you deliver the ball. So that was my major emphasis with her.”
The two worked on using size as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. They honed in on perfecting new passing techniques and angles to deal with the size aspect. McGurk’s boosted aggressiveness on the court helped her both run the team and dictate much of the opposing team’s play. Grasela also focused on building her on-the-court presence.
“[Point guard] is one of the most important positions on the floor because you are the coach’s mind out on the court,” Grasela said. “You are running what the coach wants you to run and have to make sure everyone is in the correct position. I focused on trying to build her [McGurk's] confidence. She is an amazing shooter, she can pass it, and she can make it to the basket — she can do a little bit of everything. A lot of the spotlight falls on our higher scorers, but she can turn it on whenever she needs to.”
Since point guard is such a vocal position, McGurk spent the offseason developing her on-court leadership abilities. She worked on understanding coach Mike McLaughlin better in ways such as getting into his mind a bit more, knowing what he is going to say before it is said, understanding what kind of call he might make, or translating his calls to her teammates on the floor.
Now commanding the team as co-captain in her last season as a Quaker, her evolved leadership skills will be of the utmost importance, along with cherishing every moment.
“Even now, I don’t feel like I am done with the sport,” McGurk said. “I definitely want to continue to play after college in some type of adult league or anything of that sort. If I am in the position to coach in any way, even if it is just a volunteer opportunity considering that here at Penn we do a lot of volunteer coaching opportunities, I’d also want to do that.”
Being a Quaker is a dream come true for the West Chester, Pa. native. McGurk grew up in a basketball family and attended Penn basketball games often. She was immediately thrown into the sport from the moment she could grasp the ball.
The upcoming season with her Red and Blue family will be bittersweet, but with her eyes set on an Ivy League championship title, McGurk hopes to extend her time on the court beyond the 27 regular season games.