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Coach Mike McLaughlin speaks to players from the sidelines during last season's game against Harvard at the Palestra on Jan. 29. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Next Sunday, Nov. 13, Penn women’s basketball tips off for its first non-exhibition game this season. The promising roster, headed by coach Mike McLaughlin, is hoping to return to a winning conference record after finishing 7-7 against the Ancient Eight last year.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with McLaughlin for his thoughts on the upcoming season.

Having just missed a trip to the Ivy League Tournament last season, what improvements are you focusing on to make the trip happen this upcoming March?

I think we had a really productive summer. I thought that the culture was phenomenal and the connections between the girls is awesome. We tried to build the culture strong. I thought this group we had last year got so much better as the year went on — we just ran out of time. We have to hit the ground a little bit quicker running when we get into Ivy League play than we did a year ago.

I think we developed slowly, we lacked a little size around the baskets, and we weren’t as strong as we wanted to be. We had good individual players, we just didn't have the size to push the ball back out in the middle. 

Our offensive game got better and better as the year went on. So I think we can put everything together a little bit faster. This is a difficult, challenging league with talented players, and we all have incredible student-athletes, but this group here I really like. They care, they’re dedicated, they work their butts off, and they’re a great group to work with.

The Ivy League preseason media poll ranked Penn at fifth — but with Yale’s star player Camilla Emsbo suffering a season-ending injury, do you think Penn shapes up better than fifth?

I have been first in that poll many times, I have been second, I have been eighth — I honestly really don’t pay much attention. I think much of that has to do with where the team finished a year prior. It doesn’t really deviate or change for what we want out of that. I think that is more of people putting schools on paper and we should be where they put us, if you’re looking at last year.

Our goal is to continue to narrow the gap and get into the top four. I think that is all eight team’s goals and we are just one of eight trying to accomplish the same thing. You can’t win a championship until you get into [the top four].

Floor Toonders is a new face on the team. What have you seen from her so far, and what should we expect?

Incredible maturity on the floor, high basketball IQ, and a phenomenal teammate. In terms of on-the-floor, she’s an excellent screen-setter, she does an amazing job slipping, and she is really productive with the ball. I am expecting a lot of minutes out of her. I am trying to develop her a little more defensively to get her where we need her to be, but I think you’re going to get a really mature, not phased by anything, well-rounded basketball player.

This season there’s a very special connection on the roster — sisters Sydnei and Saniah. What have you seen of their relationship as both teammates and sisters so far?

It’s awesome. I haven’t coached sisters here at Penn. I’ve coached sisters in the past where I coached Killion, my assistant, and her sister at the same time when I was at Holy Family University. But this is the first time I have had sisters in a long time.

You won’t even know it out on the floor. You can see the connectivity, you can see the big sister-little sister energy. There was an incident where Saniah went down a little bit in practice — hit the floor with an injury and she’s coming off an ACL injury — and Sydnei was the first one to fly over. 

I told their parents how special it is to have both of them on the court at the same time at one of the best schools in the world. If you would have asked for that when they were two or three years old, you probably would have thought it was a dream. Now the dream is a reality. I want them to really savor this next five months together on the court.

With a decent-sized incoming class size of six players, I’m sure an adjustment period has been crucial. How have you been making sure that they are well-prepared for collegiate play?

They are each different. They each process, grow, and learn differently. To make sure they are comfortable in their own skin and comfortable on the floor with their teammates is important. I also want to challenge them and put them in adverse situations on the basketball floor — that’s life. 

There are a lot of moving parts. For example, they went to school this morning, they just finished up their practice, now they’re going into the weight room, they shower, and then they have to get back to class. To try and help them slow down a little bit when needed, to help them stay balanced and focused, is important for Penn basketball and life after Penn.

Kayla Padilla and Jordan Obi were the team’s leading scorers last season. What can fans expect from them this season?

Kayla has been special on and off the floor. Her last year at Penn is going to be the best yet — I can just feel it. She is determined to get the team to the Ivy League playoffs, she’s fun to watch, she’s great to be around, and a great role model. 

Jordan is sponging off Kayla’s on-the-floor ability. Jordan is incredibly talented but one of the things I am most excited about is the way they are playing together. The year together has helped them. They are both individually special players but together they are even better, and I see that this year. They really started to come together late last year and I am excited to watch that growth unfold.

How have the roles of graduated seniors like Kennedy Suttle and Mia Lakstigala, who contributed so much to Penn’s success last season, been filled?

They each had such an impact on the team. I couldn’t take them off the floor; they were so ready to play at the end of last year and I miss them. They set a pretty good bar for us. They were professional kids that knew what it was like to compete everyday.

But I think you would have to ask the players. They see things a little differently. As a freshman, when you’re watching a senior, you’re seeing things that maybe I am not seeing. Our seniors are looking for employment while our freshmen are just trying to survive. This is what you have in college — 18- to 22-year-olds at different spots of their lives. So I am sure there are lessons in there that I can’t share, but [the freshman] are probably watching and looking out for them. That’s the interesting thing about college sports, players are in different phases of their lives trying to mesh together.

What are you most excited about after witnessing the team bond all pre-season?

Growth. I am excited to play a full season without interruptions. I am excited to see the team succeed. I am excited to help them navigate through adversity. I want them to represent Penn and I just want to see them give everything they have to school, the program, and whoever is watching. I don’t have any personal goals for myself — I just want to see them succeed.