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Junior forward Floor Toonders puts up a shot against Dartmouth during the game at the Palestra on Jan. 14. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

A long way from Philadelphia, in Sopron, Hungary, Floor Toonders is right where she belongs: At the center of things.

As captain of Team Netherlands at the 2022 U20 FIBA Women’s Basketball European Championships, Toonders has a unique weight on her shoulders. She carries not just the hopes of her team, but the hopes of a nation. And yet, despite the pressure of her position, Toonders feels most comfortable in the middle of the action, making a difference for her team and teammates.

“I saw a leader,” Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin, who traveled to Sopron to scout Toonders last summer, said. “I saw someone who had the intangibles, who made those around her better. She had everything I was looking for.”

Since then, Toonders has done nothing but prove McLaughlin right. She anchors a Penn women’s basketball team that is currently one game out of first place in the Ivy League, with her most noticeable contributions coming on defense. Toonders leads the conference with 25 blocked shots, and has led the Quakers to the second-lowest opponent scoring average. But for Toonders, the team stat is the more important one.

“I feel like it’s good if I can help off with who I’m defending and help my teammates, so they can put more pressure on the three-point line,” Toonders said. “I can stay in the paint and help whenever I can.”

As the last line of defense between opposing players and the basket, the fate of a possession often lies in Toonders’ hands. She will determine whether Penn gets a stop or allows a basket. And over the course of a game, these can be the difference between a win and a loss. In an ocean of outcomes, Toonders is often the wave that turns the tide.

But after leading for so long, after moving from her home in Wageningen, Netherlands to Amsterdam to play basketball at just 14, after representing her country on the international stage, Toonders would not have it any other way.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Junior forward Floor Toonders congratulates senior guard Kayla Padilla during the game against Columbia at the Palestra on Jan. 7.

“Of course [there is pressure]” Toonders said. “It’s an important position, and we need to make sure not to give them any second chances, so rebounding is also really important. There’s pressure, but it’s good pressure.”

Toonders ranks fourth in the Ivy League in rebounds, a stat where Princeton’s Ellie Mitchell leads the conference. Mitchell and the Tigers represent the most glaring blemish on Penn’s conference record: a 55-40 defeat where Princeton’s offensive game plan centered on taking Toonders away from the basket. 

“[Princeton] ran a lot of action to get her out of the paint,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of high ball screens, trying to pull her away. We were definitely not as strong without her in there.”

That tactic led to a flurry of easy baskets for the Tigers. They outscored Penn in the paint, and it was one of only two Ivy League games in which Toonders has failed to record a block. The game served as a reminder of the inevitable difficulties that come with rim protection, but it also proved just how valuable Toonders had become in just her first season with the team.

Toonders spent the first two years of her collegiate career at Florida, but transferred at the end of her sophomore year. That was what brought McLaughlin to Sopron, where he was immediately impressed with Toonders’ unique combination of size, basketball IQ, and leadership, to the point where he knew he could trust her with ample responsibility the moment she donned the Red and Blue. Toonders has done nothing but take advantage, and fits perfectly on the team.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil Junior forward Floor Toonders plays defense on Cornell's Emily Pape during the game at the Palestra on Jan. 6.

“I’ve had a lot of freedom,” Toonders said. “I’m doing more of what I like to do, like how I want to play. There’s a lot of confidence, and I like to play with my teammates.”

At the foundation of Toonders’ defensive philosophy is one principle: verticality. She says that, when defending the paint, she just tries “to stay up straight, and maybe block some shots.” 

McLaughlin added that Toonders’ ability to contest vertically without fouling was one of the first things he noticed about her game. When an opposing player is barreling down the lane toward her, Toonders said that the only thing on her mind is, “Don’t foul! Stay up straight! Don’t foul!”

That mindset has paid dividends for the Ivy League’s most formidable rim protector, but more importantly, it has produced results for her team. Ever the leader, Toonders’ goals for the rest of the season have nothing to do with her own accolades, but the heights of the unit she is so very central to.

“The Tournament,” Toonders said. “And then, champions. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Only time will tell if Penn accomplishes its final objective. But with Toonders in the fold, the Quakers can handle the pressure.