With Penn women’s basketball soon to tip off its 2023-24 season, coach Mike McLaughlin’s optimism is surging high. Embarking on his 15th season at the helm, McLaughlin looks to best the success that improved the team from 7-7 to 9-5 against Ivy opponents last season.
Less than two weeks ahead of the Quakers' season opener against Marist, the Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with McLaughlin about the season ahead.
The team had a big turnaround last season, clinching its first Ivy Madness berth in four years. What improvements are you focusing on to replicate this success?
We’ve certainly grown. [Last year's team] really matured as the year went on, obviously being led by Kayla [Padilla] — she set the tone. But I'm excited about this group. We have a lot of younger, inexperienced players led by [current senior forwards] Jordan Obi or [Floor] Toonders with great experience. I'm excited to watch the team grow. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we're going to hopefully land, and I want them to understand that it’s a process to get there, and every day is really important for the growth of the program. But we're off to a good start. This [year's team] is a hard-working and compassionate group. We really care about success.
How have different players on the team stepped up to fill Padilla’s role?
Obi has been absolutely terrific from her growth over her career, but she particularly had an amazing offseason. She looks so much better as a player, so much more mature on the floor, and she has become a great leader. I think she's the one who took that step up with her ability and her leadership.
I think [junior guard] Lizzy Groetsch has really grown mentally. The first two years didn't really go her way in terms of making a big impact, but I'm really confident in her this year. Her work ethic in the offseason is second to none. She's off to a great start, and I expect her to be a big factor for us this year. [Sophomore guard] Simone Sawyer has also really grown from her freshman year, and we have some younger kids that are skilled and talented. That may take some time, but I like their potential.
There were almost two versions of the team last Ivy season: one that secured dominant wins, and one that experienced double-digit losses. How is the team working to be more consistent this year?
Some of that you have to take each game a little separate. I thought we played really well at times, then we played against some really good teams where there were certain areas we struggled in, which created a little bit of separation.
Consistency is always tough in this work because it's based on your opponent. Sometimes you’re doing the same thing, but you could get a different result because of the talent of the other team. But this team has been consistent. We’ve practiced hard every day; we've got a pretty good routine. Hopefully that will pay dividends.
How have the new faces on the team been acclimating to the collegiate level?
Mataya Gayle is a freshman who is going to have probably the biggest impact: she'll be the one we're going to hand the ball to; she's going to be our point guard. It's a tough challenge for any freshman to be in that role and [have] that responsibility, but she's gifted. She's a very quick kid, she can score multiple ways, and she's got a great confidence in her. We're going to use her natural ability to move us forward. I'm excited for people to watch her; I think she is going to be a really fun player to follow.
[Freshman guard] Abby Sharpe has the chance to be a very good player at Penn. She's going through this learning curve like any other kid, but I'm excited to watch her [improve] from day to day, because she has growth that she needs to make. But I am confident in the next month or so [that] she's going to be much further along.
There’s even a new face on the sidelines with Andre Gibbs joining as an assistant coach. What impact has he made on the team already?
He's been awesome. When we talked about bringing [Gibbs] in, we knew he’d be a natural fit. He's got high energy, loves the game, he's from the area, and he really understands Penn and what we're trying to get at. He’s a great fit, culturally. We have a couple coaches with young children, and he adds to that — he has a one-year-old himself. What a great fit at the right time, for all of us.
Which non-conference game do you think will serve as the team’s biggest test before Ivy play begins?
There's quite a few of them. Obviously, we’ll play Villanova and St. Joe's pretty quickly. They're both going to be really, really good teams; I think St. Joe's will have a chance to win the Atlantic 10 this year.
I love the trips that we go on too. Going out to California, we get to be together, mature, and grow as a group, and get the experience that we need. I'm looking forward to that. We do have a challenge going out to Marquette, but we have different phases of the schedule that I am excited about.
I’m just trying to prepare our team and get ready from day one, so looking too far ahead is not where we want to be. They're going to have bad times, they’re going to have great moments. It's just important that we grow from each experience.
What are you most excited to witness this season?
I want to see them mature. I put them in environments that help them grow.
I really do think Michaela, Jordan, Floor — our three seniors — have been amazing. They want to win, but they need these younger players to develop in order to win. So I'm really excited to watch that meshing. They can’t get to where they want to go without helping these kids’ experience. I love to see that natural growth. It doesn't pay dividends all the time right away, but I'm confident that the three seniors will help nourish the younger players — not just themselves.