Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
For nearly two years, Penn has been a powerhouse on pause.
Under the direction of Mike McLaughlin, brought on before the 2009-10 season, the Quakers women’s basketball team have become a perennial contender in the Ivy League, winning titles in 2014, ‘16, ‘17 and ‘19. They were the No. 2 seed in the 2020 Ivy League playoffs when COVID shut the hoops world down, and the Ancient Eight was the only league to take a full pass on the 2020-21 season.
So the Penn women’s roster will look mighty different this fall compared to the last time the Quakers’ took the court March 7, 2020 for a 51-36 win at Columbia. Not one of the 11 juniors and seniors who were on the roster two years ago are still at the school, including Eleah Parker (12.0 ppg/8.2 rpg), Phoebe Sterba (10.4 ppg/4.6rpg) and Tori Crawford (6.9 ppg).
However, the team’s leading scorer, then-freshman Kayla Padilla (17.4 ppg) is back for her junior season.
CoBL spoke to McLaughlin in July for an update on his squad, how they handled the year off, and his early thoughts about 2021-22 as his program begins its preparations for the fall. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
Penn coach Mike McLaughlin (above) and the Quakers sat out the entire 2020-21 season. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos)
City of Basketball Love: Thanks for taking time to speak with us today, Mike. How’ve you been lately?
Mike McLaughlin: We’ve been good. Today starts the women’s recruiting cycle, so I’m leaving to go recruit; first live recruiting we’ve been able to do in the better part of 16 months. So everything’s good, program’s doing well. We dealt with some challenges, obviously, not competing last year and trying to keep the program healthy in a talent standpoint as well as a mental standpoint has been the focus of everything we’ve done, to make sure that going forward we’re in a position to compete as best we could.
CoBL: Let’s take it back to March 2020. Pandemic hits, Ivy League gets shut down. What was your focus on the first couple weeks of the shutdown, what were you thinking in terms of a timeline?
MM: Just to provide some color, we were literally in the locker room, one day from departing for the Ivy League tournament up at Harvard, and we were ready to go and we got word from our AD that she wanted to speak directly to Steve [Donahue] and I, we were the first league to cancel the playoff season. So I think the emotions of that, a lot of teams and schools and programs had to deal with the same thing. It was just that, it was really a day-to-day thing. I had four seniors who just found out their careers were over on a call, out of their control. We were sitting really well, we’d played really well up to that point, we were going into the tournament the No. 2 seed, we’d already clinched a WNIT bid, and then they found out the season was over.
So to me, the first couple weeks, the first couple days and hours were really to make sure they were in the right spot, and then we just kind of built out from there. Obviously we tried to celebrate the best we could, that group; we left campus five days after that announcement, so we went a long time without seeing the players and seeing the seniors off. So that was emotionally difficult for a lot of people, not only them but their coaches and their teammates. We just had to pick up, we got to the summertime with the hope of coming back in the fall, we built up for that, and that also was taken away. It’s been an up-and-down roller coaster; we didn’t get our players back on campus until January, so we’ve had to work out without playing games, which was also different than we’ve ever experienced before.
We did the best we could; we had to create a new way of doing things that we consistently were able to do just because there was no competition, we wanted to keep the players engaged. Now fast-forward we’ve got five seniors who lost their entire senior year; they’re still working out with us, they chose to stay and finish their career the best way they could, on the practice court, they were amazing. There’s a lot of positive in this, hard as it was...we see the incredible character from the coaching staff to the players.
CoBL: Talking about your senior class, they’re obviously the ones who got the worst deal, ending their junior years that way and missing out their whole final season. When did you realize that was going to be the reality for them and what sorts of things did you do during the school year to make it somewhat memorable for them?
MM: The hardest thing was, this was a championship team. We had a lot of pieces back, we had five really strong seniors, we had the best player in the league, this team had won in 2019, we don’t know what the end of ‘20 would have been, so these kids were experienced and knew how to win. That’s the difficult part, I think they knew they were a championship team and who knows how that would go but we were definitely going to be in position to compete.
It was changing the wins. Doing things that we normally would win or lose by the scoreboard, we’d do it by challenges with each other, creative ways to unify a group. Really leaning on these five seniors that were done playing their career at Penn but were still working out with us, what they want out of it, the thoughts they had, how can we keep everybody engaged? I mention the word ‘character,’ I asked these five seniors to help our program go forward even without the following year, and to a person they all stood up and said ‘whatever we can do for the program.’ There was some incredible character checks on all of us, and I thought we came out amazingly well. But these seniors were special, I think going forward we have to get ready for next year and whoever’s seen Penn play over the years is going to see a whole new group. We had four seniors graduate in 2019-20 and five more that graduated this year, and we’re going to put a team out there that just doesn’t have the experience at all, so it’s going to be exciting, interesting, scary; I think it’s going to be a little bit of everything, but I have to say, I have to really commend these five seniors, they were just incredible, incredible people.
CoBL: We spoke with Steve Donahue a couple months ago, and they were in the same situation. He called it a ‘sabbatical’ and worked on himself as a coach, watched a lot of film and reviewed his own role in things. Did you do anything like that, some self-reflection?
MM: Yeah, I did, I found a lot of time watching; usually you’re so ingrained in what’s in front of you, preparing for the next practice, the next game. So I did have a chance, especially early on, to go back, and look back at some of the teams we had in 2014, ‘15, ‘16, looked at style of play, looked at adjustments that could be made with those groups, and those were championship groups. But there’s always a better way, I think, to continue to evolve.
So I did, I did what Steve did. I went back and looked at a lot of film, I watched a lot of other teams play, men and women, just because we had a little bit more time to do that. And looked at constantly improving myself and how I can be a better coach, be a better leader, how can I lead a group in a different scenario than I have in the past? We weren’t playing games, so how could I lead them differently? A lot of self-reflecting in the coaching, how I could be better at my job, how I could lead a group better. In hindsight, we might be better coaches at the end for this, hopefully find new ways to be successful.
Kayla Padilla (above) will be one of the major focal points for Penn this year after winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year in in 2019-20. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos)
CoBL: Any specific things that you noticed that you’ll be doing differently or trends you picked up on by watching extra film?
MM: Yeah, probably the last 6-7 years the way we’ve been built we’ve had pretty much one of the dominant big kids in the league; we’ve revolved through them a little bit. Graduated Sydney Stipanovich and then we have Michelle Nwokedi and now we just graduated Eleah Parker, so we’re fortunate, we had the best big kids the league could offer. So they’re not going to be here, someone of that caliber is not in line to replace them right now, so specifically looking at how we can play offense differently, it’s as simple as that. What scheme can we run when we’re not playing through a big player, and we’re playing more through our guards, what type of motion we can run. A little bit of tweaking the way we’ve done it just on personnel, and then trying to put together a system that best suits this team, and not something we run because that’s what Penn does. I do believe in consistency, but I’m also one that we need to change with our players.
Defensively, we’ve been pretty consistently good….probably top-20 in the country over the last seven years and a lot of it was the style of play, we’ll see how that style of play matches this group, to be determined, but being open to being flexible if need be.
CoBL: You can rely on X’s and O’s, but the intangibles really make a team. Speaking of your five seniors, what do you hope they taught the underclassmen that they’ll have to absorb and take into the season?
MM: I do think one of the success points we’ve had at Penn is that everyone talks about how great their culture is; I think you talk to every coach they say they have the greatest culture, but I believe it. We have incredible stability, we don’t have kids transferring in and out, it’s limited when that happens. So we’ve got to grow this group together, every player that comes in, we need to develop. We have four freshmen here this year who did not come to Penn until January. That’s pretty difficult for any transition, let alone a school like Penn.
When you ask your seniors that have experience, that have won, that have shown to be completely selfless people, to help these four get acclimated not only to the basketball program but to the university and everyone just sticks their hand up and asks ‘how can I help?’ I think that’s a pretty good indication of what inside the program looks like. I’ve been coaching 25 years of basketball. I’ve never seen a group just get everything taken away from them and then end up on top. I think that just tells you the type of people we are fortunate enough to coach. They led a group in adversity and I think that’s a sign of a winner when you can lead through adversity and they did that. These five — Eleah Parker, Tori Crawford, Michae Jones, Katie Kinum, Chrissy DiCindio — to me, are rockstars.
CoBL: Was it difficult to find that balance of wanting to give your then-seniors something on the court while also understanding that the future of your program is players who haven’t played a ton and needing to get them reps?
MM: I sat in with my coaches the entire time, asking that question over and over. How do you create a balance, right? You have five seniors that are out here for pure love of the game, and then you have four freshmen that are learning how to play the college game, let alone showing them how you want to do it your way. And then you have the group in the middle that have already heard that message and experienced it. But how do you accomplish the future and celebrate the now? It was a great challenge, but a fun challenge, and I think a very open dialogue. I brought my seniors in, I said ‘listen, I want to make this the best it possibly can be on the way out, how can we do it? But also help me intermingle these kids into the program like you were as a freshman. I think the challenge is in college basketball in general, when you have 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds, they’re in different parts of their lives. Now you throw a pandemic...and how do you accomplish all that? I asked them flat-out, what do you want to do, how do you want to do this? And these are the seniors that should have a voice, and they do have a voice in our program.
So I think what we really rallied around was to celebrate them, to help with the future and how we did it was just tried to make it as competitive as possible. We worked out like three days a week on the court and what we did was, on Thursdays we created a four-on-four league, where we broke it up to four teams of four and we would officiate it, put the clock on, and we made it competitive in that way. I think they were excited about that, and so we did keep score, and it was important, and we celebrated the winners, and we tried to teach the losers how to make it better.
CoBL: The 2018-19 season, you had lost three of your starters and half of your scoring production but still won an Ivy League title. Is there anything you learned from that season as you now have a group that lost its core from two years ago?
MM: The key to that group, we had Michelle Nwokedi and Anna Ross who won championships, but we also had some kids on that team that played roles; we had Princess Aghayere and we had Ashley Russell, that was a big part, Phoebe Sterba and we had Eleah Parker, so we came back with a little bit more experience, they learned how to win, they understood what it takes on a daily basis to win. And we had four or five experienced kids along with that group, meaning they played a role on that team. So now they had to take a bigger role and you have to hopefully mentor the younger kids to be ready when it’s their turn. It was similar, but a little bit different. This group that’s going to be returning last year, Kayla Padilla, who’s a very special player, Ivy League Rookie of the Year, First Team All-Ivy as a young kid, as a freshman, we have Kennedy Suttle and Mia Lakstigala they’re the only three who’ve played college basketball. We did bring in a transfer last year from Georgetown who had played, she practiced with us this year, and she’ll give us some experience. Outside of those four, we’re just going to be really inexperienced.
Senior wing Mia Lakstigala (above) is one of a number of Quakers who are going to have to take big steps forward from two years ago. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos)
CoBL: Who are some of the players who had smaller roles last year that you’re looking forward to seeing get more in the mix?
MM: Kayla, of course, is up front there. I think Kennedy Suttle, who played a very good role for us, and Mia Lakstigala, they’re both rising seniors here, they’re ones that would have had a good junior year...they would have really benefited their senior year, but not having that, they’re going to have to rise up to the top, because I’m going to have to really rely on them. I do think some younger players, we have a girl Faye Parker, she’s a bigger post player who played limited freshman year at best, and she looked like she’s progressed greatly in a year, so I’m excited about that. Silke Milliman, who will be a junior this year, who played a limited role her freshman year - it’s her turn to take the next step. There are pieces here, it’s just now about them taking ownership and letting them go. And I’m really going to be excited about what that looks like. This is my 12th year at Penn, I’ve only taken three transfers up until this year, we did take fourth one this year, coming in, so we do have someone who’s played two years of college basketball, from Arizona State, and I brought her (Sydnei Caldwell) in because she fits the criteria of Penn academically and she’s a phenomenal young lady but she’s also played college basketball, and I think that’s important for us to steer a little bit in that direction right now as we grow.
CoBL: Kayla had this incredible freshman year, and now she goes from All-Ivy, Freshman of the Year, and suddenly she’s a junior, upperclassman, which has its own set of expectations. Where do you want to see her take the biggest jump?
MM: You’re right, you get that two years of that underclassman tag, these are things that I was alluding to, now we’re just skipping steps. We had to skip a step, and automatically she’s an upperclassman. First of all, this kid, she’s an incredible girl. She’s from Los Angeles, she’s in Wharton, she’s a gifted student, she’s already started her own, similar to the Players Tribune, it’s called the Sideline Post. It’s for college athletes; she started it, she’s grown it, it’s incredible. I’m expecting her to be a really confident, strong leader and I know her work ethic and who she is and they all know how successful she is and going to be, she’ll be someone that people will gravitate to, to follow. I just need her to take the lead on that. I believe she’s going to be one of these special women who played here, not only on the court but off the court.
CoBL: Who are your newcomers?
MM: We have a kid, Lizzy Groetsch, who I think is going to be really special. She was 6A Player of the Year in the state of Pennsylvania, from North Allegheny High School. She’s a big, 5-11, physical, strong, tough, tough guard. I would expect Lizzy to come in Day One and make a massive contribution, whatever that may be, if it’s being a starting player or coming off the bench, I would expect name to be known pretty quickly. She just has it, she’s a winner and I think she’s the one I’m really excited about right out of the gate.
We have two international players, we have a girl Stina (Almqvist) from Sweden and we have a girl Sima (Visockaite), who actually went to school at Long Island Lutheran in New York, she’s a 6-2 post kid I’m really expecting her to come in and give us serious minutes right away. She’s from the Lithuanian national team, her dad was an Olympian basketball player who played in the ‘92 Olympics. We have Iyanna Rogers, who is a 6-2 post from Richmond, Va.; we have Marianna (Papazoglou) from Wildwood Catholic, who set all kinds of records at Wildwood Catholic. I think she’ll be a tough player here. So I do think we have some pieces coming in, and I think as I told them, we really need this group to come in and hit the ground running...we need contributions from younger players not only for the now, but for the future.
CoBL: You mentioned a couple international players joining the team; when was the last time you had an international presence on the squad and what kind of perspective do they bring to the program?
MM: Niki (Kovacikova), who’s here, who played two years at Georgetown, transferred to Penn, committed right as the season was shutting down for us last year. She just finished playing on the European national team, she’s from Slovakia, she was the youngest player on the team. She’s a good player, she’ll help us, she worked out with us, she’ll give us experience. We were hoping she’d play two years at Penn, but since she lost last year, she’ll only play this year with us; she can shoot the ball, take the ball to the basket, play the ‘1’ or the ‘2’, I’d expect her to play right away for us. Sima is a girl we had a chance to see play at Long Island Lutheran, one of the better programs, consistently top 25 in the country, so she’s played on a very good program, at the national level.
The style of play, I just think they’re good basketball players. I don’t want to label them the European-type kids at all, I just think they’re good players and we’ll find a fit for them in the way we play.
We’re competing in a league, top seven league in the country now, and Harvard, Princeton and Yale have brands that are at times hard to compete against on the recruiting front, especially when we’re involved with the same kid. Just to open up our window a little bit more to kinda see what else is there and I don’t know if this is going to be something we stay strong with, I like having and being able to recruit kids from around the world, Penn can attract any type of kids, so if it’s something that’ going to widen our base of recruiting, I’m certainly for it.
CoBL: Speaking of recruiting, what was it like to recruit a class entirely over Zoom, bringing in some girls who haven’t even seen campus yet. What was your take on it?
MM: It was so different; Lizzy I mentioned, we’d gotten an early commitment from her, she committed to us prior to the pandemic, Iyanna Rogers also committed earlier as well. But the other three, it was challenging. Trying to recruit kids without seeing them live and watching them compete and watching them interact, seeing their true size, their true toughness, it’s tough. Film hides a lot of things and it adds a lot of things, I guess, and we had to do the best we could. We originally handled the pandemic in the beginning that we were going to be very slow with the recruiting process, but the longer we stayed in it, we knew the window was not going to open for us to see these kids live. We had to basically do an audible: this is the landscape, this is what’s going to happen, let’s do the best we can in it because we’re not going to see these kids live. Zoom has been our way of players communicating with the recruits and we just had to completely adjust to the surroundings.
CoBL: To wrap things up, in terms of fall practices, based off everything you’ve seen from the spring and what you have coming back, what are the biggest focal points for the preseason?
MM: Just preparation. For our players to understand that everything I talked about with all the players leaving and coming, this is an opportunity. I want them to be prepared, the physical, conditioning piece of it, and that’s what I want them to be able to come in here. I don’t want them to come in here and feel everything out. Show that you’re ready to play. This program, right now, is not as experienced playing-wise as it’s been, and I think that will be an advantage for the younger players to take a spot, and that’s what I encourage them all to do. I’m excited, it’s different, but I’m excited to see what this group will look like when we get them all together and we can certainly see how that looks like as time goes on.