Mike McLaughlin (above) enters his 27th year as a college head coach. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Mike McLaughlin’s 27th year as a college basketball coach — though just the Penn women’s coach’s 26th season — started off a little differently than most. Early-season meetings always include some new faces, maybe a couple introductions, but typically everybody’s been on campus for a tour, a visit, a meeting, a summer class.
COVID, of course, changed all of that, especially for the Ivy League, the only Division I conference to cancel all athletics for the 2020-21 season. There were no visits, no tours, no on-campus meetings, even as McLaughlin and staff brought in a class of six freshmen and added a couple transfers. There were Zoom meetings and phone calls, but those aren’t the same.
So when his 2021-22 Quakers finally gathered this fall, it was the first meeting for many.
“The reality is,” McLaughlin said, “when you’re in your first team meeting with them, and...they’re seeing each other many times for the first time face-to-face, it was really funny, actually.”
“Both of the international girls — I’d just seen pictures of them, and I didn’t realize they were like, way taller [than I thought],” junior guard Kayla Padilla said, speaking of freshmen Sima Visockaite (Lithuania) and Stina Almqvist (Sweden).
“I’ve never seen it in my 27 years of coaching and maybe will never see it again,” McLaughlin added, “but for now, it was kind of cool.”
Fast-forward to mid-October, and Penn’s women are strangers no longer.
There have been numerous team meals, mostly in the school’s dining halls, with the occasional trip to Chipotle mixed in. A couple days spent with Navy SEAL Chris Howe, who works with Victory Road Leadership Development Group, helped the Quakers develop their bonds further through the use of ropes courses and other tasks designed to get them communicating, leading, and performing at a high level.
Finally getting on the court for fall practices hasn’t hurt either.
“I think we’ve definitely done a lot, we’ve already become really close on and off the court,” freshman guard Lizzy Groetsch said. “I think it’s just obvious with how focused and energetic all of our practices have been, we’re just trying to get better every day and just keep growing and learning.”
Team chemistry is going to be crucial if the Quakers are going to continue a stretch of success under McLaughlin, who guided D-II Holy Family to a 407-61 record in 14 seasons before taking over the Penn job in 2009-10.
Taking over a team that went just 2-26 (1-13 Ivy) in his first year, McLaughlin had the Quakers up to 18-13 (9-5) within three seasons and won the first of three Ivy League championships in 2013-14. They were Ivy League regular season champs in 2018-29 (24-7, 12-2) but had to settle for an NIT appearance after losing in the league championship game, and were the No. 2 seed in the league tournament (20-7, 10-4) in March 2020 when their season was called short due to COVID.
Nearly 20 months later, to say they’re excited to get back would be a massive understatement.
“I think this season, it’s a lot more ambition and hunger to get going, which I think is really good for us, especially being so young,” Padilla said. “I think the lack of experience is motivating a lot of people just to want to do more and to work even harder.”
Penn junior Kayla Padilla (L) was the Ivy League's top newcomer in 2019-20. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Padilla’s the undoubted centerpiece. A 5-9 guard out of Bishop Montgomery (Cali.), Padilla was the 2019-20 Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a first team All-Ivy selection, averaging 17.4 ppg, sixth nationally amongst all freshmen. There wasn’t much she didn’t do well, shooting 39% from 3-point range, with 2.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds as well.
Suddenly she’s a junior, an upperclassmen, put directly into a place of leadership, no sophomore season to grow on the freshman year and start to prepare for being one of the older players on the team. It’s a situation that a good percentage of the roster’s in, from the senior class who were sophomores the last time they took the court through the sophomores who missed their freshman year entirely.
“I understand that we skipped a year, I understand that that growth in college maturity is important, but we can't sit here and say what we didn’t have,” McLaughlin said. “The older group in the program [...] the standard has not changed, they’re not going to make an excuse for a year that we weren't able to do it, and I’ve told them that.
“They’ve been fast-forwarded very quickly — it’s like watching a movie and all of a sudden you’re going to fast-forward an hour of it and try to catch up at the end. But at the end of the day, it’s life, this is what we were dealt with and it’s how we come out of it.”
Expectations for the Quakers are still high. They were picked No. 2 in the Ivy League women’s preseason media poll (108 points), released Monday, the only team other than preseason favorite Princeton (122 points) to receive first-place votes; Princeton received 12 and Penn the other three.
Along with Padilla, the Quakers return senior forward Kennedy Suttle, who started 16 games as a sophomore and averaged 4.1 ppg and 4.7 rpg. Her classmates, guards Mia Lakstigala (3.5 ppg) and Meg Hair, will also factor into the rotation, as will junior guard Mandy McGurk, whom Padilla praised for leading the team in conditioning drills: “she sets the standard really high for us.”
Georgetown transfer Nikola Kovacikova (above) should make a major impact in her only season in a Penn jersey. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Another senior who wasn’t on the team two years ago, 5-10 Georgetown transfer Nikola ‘Niki’ Kovacikova, started 12 games for the Hoyas as a sophomore and averaged 7.9 ppg and 3.2 rpg, and looks immediately ready to jump into the starting lineup in her lone year as a Quaker. More of a scoring guard than the Quakers’ 2019-20 starter, Kendall Grasela — now an assistant coach for the team — Kovacikova should help take some of the scoring load off Padilla.
“We were really looking for a point guard to control the pace and make good decisions as a floor general, and I think Niki brings a lot of that and more,” Padilla said. “I think Niki’s definitely stepped up to the plate and has exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Kovacikova isn’t the only transfer on the Quakers’ roster. Former Arizona State wing Sydnei Caldwell, a 5-9 junior from Saddle River Day (N.J.), averaged 4.4 ppg in the Pac-12 last year and should be another immediate boost to the rotation. Sophomore forward Jordan Obi, junior forward Silke Milliman and junior center Faye Parker will all factor into the frontcourt.
One more newcomer with high expectations is Groetsch, one of six true freshmen on the roster, who led North Allegheny (Pa.) to a 103-8 record over four years, including a state championship as a senior. A 5-11 guard, Groetsch won state 6A Player of the Year honors after topping 1,500 points and 700 rebounds.
“The coaching staff especially sees a resemblance between Lizzy and I [...] especially the work ethic and the focus, and the drive of always wanting to get better each and every day, whether it’s practice or off the court,” Padilla said. “I’m really excited to see what Lizzy will do.”
The Quakers will take the court in front of fans for the first time in almost exactly 20 months on Nov. 6, when they’ll tip off the Red & Blue Scrimmage at 10:30 AM at the Palestra. The season opener comes eight days later at Hartford, with a visit from D-III King’s College (Pa.) the home opener on Nov. 16.
Villanova’s trip to the Palestra tips off Big 5 play on Nov. 22, with the Ivy League opener coming Jan. 2 at Brown. The Ancient Eight brings special importance to the team this season: after getting shut out of the Ivy League championship race for two years due to circumstances beyond their control, the Quakers feel like they’re not just playing for one group, but for three.
“I think a huge thing with Penn’s culture is honoring our legacy and obviously the last two senior classes didn’t have a chance to finish out their senior seasons the way they wanted to,” Padilla said. “So that’s definitely something that’s top of mind with our team, just being able to play hard, not only for us and the success of the current team but to make sure we do them right and honor them.”