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Sophs to seniors: Penn WBB veterans had to mature quickly

10/29/2021, 10:00am EDT
By Mitchell Northam

Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch)

(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2021-22 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 9. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)


Meg Hair (above) is one of three Penn seniors who were sophomores the last time they took the court. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Meg Hair vividly remembers Nov. 12, 2020.

She was at the house she rented with a few Penn volleyball players, and all athletes were invited to attend a call with then-athletic director M. Grace Calhoun. The call was to deliver a bit of news: The Ivy League decided that, due to the ongoing pandemic, the fall and winter sports season would be canceled.

“It was super tough,” Hair told City of Basketball Love in a recent interview.

One of the main reasons why Hair, her roommates and teammates were at Penn was to play sports. And now, they were being robbed of that because of COVID-19. The Ivy League was the only Division I conference to uniformly and totally cancel its basketball campaigns last season. Hair, distraught, rushed over to the house where most of the women’s basketball squad had gathered.

“A lot of us were devastated,” Hair said. “Especially for the seniors, because they’ve done so much for this program.”

A year later – after vaccine rollouts and a loosening of restrictions – the Ivy League has deemed it safe to play basketball once again. On Nov. 14 in West Hartford, Connecticut, the Penn Quakers’ women’s basketball team will play in its first game in 20 months.

The excitement is beyond palpable for players like Hair, Mia Lakstigala and Kennedy Suttle, who are among the handful of holdovers remaining from the last time this team took the court. For Suttle, wearing a Penn uniform in a competitive game again is something she’s thought about often in her sleep.

“I can’t put it into words. I’ve been having random dreams about this since we found out we were having a season,” Suttle told CoBL recently. “I think we have a great group and I’m excited to play with them and see where it can take us.”

The biggest change for Suttle, Hair and Lakstigala from the last time they played to now is that they’ve had to grow up quickly. When the Quakers last played on March 7, 2020 – a regular season finale victory at Columbia – they were all sophomores and role players.

Now, nearly two years later, they’ve had to mature, and do so swiftly. These three – and Georgetown transfer Nikola Kovacikova – are the lone seniors on the team. They’re the veterans now. It’s up to Hair, Suttle and Lakstigala to set the tone, preserve the culture, offer advice and lead.

And Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin, now entering his 13th season, isn’t cutting them any slack. He demands that his seniors step-up.

“I understand that we skipped a year, I understand that growth in college maturity is important, but we can't sit here and say what we didn’t have. We have to say, ‘This is where we’re at,’” McLaughlin said. “They went from a sophomore to a senior; I’m understanding of that, but I also have to hold them accountable… The standard has not changed.”

Living up to the bar that has been set by previous Penn veterans is a challenge that the trio are looking forward to.

“That jump from sophomore to senior year is a huge leap, to say the least,” Hair said. “It's definitely a huge responsibility, but it’s one that me, Kennedy and Mia are so excited to take on and just be that leadership for the team.”

Mia Lakstigala (above) eyes up a 3-pointer during an October practice. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)


A season without a season

The trio got a crash-course in leading during the 2020-21 academic year. After taking a few days to process the news of their season being canceled, the players regrouped. Instead of sulking or forgetting about basketball, they looked ahead.

“We all still just wanted to get better, because we knew that we were going to have a season next year,” Hair said.

The players got workouts from their coaches, but for the most part, staying in basketball shape was up to them. The players didn’t have access to the gym on-campus. However, down the street from Hair’s house was an outdoor court, which was utilized often for pickup for the Penn players.

But then, as it does during the winter in Philadelphia, it got cold. Frigid even. The air was far too chilly to play basketball outdoors. It’s difficult to dribble and shoot while wearing scarves, mittens, boots and oversized coats.

“The outside court was fun until it got cold,” Hair said. “We wanted to keep playing basketball – that’s what brought us all here.”

The players put their brains – and their wallets – together. They found a gym nearby, Elite Sports Factory in Manayunk, and rented it out twice a week on their own dime. This was how the Quakers bonded, how they stayed close, how they built chemistry, and how they stayed fit without a real season.

“It was tough watching other teams practice and have games, and we really couldn’t do that,” Hair said. “But it was nice seeing each other every day. We could get shots up when we wanted to. We just played pickup and did some drills. We’d be there for about two hours and it was so fun, really.”

Organizing those pick-up games during a year without Ivy League contests was one of the ways Hair, Suttle and Lakstigala evolved from sophomores to seniors expeditiously. The 2021 class of seniors was there with them, but in hindsight, Suttle says, it seemed like they purposely took a step back for the future of the team.

“They kind of quieted down and forced us to take reins,” Suttle said. “Mia, Meg and I talked about expectations within ourselves and how to hold each other accountable, because we know the team is going to need us to step up, be more vocal and bring that energy and standard.”

Kennedy Suttle (above) is the only senior who's a returning starter for the Quakers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Improving in new roles

When she wasn’t near campus in Philly, Suttle was at home in Atlanta, Georgia, playing pick-up with her siblings. She’s the oldest of six children, and often was stuck playing two-on-one against her eight-year-old twin brothers. They helped her work on her three-point shooting, something Hair tried to improve too.

Both Hair and Kennedy identified the abundance of guards the Quakers are armed with this season as a strength and how, while Penn might be outsized on a given night, they would never falter due to a lack of hustle.

“We’re not the biggest team, but I think that’s to our advantage. We have a few quicker posts than we have had in the past. And I think we'll be able to push the ball and play a faster tempo, but also more controlled,” Suttle said. “We have the ability to play within different speeds… We’re adaptable. And I think we have the right pieces to be successful this year.”

Suttle should have a crucial role with Penn this season. She started in 16 games as a sophomore and averaged 4.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per-game. Those averaged should see an uptick. During the Ivy League’s media day, McLaughlin said of Suttle: “She has really taken the next step that you would only hope that your players take.”

Lakstigala brings experience too, having played in 46 games in her first two seasons. Over that stretch, she shot 36.8% from behind the arc and averaged 2.8 points per-game.

Hair has never started a game for Penn, but said she’s expecting to see more minutes this year. McLaughlin said the Syracuse, New York native brings a “mature presence” to the court. Hair isn’t too worried about her role though. Whether she’s in the paint or on the bench, she plans to be a voice for the team.

“I’m going to be that leader on the team whether I’m on the court or off the court,” Hair said. “Whether we play against an Ivy League team or a non-conference team, that competitive spirit is always going to be there. That’s something that we can always count on.”

Within reach

When Suttle got word on Nov. 12, 2020 that her junior season of basketball at Penn wouldn’t happen, she was upset, but she also applauded the Ivy League’s stance.

“I think the team consensus was a lot of disappointment, but personally, I respected the Ivy League for putting our safety before a financial gain,” Suttle said. “For the seniors, I felt bad for them, to not get a send-off.”

The time off from basketball also gave Suttle a new perspective. The postseason of her sophomore season was canceled and the entirety of her junior year on the court was too. It showed her that, at any time, the game could be taken away from her. And it’s made her that much hungrier to play and win this season.

“It definitely made me appreciate this year more, in a sense that, nothing’s guaranteed. So, I’ve made it my intent this year to enjoy every moment, every practice, every line we run – because it won’t last. That’s what COVID opened up my eyes to,” Suttle said. “We’ve been anticipating this moment for so long. Now it’s finally within reach.”

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