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"Coach Olsen:" local sophomores get to work with college hoops superstar

05/08/2024, 11:45am EDT
By Josh Verlin

By Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Lucy Olsen isn’t used to being on the bench. 

The Lady Runnin’ Rebels’ 2026 squad isn’t used to sitting next to one of the best players in college basketball. 

They’re figuring it out together. 

Lucy Olsen (above, right) talks to Sylvie Harrington during a game on Sunday, May 5. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Before she heads off to Iowa for her final year of college basketball, Olsen’s spending the spring working with her former grassroots program, helping as an assistant coach for its top group of sophomores. 

“I love her so much, I just respect her a lot as a person and a player,” Sylvie Harrington said. “She’s a great role model for us at practices. Just seeing the way she plays and trying to add it into our games, it’s unlike anything else to have her as an assistant coach.”

Olsen was there on the bench this weekend at the Hoop Group’s NJ Showcase in Pitman, N.J., providing in-game feedback and a post-game pep talk, sharing a few smiles along the way with whoever was on the bench next to her.

It was her first tournament with the team, though she’s been coming to practices with them all spring. 

“I felt like I had to get to know them because it’s hard to coach people when you don’t know their personalities at all,” Olsen said after a Sunday game. “I was more trying to get to know them, they were trying to get to know me, but yeah it’s been fun.”

“I helped out a little bit last year but I never went to tournaments. I’m excited, this is more of a coaching role, I want to be a coach in the future, it’s a good experience to have.”

For the group of 16-year-olds who get to spend time with the nation’s third-leading scorer, it’s a dream come true.

“The first time I met her I asked for her picture, so I was very wide-eyed, but now I’ve gotten used to it,” said Harrington, a sophomore at the George School who’s headed to Germantown Academy next year. “For her to sit next to me on the bench and talk to me and give personal advice is so cool. Now I don’t see her that way, I look up to her as a role model, not so much as a fan, but it’s been so cool. We’re really lucky.”

“it’s great having someone who’s been at the Division I level and has been so successful and giving tips,” Gwynedd Mercy sophomore Bailey Balkir said. “And also having a female on the bench, it’s nice to have someone to talk to and she’s younger so she gets how stressful the games can be.”

Olsen starred for the Rebels during her years at Spring-Ford, though her 17U summer in 2020 was all but canceled due to the pandemic. She committed to Villanova as a senior, when she led Spring-Ford to the 2021 PIAA 6A state championship game, then scored 1,504 points in a Wildcats uniform over the last three seasons, first as Maddy Siegrist’s top outlet and then as a dominant scorer in her own right this season. 

She’s transferring to Iowa this year, hoping to help fill the massive gap left by Caitlin Clark, the WNBA rookie who’s rapidly becoming the current face of women’s basketball. An all-around talent, she averaged nearly five rebounds and four assists as a junior, earning honorable mention All-American honors as well as Big 5 Player of the Year and All-Big East First Team nods.

The Rebels are getting to see up close just what makes her so good.

“She knows, like she can see things before it happens — when to slip a screen, when to cut to the basket,” Harrington said. “And she’s given me some personal advice, she tells me I go too fast when I see the play before it happens, my body and mind aren’t in the same place; she said to slow down, let the defense react to me, then I can make them react.”

Olsen (in hoodie) talks to the Lady Runnin' Rebels 16s after a game on Sunday, May 5. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

For Olsen, who’s helping head coach Bill McDonough Jr. — son of Rebels’ founder and director Bill McDonough Sr. — with the 16U group, coaching is a chance to do something she hasn’t done much of over the years: watch from the sidelines. 

She played more than 36 minutes per game as a junior and averaged 33 per game for her whole college career. She’s used to being on the court, her time on the sidelines brief. Sitting on the bench in a sweatshirt is a new feeling. 

“I kept twitching — ooh I want to be in there, I want to go get that ball,” she admitted with a laugh. “It’s different because I can’t control it, it’s more giving tips, seeing it from a different perspective. [...] It’s interesting, I’m still learning from the outside perspective, but I feel like I’m going to learn a lot just being here.”

During the games, Olsen spent her time talking to the girls next to her on the bench, pointing out things the girls on the court were doing incorrectly or little details to spot: who’s left-handed, who’s open, where to exploit gaps in the defense or where a turnover could be forced.

After the game, she had the team’s rapt attention in a debrief before the players went their separate ways to fuel up for another game later that afternoon.

“It was just the small things,” she said. “You can’t focus on everything at once but just the tiny things, like we lost the game because we couldn’t break their press. It’s a pretty new group, a lot of them haven’t played together, and it’s early in the season but we’ve got to learn to trust each other.”

Olsen has another month of working with the Rebels, including the upcoming May live recruiting period in Atlantic City; she’s with them until June 10, when she heads off to Iowa City for the start of summer classes and practices.

The Runnin’ Rebels 16s are certainly hoping to get their hands on some Black & Gold swag before the 2024-25 season gets underway, though Olsen laughed when she heard that, saying she’s also waiting for her first pieces of Hawkeyes gear.

There’s no doubt there’s 10 new Iowa fans in Southeastern Pennsylvania, at least for one season.

“I’m going to have to be,” Balkir said. “We’re going to have to watch a lot of Iowa games now.”

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