Male practice players offer new competitive training

Sam Tapper – Sports Writer

Off the court, nobody would know who they are.These men work hard. However, the entirety of their work is done in the dark, behind closed doors. They are tasked with giving the women’s basketball team worthy competition between games.

The people in question are the four women’s basketball practice players: Quentin Kelly, Nas Smith, Mike Mohan and Max Vadakin, who, despite being men playing women’s basketball, have a vital role in the eyes of Owls’ head coach Kate Lynch on her squad.

“The thought process with [having male practice players] is that they are bigger, they are stronger, and they are faster,” Lynch said. “If we can compete against them it should make it a little bit easier for us in the game because, obviously, the teams we play against aren’t that big, aren’t as strong and aren’t as fast as men. So, the idea is that they get us better every day in practice and we compete against them. That’s the hope; that’s the goal.”

It is not uncommon for collegiate women’s basketball programs to bring in male athletes to their practices, as UConn basketball coach and Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma has been using male practice players for over a decade. The players themselves do not get a lot of credit or outside recognition. However, the practice players themselves say the experience is well worth it.

“At first I was kind of skeptical — going from playing with guys to try playing with girls,” said exercise science major Kelly, a fifth-year senior and former Southern football player. “But they’re a good team. They’re really professional about it, and you can tell that they’re a Division II program because [of how] they practice every day. So, you can kind of tell that their skill set is different from just the regular girls you will see at LA Fitness or something. Just being around people that actually know the game — it’s kind of tough and I like it.”

Though the four players in question did not make it to the next level of playing college basketball themselves, being a practice player allows them to return to the game they all have love for and experience with.

“It is a selection-type of process,” said Lynch. “We are looking for students that know the game, have played the game before, it’s not just anybody. Because as much as we want to get better as a team, we also don’t want to put our student-athletes at risk for injury, if that makes sense. So, you kind of have to know the game a little bit. After that, we bring them in and we talk to them and I tell them exactly what we’re looking for — tell them what the commitment level is, because it is a commitment — and then we kind of just go from there.”

Despite not sitting on the bench, traveling with the team or even having their own uniform number, Lynch and her players preach that the four men are a true part of the team and not a separate entity. Though after practice the men and women do go their separate ways, they maintain a relationship with one another despite going at it in practice.

“They’re really cool guys. If I see them, they say ‘Hey,’” said guard Imani Wheeler, a senior. “We have conversations on the court and sometimes off the court about basketball. They’re really cool and understanding about us and they want us to win.”

The story of how each player stepped into the role they currently have is unique to each of them. They all share the common denominator of missing the game of basketball, but the benefits can go beyond just playing again. For Kelly, the opportunity he has been given serves as a segue into a potential career path.

“My freshman year I tried out for the men’s basketball team, sophomore year I didn’t, junior year I did, senior year I did too,” said Kelly. “This year I just gave up on athletics and just focused on what I’m trying to do after school. And then I found out they picked up a bunch of walk-ons — my major is exercise science and my minor is marketing so just working around athletes is something I’ve always wanted to do anyways.”

“So, I asked if there was any way I could be a manager or practice with them, just to get any experience under my belt,” Kelly said. “Then I was sent an email about being a practice player [for the women’s team] and I was thinking that’s cool too because right now I’m working at Club 24 in Wallingford and I’m trying to be a personal trainer over there but I need to get my certification first, so just having experience working with athletes first before I actually have that experience at my job site, I feel like it would be a good opportunity, so when I was told I would be a practice player, I wanted to do it just for the experience.”

The experience Kelly speaks of is one that does not come without some benefits. All four of the practice players are registered NCAA athletes and follow the same regulations just as all other student-athletes at Southern. Though there obviously is not compensation, the practice players are able to register for their classes early and get some of their own gear for practice.

Though the stories of how each of these men got to where they are on the team are different depending on each case, and though the women’s basketball team is currently sitting at 8-10 and just 2-8 in the NE-10, the team and its practice players view this relationship as a mutually beneficial one.

“They are faster and stronger. Coach really has no sympathy for us in practice,” Wheeler said with a smile. “Also, we’re undersized in the NE-10 period, so it helps in that aspect too.”

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