Posted: December 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm
By Andrew Silva, Jamie McCracken, Megan Hudock
After an 8-hour journey and fresh off an upset win against second-ranked Notre Dame, the West Virginia women’s basketball team had finally arrived at the Coliseum.
Rather than the darkness and silence usually associated with 2:30 a.m., the Lady Mountaineers stepped of the bus to cheers, flowers and congratulatory signs.
And there they were: the all-male practice squad, waiting to celebrate the South Bend shocker.
The practice team is made up of 12 to 14 college males, who match up against the women at practice, constantly subbing in and out. While the tense atmosphere of practice can cause brief flare-ups between the two sides, both have a mutual appreciation and admiration for the other.
“We’re like their little sisters. Even though sometimes we’re like the same age, but they look at us as their sisters,” junior guard Taylor Palmer said. “They support us tremendously at the games. We even hang out with them outside of just practice, so we do have a really good bond with them.”
The off-court support has even carried the women’s team to victories on the court. In a game at Cincinnati last season, several members of the “p-squad,” as they like to call themselves, made the trip to cheer on their counterparts. With the team down 16 points at halftime, the p-squad support helped the girls rally from the deficit and secure a win.
“These guys spent their own dime to come down to Cincinnati, which is about a four and a half hour drive, paid their own way into the game. They were loud; they were louder than the Cincinnati fans,” said associate head coach George Porcha. “They spirited us and gave us energy to get back into the game and we ended up winning.”
The practice squad serves as more than just a group of cheerleaders though. The competition they create in practice prepares the girls for the rigors of a real game.
“The guys do a great job of just pushing the girls. Naturally guys are bigger, faster, and more athletic. Coach (Mike) Carey really believes that by our girls going against the practice guys, it’s really going to help them because it speeds up the game,” Porcha said.
“The hope is when we get into a game situation when we are playing female versus female, then it’s a lot easier.”
While the ultimate goal of having a male practice squad is to prepare the women for live game action, practice can, at times, turn itself into a battle of the sexes.
“They automatically think that they are better than us so it makes us want to bring it to them,” Palmer said. Just because you are a guy doesn’t mean that I can’t compete with you.”
The stereotype may lend itself to male domination on the court, but as some practice squad players have learned the hard way, that is not always the case in WVU practices.
“I can’t lie, I’ve been embarrassed,” Tarrell Yancey, who is a second-year practice player, said. I’ve definitely got, oohed and ahhed in practice a couple of times.”
The physicality is an aspect of the women’s game that often goes unnoticed, but Yancey has found himself on the end result of some rough play.
“Ayana Dunning and Asya Bussie are by far the most physical players I’ve ever played against in my life – this goes for men and women,” Yancey said. “Yaya (Dunning) will throw you if she needs to.”
During a press breaking drill, Yancey experiences Dunning’s physical nature firsthand.
“Yaya came to the middle and I grabbed her arm and she was like, ‘Tarrell, get the hell off my arm!’ because I got to make it realistic and she kind of threw me a little bit of an elbow,” Yancey said.
Most girls however, are not prepared for the transition, both mentally and physically to compete against men.
“I was here as a freshman just coming from high school and just the first practice, it was not what I’m used to. They are going to push you; they get in your head,” Palmer said. “They talk trash on the court so we get at them and I think it makes us closer too as a team because we want to beat them so bad.”
At the end of practice all is forgiven as the girls and several practice players begin to joke with one another, with Yancey’s mouth being the topic of conversation.
“They call me ‘Motor’ because I talk a lot,” Yancey said.
The chemistry between the two squads develops throughout the season.
“We try and stay as close knit as possible,” Yancey said. We are hard on each other but it’s no hard feelings. We know we’re both in it for the game. We are trying to help them get better.”