Women’s basketball: the other guys on the team

As allowed by NCAA rules, the women’s basketball team has been inviting men to practice with them.


The women’s basketball team (back) invites male students from the FAU community to practice with them. Alexander Rodriguez | Contributing Photographer

Christopher Libreros, Contributing Writer

Inside an empty FAU Arena, the Florida Atlantic women’s basketball team steps onto the practice court as the coaching staff prepares the game plan in preparation for its next opponent. As the sounds of sneakers squeaking start to echo throughout the gymnasium, the main doors open up to reveal the final members of that Jan. 11 practice — six male students.

These practice players, each of whom were recruited by head coach Kellie Lewis-Jay and her team, serve a vital role that has helped the athletes from both genders grow as both players and friends.

“They [have] made me better to be honest,” junior business major DaSean Cannon said. “We’re supposed to make them better, but they made me better too.”

The group of guys have also become the team’s biggest fans, attending all of the women’s home games and going as far as Jacksonville, Florida to support the Owls in their road game against the University of North Florida back on Nov. 20.

Lewis-Jay has a history of implementing this style of training at other schools, using it as a way to prepare her players for the speed, strength and physicality they’ll face every night throughout the season.

“We’ve had practice guys everywhere I’ve been, and it’s always a positive for us,” said the fifth-year head coach, who previously served as an assistant for both Connie Yori in Nebraska as well as June Daugherty in Washington before arriving to FAU as a head coach.

The practice players, much like everyone else on the team, carry their own unique roles and responsibilities. During a typical practice, Lewis-Jay and her coaching staff will designate specific practice players individually or as a group to participate in certain drills or scrimmages.

She then assigns the girls to one of the two stations on either end of the floor. These drills are designed to improve reaction time on defense, physicality on the glass for rebounds and something that both parties raved about during their time playing for Lewis-Jay: the elevation of their basketball IQ.

“I feel like going against them, I get stronger and smarter,” sophomore forward Ra’Kyra Gabriel said. “They’re faster and they’re stronger so I feel like they teach us more about not how fast we can go to make the game faster, but basically how we can use different angles and different ways to beat them, even if we’re not fast enough or not strong enough. They help us with our basketball IQ.”

Freshman Katelyn O’Reilly cheers on junior Melinda Myers as she battles sophomore practice player Ysmael Darius for position in the post. Brendan Feeney | Managing Editor

But why not other women? According to rules on the NCAA’s website, any woman participating with the team in practice must become a part of the active roster, meaning that their play cannot be exclusive to the practice floor. Coach Lewis-Jay decided this NCAA practice regulation could be a different solution to better her team, as it has in the past.

“If a woman is good enough to challenge us, she should be on the team,” Lewis-Jay said. “We need people who are going to challenge us, we need people who are bigger than us, faster than us and stronger than us, otherwise there’s no other point to do it.”

The recruiting of these practice players was thorough and vigorous. Currently, the practice team is made up of male students on campus who were approached by either the players or Lewis-Jay herself either while they were playing basketball recreationally or through connections to some of the players.

Lewis-Jay said that she prefers to recruit some of these guys as freshmen when possible in order to attain some familiarity.

“We like to have carry over, because they know what’s expected. We have to kind of in a sense train them a little bit when they get here, that they’re not trying out for the NBA,” Lewis-Jay said.

To accomplish this, Lewis-Jay sets the tone from the start, briefing the players on what’s expected of them and the importance of helping the team improve.

Spare time in college can become hard to find in the midst of balancing studies, a job and a social life. So what drives these everyday students to work as hard as FAU athletes without receiving any of the shine?

For players like Cannon, it’s an opportunity to play the game he enjoys while also getting in shape so he can try out for FAU’s football team.

“We like the game, it’s fun. And we knew some of the girls before so we were like, ‘We might as well,’” he said. “Last year was my first year and I loved it. It was fun, got me in shape … I got to get in shape for football so it helped me do that too.”

For others, it’s a chance to finally experience being on a team.

“It’s a fun experience for them, they get to feel like they’re part of a team,” said coach Lewis-Jay. “You know, it’s a sacrifice for the guys to come out … part of the reward that they get is feeling that they’re part of the team and I would say they are.”

She has also made it a point to go further than that, rewarding many of her practice players from both the past and present with letters of recommendation and support in future endeavors.

“The coaches put you in a good position to succeed and be as helpful as possible,” sophomore psychology major and member of the practice team Ysmael Darius said.

For some of the men, getting the chance to be honorary members of a team with experienced coaches for the first time fed into a desire for improvement. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the head coach, who said that “it’s fun to watch them, I mean they get better too.”

Along with improving on the court, the men all admitted to learning something important.

“They’re tougher than I thought they were. They’re strong,” playfully remarked Cannon. ”Like I used to think girls were like weak, but they are not weak. They push me around sometimes and I have to be like, ‘Oh, I got to wake up.’ … They work hard.”

Darius felt a similar sentiment when he commented on the competitive spirit of the women’s team and what stood out to him from his first practice.

“The intensity of it, just playing rec ball my whole life, like you know a lot of times people go out there and they don’t play as hard as they should, sometimes that frustrates me,” said Darius. “But coming out here, they really play … it’s high intensity, but I love it.”

The two sides have gone on to embrace the challenge of going up against each other in practice, and even engage in friendly trash talk over bragging rights.

For freshman guard Julia Jenike, the competition between sexes was nothing new from her time growing up in Ohio.

“Definitely when someone’s talking smack to you or something or thinks they’re so good, and you’re a girl and come out and do the stuff they can do, it’s really funny,” Jenike said.

“Where I was, playing just pick up, you don’t really know a lot of people,” she said. “I would be like one of the only girls. Maybe one, maybe my sister, like two of us, and everyone else would be guys. The guys would look to not pass to us, and try to score more, but once we got people who knew us and knew we were capable it became fair ground.”

Lewis-Jay recalled her own experiences from growing up playing against the boys in her neighborhood, and she only had one mindset once she stepped onto the court.

“No, nobody can stop me,” she said as she cracked a smile.

At the end of practice, everyone comes together one last time to refocus on the task at hand, walking away from the gym united for the next opponent. And if the female players are the only ones allowed on the court, their male practice players aren’t very far.

“They’re our loudest fans in the stands,” Lewis-Jay said. “They’re just good guys and I think we’ve been pretty lucky to get some really really good guys and good people to come out and help us, because it is hard to find.”

Christopher Libreros is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @ChrisIsAirborne.