Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Men help women’s b-ball team sharpen skills

In the 2004 film Dodgeball, coach Patches O’Houlihan, played by Rip Torn, tries to instruct his team by flinging a metal wrench at a line of players.

“If you can dodge a wrench,” he growls after the wrench knocks over a player, “you can dodge a ball.”

The technique isn’t far from what happens in Hamilton Gym when the DU women’s basketball team gathers for practice.

Only head coach Pam Tanner isn’t throwing wrenches at her players, she’s hurling beef: a fearsome foursome of tall, quick, well-muscled, basketball-savvy male athletes.

“They can even use my likeness for girl’s basketball — full beard and everything,” laughs senior business major Brandon Antin of Santa Monica, Calif., one of the four official members of the DU team’s male practice squad.

“The first two days [of practice] were miserable,” says J.J. Figlin, a 23-year-old business major from Los Angeles. “All the running- I thought I was going to throw up.”

Both Figlin and Antin are 6-foot, 180-plus pound former high school players who know their way around the gym. Which is why Tanner enlisted them.

Guys got game

“Get over your fear of somebody bigger than you,” she screams at the women during a box-out drill during one early-season practice in November. “Contact! That’s what we want. Put your backside into their body. If you can box out a boy, you can box out any woman in the country.”

Boxing out is when a player uses her body to block an opponent from getting close to the basket during a shot, so only she can get the rebound. This day, the opponents being boxed out are 6-foot-4-inch, 187-pound MBA candidate Luke Johnson, and 6-foot-5-inch, 200-pound senior Geoff Sewell. In 2004, Sewell was MVP of the Class 4A state tournament the year his Broomfield High School team won the state title.

Both guys got game.

As do Figlin and Antin, who play the guard positions. Assistant coach Leigh Gregory, an All Pac-10 honorable mention at the University of California, fills the final spot. It’s a tall, fast, formidable five. But at this practice, they’re fodder for Tanner to teach her women toughness and technique.

The box-out drill begins tentatively, but intensity builds. The coaches toss up errant shots so players can scramble into position for the rebound.

Tanner is merciless: “Touch somebody,” she screams.

Sewell and Johnson dominate at first, but the women step up. Bodies collide, elbows fly, shoes squeal. Arms stretch for rebounds like an angry mob clawing for ducats thrown by the queen.

“Go lay a body on him, Abby!” Tanner demands of 5-foot-10-inch freshman forward Abby Leichliter. She does.

“That’s contact, Abby. That’s it. That’s exactly what we want.”

Five more women rotate into the drill. Minutes later another five replace them. Then five more. There are no subs for the guys, and it isn’t long before they’re winded and wondering what in the world they got into.

“These girls are in phenomenal shape,” says Figlin. “There’s no smack talkin’ on our side. It’s been humbling.”

Part of the team

NCAA rules allow male students to practice with women’s teams as members of the squad but not to be on the roster. They can’t compete in games or receive compensation other than practice apparel. The men have to meet the same eligibility requirements as other student athletes.

“A lot of the schools like Tennessee say playing with big, fast guys improves their skills,” says Tanner, who starred at Illinois State and coached at Tennessee and San Diego State. “Here, the guys challenge us every day. They’re an important part of the team.”

Brooke Meyer, a 5-foot-4 senior point guard, agrees.

“We can’t be sloppy and play poorly ’cause we’ll get killed,” she says. “When we play against girls, we feel a lot more confident because we know they’re not as quick as the guys we’ve been practicing against.”

Evidence of that came in November, when DU played Duke University, then ranked 10th in the nation. The Blue Devils’ centers were 6-4 and 6-5 and their forwards were 6-1 and 6-2. The smallest Duke player was 5-8.

DU’s starters averaged 5-9.

Even so, the gritty Pioneers out-fought Duke, leading by two at halftime before suffering a 57-37 loss.

“Our kids weren’t intimidated against Duke because we had played against the guys for a week,” Tanner says.

If increased toughness is the upside, risk of injury is the downside. But well into this season only the guys were hurting, mostly with ankle sprains, bumps and bruises.

“I got laid out one time,” Johnson recalls. “Salina [Kuiper] stepped out and kinda clipped me and I went flying.”

“It’s the best basketball I’ve played at DU,” Antin admits, adding that his buddies razzed him until they came to a practice. They don’t razz him anymore.

“Hopefully, we’re helping [the women],” he says.

Tanner believes they are, which is why she plans to expand the roster next year and make it “a big deal” to be on the practice squad. It’s also why she’s willing to stop practice to lash out at the guys.

“If you don’t get yelled at by Coach Tanner, you’re not part of the group,” she laughs. “Now they are.”

Comments are closed.