As they sweat through another long practice, the male practice players at Gonzaga know one thing.
This isn’t about them. It never is.
Every day, their goal is to make the GU women’s basketball team just a little bit tougher and better prepared for the next game.
Considering that the Zags are 20-1 and ranked 12th in the nation, they’re doing a good job.
Guard Jill Townsend calls the handful of undergrad gym rats who serve on the scout team “unsung heroes.” On Tuesday afternoon at the Volkar Center, they were running the offense of the San Diego Toreros, who visit GU on Thursday night.
And they weren’t going through the motions. There was plenty of gender-neutral pushing and shoving all around, as scout player Griffin Emanuels battled in the paint with 6-foot-3 Jenn Wirth.
No one was backing down, though Emanuels later made an ego-swallowing confession.
“They were scoring on me more than three-quarters of the time,” said Emanuels, a sophomore, said after practice. “I’m going to have to step up my game.”
Then again, so do the women.
Townsend, who grew up playing pickup ball against her older brothers in Okanogan, knows it better than anyone.
“If you want to play women’s basketball, you have to play against the guys,” Townsend said. “They’re stronger, quicker and they can jump higher – that’s no lie.
“If you can beat these guys, who can’t you do it against?” Townsend said.
For that reason and others, college women’s teams have been using male practice players for decades. Since legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt began the practice in the 1970s, it’s spread to nearly every Division I program in the nation.
The men bring physicality. Their presence also lessens wear and tear on the women, especially if they’re already shorthanded because of injury, and gives coaches more flexibility with their practice lineup.
The problem is finding the right guys – players who can block out their own ego even as they block a shot. Glory hounds need not apply.
“Sometimes we have to mold them,” said GU assistant coach Craig Fortier, who’s in charge of the practice players. “We do put them through the wringer a little bit.”
The right skill set
When Fortier joined the staff of his wife Lisa in the spring of 2014, he scoured the campus for suitable practice players.
“My first year, I literally just walked around campus and looked for tall guys,” Fortier said.
Now the players, typically five per season, come via word of mouth and from the GU club team. And they come with game.
Back in the day, Emanuels was a pretty fair basketball player at Mercer Island High School.
Actually he was better than that. Only two years ago, he made all-KingCo League for the second year in a row. He considered playing Division III ball in California, but gave up on that dream for a chance at “a normal college life.”
At GU he found former Mercer Island teammate Shane Scott, now a junior. Like Emanuels, he was an all-league player who needed a change of pace.
“I’d been playing since I was 2,” said Scott. “I wanted a break, and I wanted to put academics first.”
But after a one-year hiatus, the game called him back. “There was that burning desire, because I missed basketball,” said Scott, who a year later passed the word to Emanuels.
Also on the court Tuesday was old KingCo rival Kellan Przybylski of Sammamish, Washington, another first-teamer.
Przybylski once made 11 3-pointers in a single game for Skyline High, but it took Scott to point that out.
Przybylski shrugged off the compliment – the perfect reaction for a humble scout player who also happens to be the veteran of the group.
Now in his third year, Przybylski comes to practice with a plan. Along with the other scout players, he knows the San Diego offense and how to run it “to prepare the girls the best we can,” Przybylski said.
They do that for two hours each practice, four or five times a week.
In return, they do get a few meals, shoes and other swag and free treatment in the training room should they roll an ankle.
“The T-shirts are great,” Przybylski said.
The men also get to register early for classes, making them more available for practice. “That’s huge,” Scott said. “They treat us so well – we don’t feel like we’re being taken for granted.”
The biggest rewards are the intangibles.
Emanuels, a business major whose interest is sports management, also dreams of being a coach.
“I love basketball – if I could be a coach one day, what better coaches to learn from than this?” said Emanuels, who also plays club ball.
“But right now I have the best of both worlds,” Emanuels said. “I’m playing a lot of basketball at an awesome school like Gonzaga.”