Kate Kreager, a forward on the women’s basketball team, is dribbling downcourt during practice when a defender suddenly moves out to stop her. She cuts in a different direction and continues driving to the basket. It’s a typical scene except for one thing: the defender is a guy, Matt Mayer.
The women’s team recently began bringing in men to practice against, thinking that working against players who are taller, stronger and heavier than they are will give them an advantage when it’s time for the games. And Xavier isn’t alone in its thinking. Most schools on the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I level have male practice squads, including Notre Dame, Iowa State and the University of Tennessee.
“It’s just been this last year that we’ve had enough guys to have a practice team,” says women’s coach Melanie Balcomb. Six years ago, she began having a few guys show up occasionally to practice with the women. Today, there’s an eight-man squad that practices against the women. “That’s why the improvement is so noticeable,” Balcomb adds. “Now we have the commitment of the guys every day.”
The women’s team generally doesn’t have females try to walk on to the team for the simple reason that the number of women on campus with adequate skills to push the players to become better simply isn’t there. One day there might be a large enough pool of women athletes to choose from, at which point women’s sports will have come full circle. In the meantime, the guys add an extra challenge to practice.
“Every day the women practice against someone who’s quicker, stronger and can jump higher,” says Balcomb. “They have to work harder, so during games it’s easier. That’s what you want.”
It’s not just a matter of the guys being bigger or stronger than the girls either. They’re also adept at transforming themselves into the team’s rivals.
“Whenever we play against a conference team, the guys wear red T-shirts with the players’ numbers on them,” says guard Reetta Piipari. “They learn the different players and their moves. It helps because when you come to a game you know what that player is going to do.”
And while the guys’ presence makes the women work harder on the court, it also gives them a chance to catch a breather off the court, something head athletic trainer Jody Jenike appreciates.
“They’ve helped us with injuries. We can go longer at practices without the athletes having to overextend themselves because there’s more people in the rotation. The women can play harder because they can rest when guys rotate in.”
“I see a difference in the kids’ attitudes, too,” says Balcomb. “It’s hard to play against the same people every day. When they get to run their offenses against the guys, it helps them to have a change. Instead of playing against each other, it’s a game situation.”
It’s not just a one-sided deal, either. The guys, two of whom double as student managers, receive some tangible benefits from the experience as well, such as practice gear and use of the Cintas Center workout room. Last year, the managers received Atlantic 10 Conference championship rings, too. But it’s mostly the intangibles that keep them coming back.
“Later on, I plan on coaching basketball, and I’m getting to learn a lot of the ins and outs of being a coach,” says Mayer. “It’s exciting the opportunities they’ve given me in this program. Our girls are very competitive. I’ve gotten into shape and my game’s improved.”
After winning the regular and post-season A-10 Conference titles last season, plus defeating six-time national champion Tennessee to go to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, it’s not surprising that the women keep the guys on their game.
“I haven’t had anybody give me any slack for playing with the girls yet,” says Brett Ballinger, another practice player, “and I don’t think I will.”