Sam Sternberg is a senior majoring in computer science, balancing his coursework with responsibilities to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, GW’s men’s basketball club team and part-time work at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Now he has a new commitment on his plate: practicing with the GW women’s basketball team.
Sternberg is one of seven male undergraduate students participating in practices with the Colonials this season as part of a plan created and implemented by assistant coach Katie Rokus.
“If you look at our roster, you’ll see that we’re limited in numbers and we’re young,” Rokus said, referring to the team’s 11-player roster featuring 10 underclassmen. “We felt that with the numbers that we had heading into the year, if we had any injuries, we might not have a full 10 to practice.”
To remedy this problem, Rokus first enlisted the team itself to do some recruiting, having them ask male players they knew from pickup games at HelWell – such as Sternberg – if they wanted to take part.
After this original search, Rokus sent a blast e-mail to the student body that turned up roughly 50 more candidates, half of whom were ruled out for being freshmen or graduate students, which would complicate the process of having them cleared by the NCAA. The remaining candidates were eventually narrowed down and put through the same NCAA clearinghouse that must approve all student-athletes’ eligibility.
Now a crop of seven takes part in practice whenever their schedules permit, giving the women’s team an opportunity to work on offensive and defensive sets against players other than themselves, and ensuring there are enough bodies to do so.
“Having the guys just gives you a different feel in practice,” Rokus said. “It’s a different athleticism. It’s a different quickness. It just gives them a different look, which is better for us.”
It’s not just the team benefiting. Both Sternberg and Chester Hill, a junior practice player, said it reminds them of their time playing varsity basketball in high school, bringing them back to an orderly version of a game they love.
“Part of what I like about it is there are people who are focused on it, who have learned to play basketball the right way,” Hill said. “It’s serious and it’s organized and that’s what kind of drew me to it.”
Sternberg called playing with the team “a good workout,” and said he likes playing at Smith Center, but the perks don’t stop there. Hill said head coach Mike Bozeman was adamant about giving the practice players sneakers and much of the same practice apparel the team wears.
“They’re really appreciative, which is nice,” Hill said. “(Bozeman) doesn’t have to do that, so I’m happy with it.”
While Rokus said that the practice players are considered a part of the team, the advantages aren’t unlimited. Sternberg, for example, pointed out that the practice players won’t be traveling with the Colonials to Grand Bahama Island for the Junkanoo Jam Nov. 27-28.
“I was trying to push that,” Sternberg said. “You gotta practice in the Bahamas. Who’s gonna be there?”
The program is not entirely new, having been used by Bozeman’s predecessor, Joe McKeown, at times during his 19-year tenure in Foggy Bottom. The NCAA came out with a recommendation against the use of male practice players in 2006, leading many schools to stop using them.
Many of the larger programs, however, continued the practice nonetheless.
“At Tennessee, it’s an honor to be part of that squad,” Rokus said. “We want to build it up to that tradition where people get excited about it and people are contacting us.”