Walk into the Ellison gym on a Wednesday afternoon and you’ll find a group of guys grabbing a basketball or two and shooting hoops as they wait for the girls’ team to practice.
They don’t have a fancy uniform and you won’t find their names on any Eagles’ team rosters, but they’re a vital part to the Lady Eagles basketball team success.
This group of guys — freshman Javon Walker, sophomores Dalton Melendez and Kevin Rivera, and junior Kyi Friendly — are just a few members of the practice squad.
Most commonly used at the collegiate and professional levels, women’s teams bring in groups of male athletes to compete against the girls in practice.
“We just play physical defense,” Rivera said.
“On the defensive side, for them to work against our offense, they’re definitely going to be stronger and
faster than most girls that we play,” Ellison girls basketball head coach Sherry McKinnon said. “Therefore, if we can handle them and score on them, then our girls know it should be a little bit easier when we really face the opponent.
“The boys just bring a different physicality and mentality than most times when we play girls.”
While the idea of bringing in a group of guys to challenge the girls isn’t a new concept. It’s one that isn’t too commonly seen or used at the high school level.
“I’ve been doing it for a few years and I really saw a difference,” McKinnon said.
Since they started using a practice squad, McKinnon has noticed that the pace of practice is much faster and prevents the girls from getting stagnant, which sometimes happens after the girls on the team play against one another repetitively.
“You need to practice against someone different, and we want to practice with someone who’s going to push us to another level,” she said, “[Someone] who’s going to block our shots, who’s going to put us on the floor.”
Not only do the boys push the girls to play a more physical game, but it allows them to compete against a group that looks at the game from a different perspective.
“We see it as if you can play against boys, which are known to be stronger and more physical than females,” Friendly said, “they should be able to progress better when playing another female.”
Melendez relates what he learns from watching NBA games to offer pointers and suggestions to help the Lady Eagles grow.
“Whatever mistakes they might have, we try to correct them on it,” he said. “Dribbling, shooting, strength, shots, rebounds, anything.”
While the Lady Eagles are ranked in the state, Rivera knows that their job is to help the girls continue to improve.
“That’s my main focus when we come to help them get better,” he said.
“I think my girls would say they want them [a practice squad] early once season breaks open,” McKinnon said. “There’s a lot of things we have to get right before we bring them in so the girls know what they bring and how valuable they are to them and the team.”
Assembling a practice squad starts before the season for Coach McKinnon, who starts scoping out potential players in her physical education classes.
“I actually have P.E.,” Friendly said, “and Coach asked me, ‘You want to help out the females?’
“And I was like, ‘Yeah.’”
“We use them about two to three times a week, so it’s really a commitment,” McKinnon said, “and even on days when we don’t need them, sometimes they come and watch and support us.
“Although they don’t travel with the team, they are in the stands to support the Lady Eagles at home games.
“They understand that it’s not about them, that it’s about making us better,” McKinnon said. “It’s really exciting for us to come back from on the road and they’ll come to me and ask how did we do and all of that.
“And if we’re at home, they’ll give me a break down of who did what.”
McKinnon recruits a new group of five for the practice squad every year but is open to the idea of having a core group that continues to return every year.
“It would be really neat to be able to do that, but sometimes they’re seniors or they move or they’re no longer in P.E. and think we no longer need them,” she said. “It would be easier to get to know them but usually at the beginning I watch them in P.E. before season starts and then when I talk to them they get real excited that they can come and be part of it.”
While they may not get any major recognition from those outside of the Lady Eagles’ practice, for this group of guys it’s all about giving back.
For Melendez, it’s about helping people even beyond the walls of Ellison.
“Before the girls team asked me to help them, I’ve always dreamed about helping other people get better at basketball,” he said, “helping their dreams, playing in to college and getting to a higher level.”
Friendly says it helps keep him out of trouble, “I wouldn’t be getting into trouble but, honestly, it’s helping the school look better.”
The boys don’t take the credit for the success the girls have on the court, but when they come home with victories, such as taking down Waco Midway in the District 8-6A opener on the road, it lets them know that they’re making a difference.
“It makes me kind of happy because we’re out there helping them and they’re using all the pointers all three of us gave them,” Melendez said.
“Them playing against another female, it’s kind of the same thing everyday, but when you’re playing against the guys it’s kind of more strength so it gets them stronger. It gets me hyped,” he added.
At the collegiate and professional levels, one has to try out to be a part of the practice squad and this group has their eyes set on the long run.
“You help other people out plus you do what you like doing, playing basketball, so why not?” Rivera asked, shrugging off the notion that this is a far fetched dream.
“I’d take it as far as I could,” Friendly said, “if I could take it to college, if I could do that and still have my day life I’d do it.”
“It’s truly my way of life,” Melendez said. “I help a lot of people, I’m very respectful and helping them.”
Coach McKinnon and the Lady Eagles appreciate all that these guys do for them.
“They are a great group of young men and to be committed to this,” she adds, “there is nothing that they get out of it except the love of the game and to help us, I really appreciate it.”
After their big Midway game, she made sure to let them know that they played a role in that success.
McKinnon said she told them, “Hey, coming in and doing what you guys did against us really helped us succeed and get it done there.
“That really helped us and they just gleamed.”