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Breakfast With Benz

Burt’s boys look to make the Dukes women better

Tim Benz

Duquesne women’s coach Dan Burt wasn’t happy with how one of his players performed in a defensive drill. The player’s hand didn’t come up to deny a jump shot, as she was cheating to take away the drive.

Burt hollered at a scout team player simulating UMass’ offense.

“If she does that again, shoot a jumper right in her eye,” Burt shouted.

Two reps later, the scout team player did exactly as instructed and fired a jumper.

“That’s it, David. Exactly,” applauded Burt.

David?

Yes, David Grimm — a freshman from North Allegheny — is one of five male practice squad players who Burt uses to sharpen the skills of his female players and gird them for the top competition they’ll face along the schedule.

“They give us a more athletic look, so when game time comes we are ready,” said senior forward Kadri-Ann Lass. “We have to be ready for them to be fast, and athletic, and tall. At first, we weren’t used to it. At first, we would get (shots) blocked every time. So we learned to adjust and go to counter moves.”

Burt said the usage of male practice players in women’s hoops has become more “en vogue” the past 12 to 15 years. It’s something he’s done dating back to his days as an assistant at West Virginia from 1998-2001.

GrimmDrive

Senior guard Chassidy Omogrosso (Beaver Falls) says that she grew up playing against boys from a young age. She endorses the use of mixing genders in practice as a teaching tool.

“You realize no girl is going to be as quick as (Grimm) on either the offensive or defensive side,” she explained. “We don’t have the type of athleticism as men might. It definitely helps girls become better players.”

These male players are Burt’s version of the old Michigan Fab Five. Five freshman who won the Duquesne intramural championship on a team called St. Jesus Marie, beating some members of the football team in the final.

And how St. Jesus Marie ended up as Burt’s practice squad was divine intervention, indeed.

“I was at a student organization event the first week of classes,” Burt explained. “I saw a few athletic kids walking toward me. And I just stopped ’em and I said, ‘you guys look like basketball players.’”

Burt said he pitched the group on being practice players. His expectation was just one or two would show up, and that maybe one would be a decent player. But, in this case, all five reported. In Burt’s words, they “blew the doors off” the coaching staff. Burt relayed that one of his assistants, Frank Ferraro, who used to be the men’s head coach at Waynesburg University, equated St. Jesus Marie to a good Division III team.

Grimm’s fellow practice squad teammates are comprised of two other products from WPIAL schools — Jared Konop (West Allegheny) and Dylan Schanck (Bethel Park). They are joined by David Lillo (Upper Dublin High School) and Gabe Martinez (Allentown Central Catholic).

They go through all the rigors and time demands of women on scholarship without any of the fun of actually playing in games.

Burt also insists they stay academically eligible, review film if necessary, know opponents’ plays, and follow all other pertinent team protocols. Plus, they face the same discipline the scholarship women do if they slip up.

“They run, too, if they lose,” Omogrosso laughed. “If they aren’t running the scout team’s plays hard enough or the right way, the coaches yell at them.”

So why do they do it? Why go through all the drudgery of practice and time commitments of a D-1 athlete without the reward of a scholarship or even a chance to play in a real game?

“It’s one to two hours a day of basketball,” Lillo said. “Whether or not I’m here, I’d be playing an hour or two of basketball at the rec center.”

Other benefits are even more simple.

“We get some practice gear,” Konop said.

“For the most part, I did it for the food,” Schank deadpanned.

Grimm and Schanck both say the men learned quickly that not only would their female counterparts be tough to deal with, but that it was their job not to hold back and return the physicality in kind.

“The second day, Paige Cannon cut me,” Schanck said. “Blood was running down my leg. And (grad assistant) Bri (Thomas) just yelled at me and said, ‘Go get her!’ So I said, alright.”

The contributions of the male players go beyond making the women better in practice. They’ve become a support system of sorts for the team as well, during what has been a challenging 12-11 season.

Sometimes, that meant volunteering to help unload the team bus after a middle-of-the-night return from Fordham. Or traveling through a snowstorm to Penn State, “Dukes” painted on their chests, to sit behind the team bench.

“We were running through the parking lot trying to dry off the paint five minutes before the game,” Martinez recalled.

You might wonder if there becomes a point of diminishing returns. Are the male players ever too big, too strong, or too quick so that they are no longer executing a heightened version of what their female counterparts will see in games, and rather frustrating their teammates or creating bad habits based on a physical simulation the players will never actually see?

“We try to govern them inside with their leaping ability,” Burt explained. “But on the perimeter, we want them to use their quickness and length. Because there are very few women that can have that.”

Burt says he only has two restrictions on the male practice squad.

• Don’t come from behind on breakaways to block shots.

• Don’t date the players.

I asked the practice squad which rule is harder to obey.

“No blocked shots,” Schanck said with the other four agreeing in unison.

As Burt said, “If you go to a party, you’ll have the 16 best ‘wingmen’ you could ever imagine.”

Sophomore guard Libby Bazelak said the topic of who would win a full five-on-five game came up at lunch last week.

“It depends on how we are all shooting that day,” Bazelak said. “It’d be tough. But I think we’d have them.”

The guys had a different opinion.

“It wouldn’t be close,” Konop said. “(We’d win) by 40 points at least.”

Who wants to bet it’d be a two-point game decided by a potential shot block in transition?

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.