One shining moment.
In sports, it symbolizes to be on top of it all… to be the best…to hold that championship trophy.
For any collegiate athlete, that moment is the Holy Grail of their athletic careers.
But behind every victory, there lies a team. And behind every team lies a story, which sometimes goes untold. It is partly because the individuals in this story will never have that true “one shining moment,” and partly because this story is about a practice squad.
Yes, a practice squad.
Day in and day out the No. 8 Lady Lions hold rigorous practices to work on all fundamentals of their game. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they do not always practice against themselves.
They practice against men, donned in red practice jerseys, called the Red Dragons.
These are not your rag tag run of the mill guys who pretend to emulate Michael Jordan in Rec Hall.
They are unsung dragons who prep the Lady Lions for the fire and intensity of a game against any opponent.
First, they are handpicked, then they try out, then and, only then, they practice.
And even then, they’re not safe.
“They get in practice and if a kid looks like if he’s going to run into one of our players, we’re like, ‘Hey, timeout,’ ” assistant coach Fred Chmiel said. “ ‘We’ll see you next week,’ then we don’t call him.”
Lady Lions video coordinator Mike Miller is the one who chooses them. He said he usually recruits kids either by going to men’s walk-on tryouts, or just by word of mouth from the Red Dragons, or any Lady Lion.
That is how Dan Ondik (senior - electrical engineering) got recruited to the team. He was asked by his friend, former Red Dragon Matt Madia. The two met through club basketball.
Miller added that he does extensive research on the players to ensure Chmiel doesn’t step in often.
Some of that research includes the individual’s schedule and recommendations from past coaches and teammates who have seen the Red Dragon-hopeful play and know how he is inside the classroom.
If they get past that stage, the “fun” begins: dealing with the NCAA.
While the Red Dragons are not considered a varsity team at Penn State, they are still considered to be Division I athletes, Red Dragon Ben Pflaumer (junior - labor studies and employment relations) said.
“We had to go to an NCAA meeting and sit through hours of paperwork, filling out everything the girls have to,” Pflaumer said. “Then we have to abide by all the [NCAA] rules and [regulations].”
He added that he also had to get a physical and send in his SAT scores to the NCAA before he could start practicing.
Once they start practicing, that is it; it is just practice. Nobody tell Allen Iverson that.
There are neither games nor incentives other than to help Penn State prepare for its next opponent.
That doesn’t really bother them.
“It’s not really about what we get out of it,” Pfaumer said, “because a lot of us love the game and we could have gone to [Division III] schools, but we came here for our education and now we’re getting the best of both worlds.”
A typical practice
Twenty minutes before Lady Lions practice begins, the Red Dragons are already on the court.
Dressed in red, they roll in and start warming up before they meet with Chmiel.
Once they do, things get real.
Chmiel said every week the Dragons come in and learn the offensive and defensive schemes of each of the Lady Lions’ opponents that week.
“If we are playing three opponents in a week, they are learning three offensive schemes in a week,” Chmiel said. “It’s tough. Then if they don’t do it right, we are yelling at them, putting them on the line.”
Once practice starts, so does the intensity.
“There is definitely some trash talking,” junior guard Maggie Lucas said, laughing.
Redshirt junior Dara Taylor added that this leads to some friendly rivalries.
The Maryland transfer said she and Ondik have a rivalry at times, as they both play point guard. But Taylor enjoys it.
Last season, Taylor was forced to sit out due to NCAA transfer guidelines, but she saw limited action playing with the Dragons instead of against them.
“I got to throw them a couple passes here and there,” the starting guard said.
However, she was quick to say how much she loves playing against them rather than playing with them because of the competitiveness.
Those friendly rivalries spawn some of the intensity that is hard for other teams to match. It is something Candice Agee had to get use to.
“They play us like they’re playing boys. It’s sometimes scary…” the freshman said.
Agee added that no matter whom they play in a game, no team could match the toughness and intensity they see in practice against the Dragons.
“When we get done with practice, they’ve got scratches down the whole length of their arm, they’re bleeding, they’re trying to see the trainer...The [Lady Lions] get them,” Chmiel said.
Yet, past all the competition and rivalries, the Dragons are there for anything the Lions need.
“They are great guys, they’re sweet,” Taylor said. “They will stay and rebound with you after practice. They’re always wanting to play one-on-one and challenge you to shooting competitions.”
Ondik said that helping out like that is one of his favorite reasons he is a Red Dragon.
And the Lions are more than thankful to have them apart of their squad.
Agee said that without them, there would not be a women’s basketball team because they would all be injured from playing each other so much.
“They put a lot of time and effort into it for absolutely nothing... zero,” Chmiel said. “Not a lot of people like that out in the world. How many of you guys [asking the media] work for nothing? [If so] you can be a Red Dragon.”
That relationship the two teams form on the court in practice fosters a “One Team” mentality.
Agee said off the court, they are really close because they are just like any of her teammates.
While the Victorville, Calif. native said some of her teammates are closer to some of the Red Dragons than others, she is still searching for her “Red Dragon best friend.”
While the Red Dragons will never have the opportunity to play for a National Championship, the Lions will.
The Lions will have their shot at that one shining moment. But it appears not to bother the Red Dragons too much.
Because practicing with the Lions is their shining moment.