Alumni find niche as key reserves
HATBORO » The fact it was a late-July summer game was not going to slow down Caitlyn Cunningham.
The Dresher resident, heading into her redshirt sophomore year at Jefferson University, had just picked off a pass in the corner and managed to save it by passing to a teammate before momentum carried her out of bounds. As the play went the other way, Cunningham found herself behind the makeshift bench in Kelly Bolish Gym and not wanting to get left behind, she hopped over a chair and sprinted up court.
Cunningham, a Mount Saint Joseph graduate, is among a number of local alumni honing their skills at the Philadephia/Suburban Women’s Summer Basketball League after a strong season as super-sub for their college teams.
“Summer, you’re supposed to get better, it’s your offseason so you have to improve,” Cunningham said. “I remember that night, it wasn’t really my scoring night but I’m happy to help out in any other way, even if that means making an extra steal and putting out the extra effort, I’m happy to do it.”
For many players coming out of high school as one of the top options for their teams, it’s a big adjustment finding a role with their college team. That transition is even bigger if a player moves from being a starter to coming off the bench, adding some uncertainty to their role or playing time from game to game.
“One of the first things you learn in college is that everything is more team-focused and every single person on the team can play and put in good minutes,” Cunningham said. “Me coming off the bench was working and if that’s what worked best for the team, great. That’s something as a bench player you have to focus on and know even if you’re not starting, you’re just as valuable to the team as any other person.”
North Penn graduate Jess Huber, who is heading into her sophomore year at USciences, had to deal with that transition this past winter. A lefty sharpshooter, Huber went from 1,000-point scorer at North Penn where she knew she’d get a lot of shots and minutes to coming off the bench for the Devils.
“It honestly took me a while, at North Penn I had a lot of free reign where at USciences it’s very structured,” Huber said. “It took me a while to learn the plays and understand the offense, but my teammates and coaches were great with it, super-helpful and I think next season will be a lot better.”
Huber appeared in 22 games for USciences last winter and averaged 3.6 points per game, but had a 5.0 ppg average in 12 games in the second half of the season. It was an admittedly slow start for Huber, who said she needed some time to get used not only to collegiate athletics, but the academic side of being a student-athlete. Around midseason, the guard started to feel more confident on the floor and as a result, her contributions increased.
“I think it’s all mental, all the coaches want is for you to impact the game in a positive way,” Huber said. “As soon I step on the court, I think what can I do to make things go better or be productive in any way? That doesn’t necessarily mean scoring, but maybe rebounding or defense, just anything I can do in a positive way.”
Cunningham had a terrific year coming off the bench for the Rams, playing in 32 games posting a 7.8 pgg average in 17.8 minutes per contest. The guard redshirted her first year on campus and felt that season of watching games but still practic-
ing daily really paid off this past winter.
During her redshirt season, Cunningham said she viewed practices like they were games and by being part of the scout team helped her get an understanding not only of her team’s system but also the preparation that goes into every college game. It showed this past season, where Cunningham was named CACC Rookie of the Week three times and twice scored 24 points in a game.
“I felt so much more prepared, I felt like I wasn’t a freshman and you’ve built a relationship with you teammates, so they know you just as well,” Cunningham said. “During practices, you’re expected to play as the other team, so you have to keep up that intensity. You practice just as hard as you’d play in a game and that’s how you’re going to get better.”
Rising Chestnut Hill College sophomore Cassie Sebold found a spot as one of the Griffins’ top reserves in her freshman season. Sebold, an Archbishop Wood graduate, appeared in 26 games, making one start to average 10.8 points per game in 25.6 minutes a contest.
Sebold was named the CACC’s Rookie of the Year and was a six-time Rookie of the Week recipient. She had a career-high 25 points but also posted a 22 point game and two 19 point performances during the season.
Like Huber, Irisa Ye left North Penn and found a quick niche as a reserve for USciences last winter. Also a rising sophomore, Ye’s hustle and defense helped her see time in 33 games, where she shot 50 percent from the floor to average 6.5 points per game.
Ye, a guard, was named CACC Rookie of the Week on Decemeber 4 and was also named to the CACC All-Tournament team. The former Knights standout, one of seven North Penn alumni playing in the summer league, had a careerbest 18 point game and led the Devils in scoring three straight games in late November to early December despite coming off the bench.
“They teach you lessons, the things you learn playing in that environment, you can’t learn by watching,” Ye said. “The little things you pick up. It’s still an adjustment, the first practice is still tough and you have school on top of that.
“The most challenging thing was being able to balance
everything, including basketball, because there’s so much more pressure. Everyone is as good as you or better, so you have to learn to play with better players coming out of high school but also time manage, take care of school and have a social life at the same time.”
With a season of college games to their name, Ye, Huber and Cunningham are each using this summer league to work on different parts of their respective game. Ye said the summer games, while helpful, are also lower pressure so players are able to focus on those areas and for her, it’s honing her outside shot.
Huber noted that defending at the college level is a much different test than high school or AAU, especially against older and stronger players, so she’s put her emphasis on the defensive end of the floor. USciences has its whole roster in the league, so Ye and Huber are also able to keep building chemistry with teammates.
“The Chestnut Hill game midseason is where I started to feel comfortable playing and wasn’t scared necessarily, the coaches trusted me a little bit so I think if they trust me, it puts trust in myself to do a little bit more,” Huber said. “You can’t think ‘if I make a mistake, I’m
going to get pulled,’ you can’t have that mentality because then you will mess up. My roommates have all been great and talked me through it.”
It’s a similar case for Cunningham and her Jefferson teammates. The redshirt sophomore usually first entered games in the second quarter, which allowed her to sense what the pace of the game was and read what type of plays were working for the Rams.
“I was able to adjust to how the game was already going and I thought it gave me an advantage,” Cunningham said. “Confidence was something I had to constantly remind myself of. In high school, when you start, you have that natural confidence and you feel it from your teammates where coming off the bench, it’s tougher so I had to always remind myself that I should be on the court as much as anyone else.”
Cunningham saw a lot of time at point guard and said she’s been working on her left hand this summer as a result.
Success as a bench player isn’t just about scoring points. Ye was able to impact a handful of games on the glass, averaging 2.7 rebounds per game and collected five or more boards on five different occasions.
“I know what I need to work on now, because you’re going to know what your weaknesses are during the season,” Ye said. “. I’m going to work on my areas of weakness and try to get stronger physically. You just have to keep grinding and keep working hard because that’s the thing I can control at this point”
Even with that redshirt year, Cunningham admitted she was nervous going into a college game for the first time. The guard finished with 13 points, four rebounds, five assists, four steals and just one turnover in a Jefferson comeback win, which showed her she was capable of being an impact player.
“Once the season progressed, I started to understand how many minutes I was going to play and it helps you manage how you’re going to play,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to play hard every single minute that I possibly could, but I was able to better manage that.”
There’s a natural inclination in any competitor to play as much of a role as possible, but Ye, Huber and Cunningham all said as long as their teams are winning, they’re fine in whatever role best allows that to happen.
“Going into next year, if that’s something that’s going
to get us to the (CACC) championship, that’s the ultimate goal that gets us into the NCAA tournament,” Cunningham said. “Everyone on the team is happy to do that, including myself.”
North Penn grad Jess Huber looks to shoot at a women’s NCAA summer basketball league.
Caitlyn Cunningham, a Mount St. Joe’s graduate, pulls up to shoot at women’s NCAA summer basketball league.