Practice Squad Makes Perfect Fit

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Have you heard about the new players showing up at Cal women's basketball practices?

They have surprising size (one's 6-foot-9), skill (they can drain it from 30 feet) and athleticism (several can dunk).

Unfortunately for the Bears, they also have chest hair and five o'clock shadows.

They're the men that make up the practice squad.

Despite their lack of NCAA eligibility, they've found a way to help out the program in a big way.

The group of seven guys, recruited ad hoc from the student body, is one of head coach Caren Horstmeyer's most valuable practice tools.

"These guys are bigger, stronger and faster than us, and it forces us to raise our level of play," she says. "It really adds to the intensity in practice."

They're a ragtag bunch, this scout team.

From the towering Ognen Stojanovski, who stands taller than any opponent the Bears are likely to face, to Hanan Beliak, who at 5-9 looks up at most of the team, there is a variety of size and body type, but all look like guys that have played their share of ball, and they have.

Made up of former high-school athletes, most in good shape, the squad could probably own the floor in RSF pickup games, and they certainly don't lose much to the Cal women.

In today's practice, the guys give the team fits in a pressing drill, then dominate a scrimmage 25-9.

In addition to participating in basic drills, the scout team is responsible for mimicking the upcoming opponent's offense each week, running the same plays and imitating the style of individual players.

The Bears say the competition they face in practice is often tougher than what they face in Pac-10 play, and Horstmeyer says that's the goal.

"Ultimately, we want to make the games easy compared to our practices," says the second-year head coach. "If we beat them at something in practice, I can use that for motivation during a game."

It's not exactly a cushy job. For a weekly six-hour commitment, the guys can get 0.5 Physical Education units, priority Tele-Bears registration and the possibility of free shoes.

"If they show commitment over the course of the season, they can get shoes," says assistant coach Camille Burkes. "We make sure they earn it."

Nevertheless, they are unanimously appreciative of the opportunity.

"They treat us real well," says Morris Davis. "We get to go to games, and sometimes we get food."

Most cite the chance for consistent exercise and the feeling of staying involved in athletics as the reason for joining, but say the most rewarding thing is not their own play.

"It's more exciting to see them win (in competition) than for us to beat them in practice," says Davis. "It's hard to see them lose when they work so hard."

Though the young Bears are struggling with a 6-15 record, they say there's been significant improvement through the season.

"We're not intimidated by the guys anymore, and that helps us be better in games," says freshman point guard Kristin Iwanaga. "Facing them in practice has made us play much better."

In the end, that's the main goal of the practice squad, and they know it.

"We're not out for ourselves," says Davis. "We know we're here to help them do better."

Some, like Marlon Harrison, a sports management major who serves as a manager on the men's team, hope to use the experience to improve their resume and gain valuable connections.

However, Davis, a sports medicine major, says that's hardly the primary motivation.

"Hey, if I'm looking for a job in the field and I get a good reference, that's just a bonus. We're all in it for fun."

Despite their lack of official status, the guys betray a sense of camaraderie, both amongst themselves and the women's team that is clearly indicative of a strong team spirit.

"The guys get along well, and they've developed friendships with the team as well," says Burkes. "They become part of the Bear family."

These friendly relations don't prevent the action from getting plenty competitive, especially when bragging rights and a friendly wager are riding on the outcome.

The winners of a drill not only escape the torture of suicide sprints, but get to subject the losers to an embarrassing activity of choice. After a recent loss, the guys were put through the gauntlet of the Soul Train, a freestyle dance that they performed with varying degrees of hilarity.

"Kosta (Demiris) is the only one who got crazy-he did the Worm and some sort of Electric Slide," says Beliak. "I just pretended I couldn't dance."

This loose spirit is a critical part of making the practice squad a valuable part of the program, Horstmeyer says.

"Besides being good players, it's important for these guys to have the right attitude. Not only do they have to be committed, but they have to want to help us," she notes. "We can't have guys trying to dunk on team members to feed their ego, and we haven't. These guys are doing a heck of a job."

Burkes, who works most closely with the scout team, says she often has to push the men to be more aggressive rather than hold them back.

"We want them to play hard and come to win, and this group is pretty good about that" Burkes says. "The team appreciates the guys pushing them to do better."

Demiris, a senior majoring in political science, says the play is more competitive than a typical pickup game, but with different challenges.

"I definitely foul less," says Demiris, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds. "But we play real hard. They're not afraid to stay low and body us inside."

The biggest problem, most squad members agree, is using the smaller women's regulation ball, which can wreak havoc on their jumpshot.

"Usually, I only shoot threes," jokes Stojanovski, who has a shot that would make Shaq cringe. "But now, I have to play in the post."

While Stojanovski is probably better off staying on the inside, his squad's work should go a long way in helping the Bears get to where they want to be-on top.


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