Kendall Grasela was on a trip to Cape Cod when she sent a routine text to Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin. The text was not anything special; it was the same as the one she used to send her former coach every few months.
She wanted to visit the team before the 2021-22 season began, which was only two more months away. McLaughlin expressed his optimism about the team’s preseason preparations after it had just completed its annual mile test. He also informed Grasela of a recent change in the team’s coaching staff. Stephanie Carideo, the assistant coach who specialized in working with Penn’s guards, had left the program to accept the head coaching position at Haverford College.
At the time, Grasela, who has remained in contact with her coaches since her graduation in 2020, was unaware of Carideo’s departure. Although the news was a surprise, it made sense, considering several conversations Grasela had had with her former guards’ coach.
Carideo had questioned Grasela about her thoughts on coaching. The answer from Grasela — whose love for the game never wavered when her own ball stopped bouncing at the conclusion of her senior season — was a resounding yes.
The two continued to talk about what coaching could look like with Grasela’s work schedule. Grasela’s role as a registered nurse in the NICU at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offered her flexibility, as she typically worked only three days each week and did not follow a set schedule. Grasela called it “a conversation about a…” “dead point,”She went back to her routine.
That is, until McLaughlin brought up Carideo’s job change, and the now-open position on Penn women’s basketball’s coaching staff. Grasela was able to connect the dots and mention her conversation with Carideo, which she then shared with McLaughlin.
The rest is history. McLaughlin, Grasela began to talk about McLaughlin returning to the program in Carideo’s spot. Penn released a statement on Oct. 5th announcing Grasela as her assistant coach.
Penn had a point guard as a starting pointguard when Kendall Grasela arrived in the fall 2016. Anna Ross, a four-year Penn starter, was the team’s first point guard. She holds Penn records for single-season and all time assists. Grasela spent her first two seasons studying under Ross, learning what it took to play point guard for Penn women’s basketball.
She played in 12 games during her freshman season for a Quaker team that won both the Ivy League regular-season and tournament championships. Her playing time increased the next season and she averaged almost seven minutes per game in 29 matches.
Grasela was offered a unique opportunity during those first two seasons. Not only did she get a chance to learn the point guard position while studying under one of Penn’s most decorated players, but Grasela also got to learn what it took to be both an Ivy League and Big 5 champion.
“Kendall won a lot of games at Penn,”McLaughlin stated. “She’s a champion, and so she has a lot of experience to give.”
Grasela was able show everything she had learned from Ross when she took over the starting position of point guard for the 2018-19 season. Grasela’s efficient style of play, which prioritized spreading the ball and minimising turnovers, led to the Quakers winning the Ivy League regular-season title. Her 2.2 assist/turnover ratio was third in the Ivy League, and her 105 assists were second.
Grasela continued to build upon her success as a senior coach and team captain. She used every single one of her 868 minutes to play a selfless kind of basketball that placed her as one of the nation’s most efficient point guards. Her 2.8 assist/turnover ratio was better than anyone else in the Ancient Eight, and she ranked seventh in the country.
Grasela was a master of team-first basketball by the time she finished her senior season. She was now the kind of point guard that is successful, and she was a great leader on the court.
“That position requires leadership [and] requires selflessness,”McLaughlin stated. “You have the ball in your hand, you’re the decision-maker, you’re the play-caller, [and] so there’s a lot of eyes on you. So, the expectation of that position requires a great deal of leadership in my eyes. Kendall had the experience of doing it here. She had that quality and that trait.”
Point guard requires many intangibles. It’s not enough to be skilled at getting the ball to your playmakers or to protect the ball and avoid turnovers. Point guards who succeed are able to lead their team from both ends of the floor are also skilled in basketball technical knowledge.
“Since I was a point guard and I was able to command the offense and the defense, I think that is a great position to move to a coach,” Grasela said. “A lot of responsibility is on the point guard to step up and know what your coaches like. I think that will translate into my ability to help coach and be an asset because I was in that position where I was facilitating the offense [and] where I was keeping the team camaraderie up.”
There’s no doubt that Grasela’s mastery of the point guard position will help her, as she makes the jump into coaching. It will be particularly useful in replacing a coach who was a specialist in working with guards. She will be able to pass along the same strategies that she learned studying under Anna Ross and that she utilized in her two years as Penn’s starter.
It’s not just that Grasela succeeded as a point guard. She didn’t play college basketball just anywhere — she played it at Penn. Her success came while donning the same red and blue uniforms that will be worn by those she’s coaching.
“I think in Kendall’s situation, she lived what it’s like to be a Penn women’s basketball player and student,”Carideo stated. “When you put both those variables together, it’s just instant respect and credibility.”
Her on-court success isn’t the only thing that will give her credibility. Her achievements off the court have earned her respect. Grasela graduated from a top-ranked undergraduate nursing program. She had to manage eight-hour clinical shifts while also managing the demands of a Division I basketball year. She handled the seemingly impossible balance required of Ivy League student-athletes, serving as a perfect resource for the players she’s about to mentor.
“I feel like it’s nice to have someone that’s done it on your coaching staff because they can relate to the players and what they’re going through,” Grasela said. “I went to Penn, I was a student-athlete there, and now I am coming back as a coach, and I have maybe a different perspective because I went through all of that.”
Grasela will be working alongside a talented group players in her first season. The Quakers were picked to finish second in the Ivy League in the 2021 Ivy League Women’s Basketball Preseason Media Poll and received three first-place votes.
Kayla Padilla will be the junior captain on the court. She played alongside Grasela in 2019-2020. Padilla, a talented shooter who averaged 17.4 points per game in her freshman campaign, directly benefited from her backcourt partner’s pass-first play style. Grasela was also a role model for Padilla.
“She was one of the main people, when I came here as a freshman, who really taught me the ropes in terms of learning the system and really being a good example of how to be a Penn basketball player,” Padilla said. “Now she can continue to do that with a bigger impact as a coach.”
Coaching the same players that she competed with just two years ago and one season ago is a special opportunity that Grasela hasn’t taken for granted. At practice, she often catches herself after exciting plays, remembering that she’s now their coach, not their teammate.
“Sometimes I get super excited,” Grasela said. “I almost feel like I’m out there again with them.”
Grasela brings to coaching a level and poise that is extraordinary for someone who is just starting out in the field. Her technical basketball knowledge, as well as her familiarity with McLaughlin’s coaching style and scheme, will help her to make an immediate impact. There are still many hurdles. Grasela, as in her playing career will have to spend time learning about coaching.
But that doesn’t mean her first year will be restricted to watching McLaughlin and the other assistants lead the charge. Grasela will find her own place on the team this season. Her rapport with the players will be a benefit.
“Now [she’s] involved in a coaches’ meeting and she’s seeing that in a different eye, and that requires a little bit of time,”McLaughlin stated. “For now, I think the easy thing for her is relationship-building. She played with many of these players, and there [are] a lot of new players in the program who were not here when she was here. The simple thing is getting out there on the floor with them early and shooting with them and building that relationship and that trust.”
Grasela has always been a great coach for those who have had the privilege of coaching her. Grasela’s leadership on the court and her ability to mentor younger players to help them transition to college basketball were qualities that not all players possess. For Grasela, they’re second nature.
“There are certain players that you coach that you kind of feel that they could translate to really help teach and mentor and grow our girls,”Carideo stated. “When I had the ability to coach her, she was just one of those players, the way that she saw the game, the way that she approached the game, she could really get into coaching.”
The Ivy League has a rule that schools can only have two full-time assistant coaches and one volunteer. It has been difficult for Quakers and other Ivy teams to fill these volunteer positions with candidates who could make a significant difference in the program’s success.
Carideo was a basketball veteran when she joined Penn’s program in the prior season of 2019-20. Her career to that point had included stints as an assistant coach for the men’s team at Jefferson University and as the head women’s coach for Penn State Abington, where she was NEAC Coach of the Year.
Her September departure, which happened late in the Penn offseason left a gap that many believed would prove difficult to fill. Carideo knew who was the right person for the job. A few phone calls later, and Penn women’s basketball had what McLaughlin repeatedly called a “home run.”
“I’m not just giving you coach speak,”McLaughlin stated. “To fit someone as a volunteer, that’s why it’s a home run … it’s a perfect match for both of us. I couldn’t be any more excited that she’s back for us.”
Penn women’s basketball is currently in the heat of its preseason. After a few weeks of practice and scrimmaging, they will travel to Hartford to begin their season against the Hawks. The game will be the team’s first since March, 2020, when Grasela was still the team’s starting point guard.
This season, Grasela’s role will look different. She won’t be taking the ball down the court and looking to feed it to Padilla for an open three. Instead, she’ll be on the sideline, taking notes and checking in with the players.
But Grasela doesn’t mind. In fact, she’s embraced her new opportunity and is prepared to savor every minute of her return to her alma mater.
“When basketball ended … I wanted to stay involved in any way I could,” Grasela said. “So, this opportunity to coach at Penn is a dream.”