COLUMBIA — Head coach Mike Davis passes the ball to assistant coach Chris Duncan on the wing, who throws it into the post to athletic trainer Jon Barfknecht for an easy basket.
After the play, Davis switches back from point guard to coach, chastising forward Jessica James for her defensive footwork against a low post screen. On the other side of the court, MU graduate student Ryan Ellebracht repeatedly pokes forward Davida Moore, making it difficult for Moore to pay attention to Davis’ instruction.
A typical practice for the Columbia College women’s basketball team.
Rather than using a typical practice squad, usually composed of male students, such as the one used by the Missouri women’s basketball team, the Cougars scrimmage against a scout team composed of Davis, Duncan, Barfknecht, Ellebracht, and student assistant Danielle Riekeberg.
At a practice the day before a game, Davis walks his coaches through the offense of the Cougars’ upcoming opponent. Once the coaches have the plays down, Davis brings in his starters on the defensive side of the ball and shows them what to do to stop the scout team.
With only nine players on its roster, it would be impossible for Columbia College to practice without a scout team. But the coaches-versus-players scrimmages are by no means a second option.
Mention of the scrimmages brings grins to the faces of coaches and players alike.
“It’s serious, but it provides more of a fun atmosphere all at the same time,” guard Nancy Thornsberry said.
A large part of that fun is the friendly rivalry that has developed between the players and coaches, which Davis said motivates players to work hard in practice.
“I think it helps our competitiveness a little bit, because obviously we don’t want to lose to these old guys,” guard Whitney Widaman said. “We come out and I think we play pretty hard as unit. We want to beat them every time.”
That competitiveness is especially strong between Davis, who plays point guard in the practices and the players whose job it is to cover him. Widaman and Thornsberry did not hesistate to say that Davis is the best player on the practice squad.
According to Widaman, Davis especially likes to pick on guard Keishell Paul.
“Every time he guards her, he is always like “This is going to be really easy ‘Shell, you can’t take me,’” Widaman said.
During a recent practice Davis dribbled between Paul’s legs to try and make her angry. Davis said that trash talking his players during practice often motivates them to play harder.
On another occasion, Davis shoved Paul during a scrimmage. When Paul retaliated, Davis ended up landing on the floor. The other players on the court at the time were stunned, unsure of whether or not it was OK to laugh. Davis quickly diffused the situation, however, bursting into laughter himself. Before long before everyone in the gym was laughing too.
One of the team’s more personal practice rivalries is between Davis and Widaman. According to Widaman, playing against Davis in practice is a great challenge.
“I guard him pretty much every time and I get into his grill sometimes,” Widaman said. “He was an amazing athlete and he is still really good now.”
Neither Davis nor Widaman would admit that the other has the advantage when they match up.
When Widaman stripped the ball from Davis at halfcourt during a recent practice, Davis dismissed the play as a foul.
“You know when you get to referee as well as play you kind of have the advantage,” Davis said.
Likewise, Widaman claims that whenever Davis makes a shot over her it is simply a fluke.
“He still nails threes in my eye every once in a while. I don’t let him have too many of those,” Widaman said.
Another personal rivalry at the practices is between Ellebracht and Moore. Ellebracht enjoys picking on Moore because he said she needs to become more aggressive as a post player.
“She’s not mean enough to be the big girl, so she needs to get meaner,” Ellebracht said. “If she just punched me or something I would not mind that at all. I’d be happy.”
Davis has been using coaches to scrimmage against his players for years, but has at times used student-composed scout teams as well. The deciding factor between the two is often whether or not he can find the right group of students for a practice squad.
“Number one they have to be good enough and talented enough where they help you,” Davis said. “Number two they also have to come in here and not say ‘I have to block every shot or foul somebody and get someone hurt.’ They understand their role with it.”
Having the coaches learn the opponent’s plays prevents the confusion among players that might occur if the women simply scrimmaged against each other.
“If we ask them to do what the other teams are doing, it just builds bad habits,” Duncan said.
Using the coaches in practice is also designed to prevent injuries, but it is not always an effective strategy.
A favorite story to tell among both players and coaches involves Barfknecht and Thornsberry. Barfknecht was holding Thornsberry while the two pursued a loose ball. Thornsberry collided with guard Chayla Hale, splitting Thornsberry’s face. Barfnecht was forced to switch from playing against Thornsberry to providing her with medical attention.
The players are not the only ones to have come away from a coaches-versus-players scrimmage with an injury.
During Davis’ second year as coach of the Cougars in 2003, Avril Jandles, a player from Zimbabwe, split Davis’ face. As a result, Davis was forced to coach the postseason with a black eye and stitches.
While his focus when practicing with the women is on helping them improve, Duncan said practicing helps him stay in shape as well.
“I’ve lost about 18 pounds playing with the women,” Duncan said. “I’m getting in shape, and my wife loves it too.”
With their own playing days behind them, Davis and Duncan both indicated that they enjoy practicing with the women because it gives them a chance to get back out on the court.
“In lots of ways it is great enjoyment to be out there to still be a part of being on the court somewhat,” Davis said. “I think it’s something the girls enjoy, and I know the coaches enjoy it too. I think it is just something that both groups have handled in a really good way, and it’s turned into a good situation for us.”