Penn point guard Kendall Grasela (left), a 2016 Germantown Academy graduate, drives to the hoop against Marissa Mackins of the Temple Owls. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

When the women’s basketball team at the University of Pennsylvania took on Temple University last January, 2016 Germantown Academy graduate Kendall Grasela saw exactly one minute of action for the Quakers. Last Wednesday, in this season’s meeting with the Temple Owls, the junior out of GA was Penn’s starting point guard.

A 71-62 victory at the Palestra allowed the Quakers to finish second within the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five as Grasela recorded five points and five assists.

She is a facilitator for the offense more than a key scorer, although last Wednesday an early three-pointer and then a shorter jumper let the Owls know they couldn’t ignore her completely.

“Usually,” she said, “the other team doesn’t think I’m going to shoot, so it’s good for me to take an open shot when I have it and keep them off-balance. If I make them come out and play on me more, I can look for passes and assists.”

She did reach double-digits in scoring in a road game early this season, finishing with 10 points in Penn’s 75-55 loss to the top-ranked team in the nation, Notre Dame. The Quakers are only now entering the thick of the Ivy League season, and have made an auspicious start by beating defending champ Princeton, 66-60.

Grasela’s ascent to a starting role has brought greatly increased responsibilities on the basketball court at a time when her academic regimen is becoming extremely rigorous. In her third year at the Ivy League institution, she has now officially entered Penn’s School of Nursing, which has not only been ranked number one in the nation, but also topped a major international survey in 2016.

“The nursing school seems to be super excited to have a basketball player,” she said. “They’ve actually told me they’ve never had a basketball player in their program, so I kind of want to prove to people that you can do it.”

Anyone who has gotten to know the dedicated student athlete realizes that her compassionate nature makes her well suited for the profession.

“To me, it doesn’t get better than helping people,” she said. “I love being hands-on and helping people feel better, having that person-to-person interaction.”

Her older sister, Courtney, is a nurse at Jefferson University Hospital and is a valuable resource for Kendall. She was in the stands at the Palestra last Wednesday evening to cheer on her sibling, along with their mother, Michelle.

“I’m lucky to have Courtney ahead of me as a role model, and someone close to me who can answer all of the questions I have,” the Penn junior said. “Now she’s going on to get her doctorate in nursing, which is something I’m also interested in.”

She has occasionally entertained the idea of going to medical school, and certainly would be capable of doing so. Always an outstanding student at Germantown Academy, she was a member of the National Honor Society and became fluent in Chinese.

In her senior year at GA, she helped lead the Patriots’ basketball team on a 12-0 championship run through the Inter-Ac League. In her first two seasons at Penn, though, Grasela spent a good deal of time on the bench. The Quakers’ starter at the point, Anna Ross, didn’t leave the court very often; as a senior last winter she averaged over 33 minutes per game.

Kendall Grasela (left) goes for a loose ball along with Temple’s Emani Mayo. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In the offseason, Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin never told Grasela that she was in line for a starting role, but she still prepared in earnest.

“Last summer I knew it was important for me to work hard and get in the best basketball condition I could,” she explained. “Then the whole pre-season I was actually going against the starters, so I think [McLaughlin] was having me work on my leadership skills. I didn’t start practicing with the other starters until about a week before our first game.”

Grasela said there has been a change in the Penn offense this season, one that’s to her liking.

She noted “In years past at Penn there’s been more set offense, but this year we’re really trying to push in transition. I think that’s one of my strengths, running in transition and finding open shooters. I enjoy this offense.”

The change in approach requires mobile forwards who can get down the court quickly, and the Quakers have them in the likes of six-foot senior Princess Aghayere and 6’4” sophomore Eleah Parker, last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year.

Grasela related, “That was the same when I played at GA and Margaret Anne Hubbell [who went on to play at West Point] would run the floor and I would throw the ball up to her. At Penn, it’s great to have Eleah and Princess running the floor with me.

“I’ll continue to work on my confidence level as a point guard,” she went on. “I think I’m getting all my teammates involved in the offense, and maybe I can get myself a little more involved.”

Further addressing the transition from high school to college basketball, the Quakers junior commented on the decision made by Philadelphia’s Friends Schools League to introduce a shot clock for all varsity games this season. It’s the first league in Pennsylvania to make this change, although the shot clock has been a fixture for decades in collegiate competition.

“I like that idea; I think that prepares people for the next level,” Grasela said. “There were so many games in high school when we would just try to stall the clock for two or three minutes, and it’s so unrealistic in terms of what you’ll be doing in college basketball.”

She added that in her own role as point guard, “You have to know what’s on the shot clock at all times. You need to know whether you have time to go into a set or whether you’ve got to call a high ball screen and do it yourself.”

Both in and out of the gym, it’s been easy for Grasela to settle in as part of a large, diverse student population at an Ivy League university. In her own family, she is one of 11 children from a variety of different backgrounds.

She observed, “It’s nice coming from a big family, and a family that has a bunch of diversity and different aspects to it. It helps you adapt to the real world.”

As a third-year undergrad at Penn, she’s living in a house at the edge of the campus with seven of her basketball teammates. They all run on the same schedule in terms of athletics, but Grasela’s responsibilities within the nursing school curriculum require an extraordinary level of commitment.

Currently, she’s engaged in OBGYN classes and labs as well as those for pharmacology, and a new course of clinical study begins in February. On the day of last week’s Temple game she was in classrooms and laboratories for eight hours before heading to the Quakers’ pre-game shoot-around.

Her clinical work will be done at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which, she pointed out, is only a short walk from the Palestra. Going forward, that stroll down Spruce St. and along 33rd will be the easiest part of her day.

Grasela is well aware that following the path she’s chosen will demand no small measure of perseverance, but basketball is one of the loves of her life, and nursing is not simply a career choice for her, but a calling.

She still wears a “Team Taggart” sticker in memory of her Germantown Academy classmate Bobby Taggart, who died of cancer in the fall of their senior year.

She remarked, “I think, in part, what I’m doing is a way of honoring Bobby and people like him.”

It’s not difficult to imagine Grasela becoming a nurse in an area such as pediatric oncology, probably the most emotionally demanding discipline in all of medicine.

It’ll be a natural decision for her; as she says, “I love kids.”

The children will love her, too, and be thankful that she’s there.