by Tom Utescher
“Don’t let anyone say you can’t!”
It’s been sort of a guiding mantra throughout Kendall Grasela’s life. It inspired her as an athlete growing up to become a basketball standout at Germantown Academy and for the renowned Philadelphia Belles AAU franchise, and also as a student who earned membership in the National Honor Society and in the Chinese National Honor Society (she’s fluent in Mandarin).
Now a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, she’s overcoming even greater challenges. Since last season she’s been the starting point guard for the Penn Quakers’ basketball team, while also attending the university’s School of Nursing, which has repeatedly been ranked number one in the world in international surveys.
This means, in addition to adhering to the rigorous practice and travel schedule of a Division I college athlete, she’s attending classes and participating in clinical nursing sessions that start as early as 6:30 or 7:00 a.m.
She started out in a pre-med course of study at Penn, then decided to enter the School of Nursing as a sophomore while continuing to play basketball. She’d heard that every athlete at the university who’d entered the demanding Penn Nursing program had eventually dropped off of their sports team, but when people told Grasela she couldn’t do both, she just became more determined.
She was pleased and reassured when she received a warm reception from the nursing faculty.
She related, “When I transferred in, they said they’d never had a basketball player, and that they were going to do everything they could to make it work. They’ve been so flexible, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Over at the Palestra, basketball administrators have also been accommodating.
“They changed some of the practice and lifting schedules to work around me,” Grasela said. “Coach [Mike] McLaughlin’s daughter went to nursing school at Rutgers, so he knows how much is involved.”
Her fellow players are on board, as well.
“They do little errands and favors for me, and help me any way they can,” she explained. “When I come to practice, they ask ‘What happened in clinical today?’ I couldn’t ask for better teammates.”
She admits up front that her endeavors would not be possible without the support of teammates, friends, faculty, and above all, her family. Grasela is one of 11 children, and an older sister, Courtney, is a nurse at Jefferson University Hospital and is studying anesthesiology.
Life was a bit simpler for Grasela when she was a freshman. She had not yet entered nursing school, and on the basketball team she performed strictly in a back-up role. Except in contests that were lopsided victories for the Quakers, she only played for a few minutes each game during her freshman and sophomore years.
This was not a situation she was accustomed to, but she continued to dedicate herself to the team.
Her work ethic and her increasing familiarity with the requirements of the college game had not gone unnoticed, it turned out. During the fall leading up to her junior season, she learned that she would be Penn’s starting point guard.
Now, in her second season in that key position, she has settled in.
“I’ve gained a better understanding of the game, when to push the ball, when to pull it back,” she explained.
One of the traditional functions of a point guard is to act as an extension of the coach on the court, and Grasela noted, “I’m getting to know what plays Coach McLaughlin wants to call in a given situation, and I can anticipate what he’s going to ask us to do.”
Helping Penn become Ivy League co-champion (with Princeton) last winter, Grasela was named one of three team captains for the 2019-20 campaign. The Quakers got off to the best start in the history of the program, the only blemish on their 10-1 record being a loss at Duke.
Recently, Penn suffered its second loss as it opened the league season against archrival Princeton. Next came a short road trip to Villanova University last Wednesday night. There, Grasela would encounter another GA graduate, Laura Kurz, who is now in her fifth season as an assistant coach for the Wildcats.
Germantown Academy’s all-time leading scorer, Kurz signed with Duke University and later transferred to Villanova, where she scored over 1000 points in two seasons. She was an assistant coach at Lehigh University and at Penn Charter before arriving at Villanova to assist longtime head coach Harry Perretta, who is retiring after 41 seasons at the Main Line school.
Villanova, entering Wednesday’s game with a record of 9-7 overall and 4-2 in the Big East Conference, jumped out to a 6-0 lead with a pair of three-pointers, but Penn later caught up at 13-13 and then led 21-17 at the end of the quarter.
Early in the second period, Grasela popped in a short jumper from the lane to make it 25-19, and soon after that the Quakers widened the gap to 11 points at 30-19. ‘Nova was back within four at halftime though, and by the end of the third quarter the Wildcats had forged ahead, 46-44.
Villanova pulled away in the fourth period, shooting 9/11 from the floor and 3/4 from the three-point line to win 70-58. Grasela finished with two points, five assists, and two steals.
She observed that late in the game, “It seemed like they couldn’t miss. We’ve had a very successful season, and I don’t think this game and the Princeton game are indicators of the team we are. We started both games strong, but then we got away from the way we want to play. There were definitely some lessons to be learned.”
In the audience at Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion were some members of Penn’s nursing school faculty, including Dean Antonia M. Villarruel.
“They had posters in school and on the Facebook page saying ‘come out and support Kendall,” she related. “It was exciting to have them there, although it kind of stinks that I didn’t play better.”
Grasela has been told she’ll be featured in an upcoming edition of the Penn Nursing magazine, but her relative celebrity among the student body doesn’t make her course load any lighter. Before playing at Villanova last week she had a relatively brief school day, spending only six hours in class. Some of her clinical shifts last 12 hours, and she pointed out that even her classroom lectures are the longest of any department at the university.
“It’s like having a full-time job while also playing basketball,” she remarked.
Because credits from her early pre-med courses did not transfer over to the School of Nursing, she’s currently somewhere between junior and senior status.
She was able to take extra courses to catch up in the classroom, but the clinical regimen can’t be accelerated. She’ll officially finish up in November, but first she hopes to serve a clinical rotation in Trinidad this summer.
“I thought it would be a good experience because it’s a very poor third world country,” she explained. “I think it’ll expand my perspective and make me even more grateful for the chances I’ve been given.”
Her hands-on experiences, along with her overall caring nature, will influence her decision about the path she’ll take in graduate studies.
“I’ve always loved kids,” she said, “and I want to work in an area where I can really have an impact.”
Becoming a nurse practitioner is an intriguing option for her, especially if it happens to be in a setting where she’ll work with athletes. The field her older sister has chosen, anesthesiology, also interests her, and she spent time shadowing with a CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist).
Obviously, she will miss playing basketball, but she admits her schedule will become considerably less hectic once her hoops career ends. For now, she and her Penn teammates want to keep playing as long as they can this season, and want to remain Ivy League champions.
“Princeton is always a big one, and Yale has most of their players back from last year,” she pointed out. “Really, in the Ivy League you can’t overlook anyone.”
Performing her difficult dual role as a Division I athlete and a nursing student, she is doing what she loves, but she is also conscious that she is setting an example for those who come after her. On the basketball team, she enjoys serving as a mentor to another point guard who has come out of the Inter-Ac League, freshman Mandy McGurk from the Academy of Notre Dame.
Thinking of future Penn athletes who may consider taking on the kind of challenges she has embraced, Grasela said, “I hope that I’ll inspire some other students to do what I’m doing.”
If she could talk to them directly, she almost certainly would advise, “Don’t let anyone say you can’t.”