Feb. 2, 2016
By John Heisler
Matt Bensen’s heart nearly leaped out of his chest.
His emotions quickly ran the gamut from sheepish to terrified.
Bensen, one of the male practice players who works against the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball squad, had stepped on someone’s foot.
But not just any someone.
He stepped on Skylar Diggins’ foot.
Yes, that Skylar Diggins, the former multiple-time Irish All-America guard who back then was preparing for her senior season.
Diggins was not happy. She had rolled her ankle and was laying on the court.
Irish Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw was not happy.
Nobody was happy.
Bensen, then a freshman participating in his first practice during 2012 fall workouts, thought maybe his Irish contribution had come to a screeching halt.
“I was ready to leave,” he says now. “It was almost a very short career.”
But, somehow, everyone survived intact and Bensen, now in his fourth and final season in that role, can laugh about the incident.
Bensen joins some combination of practice teammates John Lammers (both will graduate in May), Brad Sherman, Reed Hunnicutt, Matt Mitan, David Lewis, Clayton Conroy, Thomas Bush, Dan Bensen (Matt’s younger brother) and Brian Bertsche most winter days facing off on the Purcell Pavilion court against McGraw’s currently third-ranked team.
They all like what they do, even though they may be the hardest working and yet most anonymous athletes on the Notre Dame campus. They aren’t on scholarship, and they aren’t paid. What they earn in return, in addition to some Under Armour gear, is the self-satisfaction that they have a chance to help Notre Dame win a national championship.
Most of them played basketball in high school, and a few entertained offers to continue playing at smaller schools. But, realistically, most came to Notre Dame because of the academic opportunities. They work their classroom and extracurricular schedules so that at least five make it to every Irish practice, coordinating their efforts through Notre Dame associate coach Niele Ivey. The job can entail as many as six practices a week during the season, in addition to a few volunteer, early fall preseason workouts. “Those are the ones that expose how out of shape we got during the summer,” says Matt Bensen with a laugh.
On most Irish home game nights at Purcell Pavilion, they can be found sitting high (and generally unnoticed) behind one of the baskets, often near the top row, observing (mostly quietly) from afar just how their preparatory handiwork plays out. Lammers invited his “teammates” to his off-campus house in December to watch Notre Dame’s road game at Connecticut.
Lammers and Matt Bensen are the veterans of the group (and also cousins), both in their fourth seasons as practice players. They help fill out the practice roster from year to year, with notice spreading relatively casually around campus by word of mouth. Several of the players will identify potential future prospects from the courts of the Rolfs Sports Recreation Center.
“The first couple of days (of practice) are a little like tryouts,” says Lammers. “Sometimes there may be a player who just isn’t good enough. If you don’t get the email or text back about the schedule, that’s it. If you hear back, you’re alright.”
From Downers Grove, Illinois, the 6-2 Bensen played at Benet Academy. As a junior in 2011 he participated on a team that finished 29-1 and was ranked sixth in the country by USA Today, led by eventual Wisconsin standout and current Charlotte Hornets rookie Frank Kaminsky.
The 5-8 Lammers comes from Glandorf, Ohio, where he helped Ottawa-Glandorf High School to the 2012 Ohio Division III semifinals, scoring a career-high 19 points in the last game of his final high school season.
“Sometimes we’ll watch some film before practice and then run through the other team’s plays,” says Lammers. “We’ll spend maybe 15 minutes with one of the assistant coaches before each practice.
“They’ll assign us to be a particular player on the other team. They match us up as best they can in terms of size and skill. That makes it interesting to watch the games and then see how that player actually performs against Notre Dame.”
Adds Mitan, “It’s great when you’re practicing to play against a great opponent, and then we all go to the game and see how it plays out. It’s fun to see what our team maybe struggled with during the week and then how they implement it during the game. You love that.
“And it’s exciting for us to see someone get in who doesn’t play a lot and get a bucket.”
At 6-6, Sherman (he was a first-team all-Huron League pick in 2014 at St. Mary Catholic Central High School in Monroe, Michigan) often becomes a critical piece with his size. Hunnicutt comes from St. Charles, Illinois–Mitan from Cincinnati.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve always had a really great group of guys–they are so dedicated,” says Ivey. “John is the most dedicated I’ve been around–he changed his schedule to make himself available, he changed his diet to help get in better shape. He always saw the importance of being prepared and being ready for us and how beneficial it was in our learning. He still looks like he’s 15–but when he steps on the court, you say, `Wow, he’s really good.'”
“Our guys have always been so awesome–I’ve never had anybody that wasn’t a pleasure to work with. They get it. And this is the best group by far. They are very smart — they understand how much to push but not to do too much. We trust them.
“In fact, we miss them around spring break and over Christmas break when they’re not here because then we’re going against each other and so practices are a lot harder. Even in preseason individual workouts where we have our point guards work against pressure, I’ll have one or two of the guys take part because it’s really beneficial.”
Lammers and Bensen and their co-workers pace themselves on the floor from a physical standpoint, understanding what their roles are all about.
“There’s a fine line between defending and playing too hard,” says Lammers. “If they have a fast-break layup we back off. We’re not there to cause injuries. If there’s a loose ball, we don’t dive on the floor because we don’t want to mess up someone’s knee.”
Sometimes the coaches will tell the practice players to “pressure the ball more,” but often it’s the Irish women’s players who yell at the guys.
“That happens if we get too many offensive rebounds,” says Lammers. “But, if we don’t score enough, it doesn’t help them.”
Adds Bensen, “Sometimes your competitiveness gets the best of you. The coaches want you to overplay on defense and get in the passing lanes because they are working on back door plays. You hate to get beat, but you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s not about you. We’re there to make them better.”
Says Lammers, “Sometimes you’re going full speed and they’ll take a charge against you. People fall down, and you’re thinking, `Please don’t be hurt.'”
Ivey made great use of the practice group, for example, in preparing guard Madison Cable to deal with face-guarding: “Maddie goes at it pretty good with the guys when they work on that.”
On one recent day, the Irish go only for an hour–working to start against three members of the practice squad (with two women’s players filling in), then four and five as others arrive. Lammers and Sherman and their teammates wear the same green shorts and white jerseys as the women. McGraw calls the guys by name as she and Ivey ask them to play different defenses against various Notre Dame offensive sets. Their quick hands and anticipation create just enough loose balls to keep everybody on their toes.
There’s a bit of a fraternity among current and past practice players. Once in a while a former player will stop by on a football weekend and join in an Irish workout. And, every so often, Diggins joins the practice squad.
“When she’s on our team, she expects a lot. It gets serious,” says Lammers. “One time I hit her in the face with my elbow. I didn’t really know if I should apologize or just keep playing.”
“She brings a serious side,” says Ivey of Diggins. “They know that when she’s around and steps out on the court.”
A handful of the practice players have traveled to NCAA Final Fours in recent years, even though they cannot play a role at the official sites. Says Lammers, “We met the UConn practice squad in Nashville. We’re better than them.”
More than anything else, the practice squad enjoys a particular level of camaraderie with the Irish women’s players.
“One of the cooler things about Notre Dame is that the athletes are part of the student body,” says Bensen. “They’ve usually got four or five McDonald’s All-Americans on the team and we’re all friends. That’s probably something I didn’t expect.”
Once in a while, the practice players have to pinch themselves when they realize they are working elbow to elbow with a Hall of Fame coach in McGraw, who started using male practice players several decades back when her roster was smaller and practice matchups were complicated.
“Muffet’s awesome,” says Lammers. “She had us all over for dinner at her house during finals week. She’s so down to earth. She gets recognized for her X’s and O’s with the Princeton offense, but she’s super good with the social aspect. She knows how to manage her players and put them in a position to succeed. It’s serious business, everything runs like clockwork. It’s neat to be a part of it.”
Adds Bensen, “When you have a really good team like this, you would think they would be susceptible to a one-off bad loss, but that just doesn’t happen. They beat who they are supposed to beat. That’s pretty rare.”
They all become friends–in fact, Cable and several of her teammates recently came to watch one of Lammers’ intramural basketball games.
And history shows that current Irish associate coach Beth Cunningham actually married one of the former Irish practice players (her husband Dan). So did former guard Mollie Peirick.
Adds Ivey with a laugh, “We keep saying somebody else has to have some kind of romantic connection here, but our players go, `Oh, John’s our brother.'”
Notre Dame’s once-beaten women’s team (the lone Irish blemish came at top-rated Connecticut) remains perfect in league play while rolling through its Atlantic Coast Conference slate. The Irish have won their nine conference outings by an average of 20 points.
The 2016 NCAA Women’s Final Four is slated for the first weekend in April a few hours down the highway in Indianapolis.
Lammers, Bensen and their teammates hope their work over the next few months will make that road trip reality.
— ND —
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— Troy Murphy: His Relentless Yet Fun-Loving Approach Did the Trick http://www.und.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/012216aad.html
— Sunday Brunch: Irish Officially Hot . . . But Shhh http://www.und.com/sports/m-hockey/spec-rel/011716aaa.html
— Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish http://www.und.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/011016aaa.html
— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/kizer-article.html
— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/123015aaj.html
— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/123015aah.html
— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/122915aab.html
— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015: http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/102315aae.html
— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner–and Moves On http://www.und.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/101215aaa.html
— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers: http://www.und.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/090415aaa.html
— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation http://www.und.com/sports/m-soccer/spec-rel/090315aac.html
— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices: http://www.und.com/genrel/092215aae.html
— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium: http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/092315aag.html
— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father http://www.und.com/sports/m-lacros/spec-rel/100715aad.html
— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: http://www.und.com/genrel/092115aaa.html