Contributing Writer, Alex Maminakis
Carlie Needles sizes up Daniel Mumford, preparing to defend him. Needles, a fifth-year Florida Gators guard, turns to an assistant coach, “Is he playing 11 or 15 right now?” she asks, referring to Daniel’s jersey number.
The coach replies, “15.” “Lefty,” Needles says to herself, remembering the scouting report.
In her mind, she is defending an Alabama shooting guard who she will face in a game the next night. In reality, it’s Daniel, a University of Florida geography major. The whistle blows and practice is underway.
As Needles defends Daniel, Daniel does his best to imitate the Alabama guard he is acting as – he’s read the scouting reports, too. As Daniel runs play after play against a rotation of women guards, head coach Amanda Butler recognizes he’s getting tired. She calls in a substitute for Daniel, applauding his efforts. Daniel jogs to the water cooler on the sideline, drenched with sweat. He fills up a small cup of water and collapses onto a seat on the bench, catching his breath and drying himself off with his jersey.
Daniel is just one of the men whose job it is to practice with the Florida women’s basketball team. The Gators women’s program utilizes a scout team of practice players to prepare for each opponent – a scout team comprised fully of male UF students.
Serena Wilson, director of basketball operations for Florida women’s basketball, says every single women’s program has male practice players, mainly because the men bring a physicality that women can’t get by practicing against other women.
“I think the overall notion is that they (the men) would help us in terms of being stronger, faster, quicker, giving us sort of a competitive edge,” Wilson said, adding that the Gators have had male practice players for at least as long as she has been with the program – 11 years.
“They’re critical, those guys are awesome,” Florida head coach Amanda Butler said of the practice players. “They show up with the same attitude and the same working spirit that our team does. They take what they’re doing very seriously.”
Barrett Swartz dreamed of playing college basketball, but he didn’t expect it to be for a women’s team.
In 2013, Barrett was playing in just his second game for Impact Basketball Academy in Sarasota, Florida. He had already finished high school – Barrett had gone to the academy to improve his skill set and earn a chance to play collegiately.
On a fast break, Barrett, who is 6’7”, attempted a dunk but missed. A player on the other team who had been chasing Barrett down from behind collided with Barrett’s legs as he hung on the rim. He landed awkwardly on his left leg and it hyperextended, tearing the patellar tendon in his knee. Barrett’s season was over, as were his hopes of a college basketball scholarship. He enrolled at the University of Florida in the fall of 2014 as a finance major.
Barrett’s first plan to play basketball at UF was as a walk-on with the men’s team. But that plan was thwarted when Lexx Edwards, a fellow walk-on who had already spent time on the men’s team, was accepted into a masters program at UF and received another year of eligibility to play basketball. Barrett’s walk-on spot was taken.
Now 20 years old and a sophomore at Florida, Barrett is in his first season as a practice player for the women’s team. It was Daniel who Barrett said threw his name into Serena Wilson to get Barrett on the scout team. At “6’7” with shoes on,” according to him, Barrett is a natural basketball player. He can shoot a three just as well as he can post up in the paint or throw down a dunk. In high school, he received interest from colleges like Stetson, Palm Beach Atlantic and the University of Tampa, but he decided to go to prep school to improve his game. That’s where he injured his knee and that’s how he ended up in Gainesville.
He had heard about the practice team before joining it, but he admitted his first time at practice against the women was a bit awkward.
“They throw you into the plays and I was like ‘What am I supposed to do?’” Barrett said. “I was kind of scared and hesitant to go all out, like blocking them or try to dunk, but after a few times you get used to it.”
Practices can get intense, especially if Florida has a big game coming up and all the players and coaches are focused on perfecting the team’s preparation. Guys like Barrett who are much bigger than most of the women players can make practice very tough for the women, but he thinks that type of intensity in practice pays off for the Gators in real games – hence the reason the men are there in the first place.
“They get happier when they score against us than when they score against the girls in a regular game, I swear,” Barrett said.
For now, Barrett is content with his position on a college basketball team, even if that means not playing in games. He still hopes to have a chance to walk-on to the men’s team somewhere down the line, but for now, he’s enjoying his time playing with the women. Hell, he gets to play basketball on the floor of the O’Connell Center every week beneath the National Championship banners.
“I bring my ball and I’ll just shoot in there for as long as I can until someone kicks me out, just by myself,” Barrett said. “It’s like the greatest feeling in the world.”
“This is not gonna be difficult,” Sunshine thinks to himself heading into his first practice with the UF women’s team. At 6’4”, a former high school basketball and baseball player, he thinks this should be just like pick-up at the gym. Sunshine soon learns that being a practice player is more taxing than it may sound.
Already exhausted and dehydrated, Sunshine listens midway through practice as an assistant coach instructs him to attack rebounds with more aggression. Sunshine does as he’s told, and as he jumps up for a rebound, both of his calves lock up. Muscle cramps.
“That was one of my first times out there and it was kind of traumatic,” Sunshine said.
Sunshine acquired his nickname at one of his first practices from one of the women on the team – an ode to his long blonde hair that he keeps tied up in a bun when he’s playing basketball at least. His real name is Cory Dykes. The 6’4” graduate student has been a practice player for two years.
His story is similar to Barrett’s in that Sunshine originally wanted to walk on to the men’s basketball team, but they were full at the time. He knew about the practice team for the women, so he met with Serena about joining and was given a spot.
Sunshine only started playing basketball in his junior year of high school. Before that, he was a baseball pitcher with what he described as a “disgusting” curveball.
“Basically I was what you call a late bloomer,” Sunshine said. “I’m 22 and I’m still waiting for that facial hair.”
Eccentric and free-spirited, Sunshine said he has stuck with the scout team for two years for one simple reason.
“It’s straight fun, dude,” he said. “I like playing basketball, I like the girls on the team, it’s just fun.”
Fellow 6’4” practice team big man Remy Phillips first witnessed the scout team in action from the bleachers as an O’Connell Center employee. He didn’t know why a bunch of men were practicing with the Gators women’s team, but he was intrigued by it. Remy, a 21-year-old junior biology major, has been on the team since 2015. He said when he first joined the team, it was weird telling people about it because many people don’t know the women’s basketball team practices with a bunch of guys. At first, the whole experience was awkward, but it quickly became something much better.
“I didn’t know anyone’s name, they didn’t know my name, so they were just like ‘You, go over here. You, go over there.’ I didn’t know the other practice players,” Remy said as he chomped into a Texas Roadhouse cheeseburger given to him after practice, courtesy of Florida basketball. “One or two practices in, I got more comfortable, and now it’s just tons of fun because we’re all friends.”
Like Remy, Daniel said that adjusting to playing against women with high intensity and physicality was strange at first, but the coaches encourage the guys to play as hard as they can. It better prepares the women for games.
“That’s an adjustment itself. It takes a while, it takes a few practices, to think it’s OK that I can kind of bump them around,” Daniel said. “Your first couple practices you’re a little tentative to touch them, push them. You’ll knock them down, you’ll try to pick them up and say you’re sorry, and they just get up by themselves and they don’t do anything.”
Daniel remembers his first practice going a little something like Sunshine’s – exhausting. He remembers getting home from practice at about 7:30 p.m. and falling asleep at 8, not waking up until noon the following day. Although Daniel played serious high school basketball and is even a part-time referee of intramural games on campus, the women’s practice was not quite what he was expecting, physically or mentally.
“You need a pretty solid basketball foundation before going into it,” Daniel said. “It’s not just pick-up.”
At one practice, after Florida beat No. 12 Texas A&M, Daniel was approached by assistant coach Bill Ferrara. Texas A&M had one shooter who the scouting report had dubbed “queen of the jump shot,” and Daniel was the one who represented her in practice in preparation for that game. Daniel said in that practice, he only missed three or four of the shots he took all day, so when Ferrara approached him after the Gators won, he shook Daniel’s hand and thanked him for mimicking the “queen of the jump shot” as well as he had.
“That made me feel pretty good, doing that, that I could help them win the game,” Daniel said.
“Basketball sometimes comes to an end, but playing with the girls is kind of like playing college basketball.”
Guys like Barrett, Sunshine, Remy and Daniel are just who Serena Wilson looks for to join the UF women’s basketball team.
At UF, Wilson, director of basketball operations for the women’s team, is tasked with scouting male talent to fill her scout team roster of 19 slots. She tries to always keep the roster full.
“It’s always funny when they’re like ‘So we just practice with the girls? For real?’” Wilson said about men who are new to the team.
At each home practice, at least five male practice players act together as an upcoming opponent. Each guy wears a numbered jersey of the specific player he is representing to help the women get used to that player’s tendencies. Daniel, a pure shooter, typically represents the opponent’s guards. Taller guys, like Barrett, Sunshine and Remy, play forwards or centers.
Wilson has to find taller guys, guys who can shoot, good rebounders, etc. to form a well-rounded group who can provide the women with the best preparation possible. Wilson scouts talent at UF’s hub of competitive student basketball – Southwest Recreation Center, a gym on campus (word of mouth also helps). But Wilson can only accept a maximum of 19 men – she looks for the best of the best, guys like Barrett and Daniel who could have played in college.
Then, the men have to be medically cleared by the team’s athletic trainer, drug tested and academically ruled eligible.
The men, who aren’t on scholarships, play because they love basketball and want to see their school and their team succeed.
Coach Butler said she’s impressed with how quickly the guys pick up on everything the coaches throw at them and how well the guys execute in practice. Wilson admires how hard the guys work day after day, week after week, all for the betterment of the women.
“They get beat up,” Wilson said. “The girls will elbow them, it’s like going out there with your big brother. You’re trying to prove yourself.”
Sophomore forward Haley Lorenzen said the relationships that have formed and the support the men give the women have led to the men being accepted as true members of the basketball program.
“They help us a lot,” Lorenzen said. “I mean, if we can score on guys, we should be able to score on girls. They push us to be better.”
Wilson also believes that the men are as much a part of the program as the women and the coaches, and she has seen firsthand throughout her tenure at UF the importance of what the men do. Conveying appreciation and respect to the men for what they do for the team is of high importance to both Wilson and Butler.
“It is so integral to what we do,” Wilson said. “They’re really important, and I think sometimes they don’t really think that they are, but we couldn’t do what we do without them.”
It’s Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, and the Gators are hosting Vanderbilt at the O’Connell Center. Occupying the first two rows of seats, directly opposite the Florida bench is a group of six practice players, old and new. They aren’t required to attend games, but many try to make it to as many home contests as they can. They’re there to support their teammates – their friends.
Barrett, Sunshine, Daniel and Remy are among the group of players in attendance. Barrett stumbles in a little late, carrying a giant printout of the face of assistant coach Bill Ferrara. The guys yell out a collective “Bill!” to try to get his attention, which they do, and he slyly gives them a thumbs up and a smile from the team’s bench.
Sunshine and Remy are two of the louder spectators in the arena. Almost every time the Gators are on defense, Sunshine is yelling a repetitive “Oh! Oh! Oh! Lock up!” Meanwhile, Remy screams “No! Not a foul!” as loud as he can when Florida gets charged with a penalty.
“You’re gonna get an aneurysm,” Daniel says to Remy, “your face is red.”
Daniel watches the game with vested interest, as if he’s studying which plays are being run and which players are executing them correctly. He encourages and calls to specific players, “C’mon Haley! Shoot it Haley.”
“Come on Mo!” he yells loudly to Simone Westbrook.
“She heard me,” he then says with confidence.
“Come on, Carlie! Get physical,” Daniel yells, to which Remy responds by singing the lyrics to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”
The Gators beat Vanderbilt 79-67 and all the guys have stayed until the very end, cheering on the women as they stream back to the locker room. The guys yell out one last collective “Bill!” as they wave the printout of the coach’s face back and forth for him to see. As he is walking off the court, he hears their plea, turns back, and gives them a wink.
That No. 5 seed Gator Women’s Basketball team starts NCAA Tournament play on Friday in Syracuse against No. 12 seed Albany at noon and can be heard on ESPN Gainesville 95.3.