Notebook: Notre Dame women's basketball makes volunteering competitive

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — For the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, Wednesday afternoon was about volunteering rather than competing.

Actually, it was kind of about both.

“We have people in the front trying to speed things up, and people in the back trying to keep up the pace,” senior forward Kathryn Westbeld said as an assembly line of Irish players and coaches filled plastic crates with bottles of juice, canned goods and more, helping to ready the packages for delivery to senior citizens in need.

“It’s competition, and it makes things fun,” Westbeld said of the playfully combative approach to what was still ultimately about teamwork.

Whereas the Irish normally display that teamwork under the gleaming lights, comfort-oriented temperatures and large crowds at Purcell Pavilion, on this day they were doing their sweating under dim lights (the best kind for food preservation), slightly muggy temperatures and with no cheering fans inside a Food Bank of Northern Indiana warehouse.

While ND’s effort, expected to last little more than an hour, was triggered by Wednesday being a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association national Day of Service, such sharing is hardly isolated for the Irish.

“They’ve been here before, I think the last time in January,” Food Bank associate director Marijo Martinec said as one player broke down large boxes nearby, “and some of them have come in on their own, but they’re pretty discreet about it. They’re not doing it to bring attention to themselves.”

Head coach Muffet McGraw, also part of Wednesday’s service project, said her players participate in a wide variety of volunteerism, both as a team and individually, based on their interests.

“We do talk a lot about giving back,” McGraw said. “They’ve been given so much in their lives. They’re fortunate to be at Notre Dame, to have the support of the community, so they’re always looking for ways to give back.”

“I like to help the kids at the schools,” senior forward Kristina Nelson said of a favorite activity. “And I’ve been at the Robinson Center a few times, and to the cancer center at the hospital downtown.

“I just like to put a smile in somebody’s day if I can do that,” Nelson continued. “That’s my only goal, plus our community supports us through everything throughout the season, so being able to give back is really important.”

Martinec, who’s been with the Food Bank for seven years, was particularly impressed Wednesday by how quickly “these awesome ladies went right to work.”

“There’s no playing around,” Westbeld agreed. “We did the same exact thing here last year, so we kind of had a routine and knew what we wanted to do, knew how it worked.”

Ailments abound

As Notre Dame gets set for its official opening practice Monday, McGraw is concerned over how many players might not be ready to go.

“We are still dealing with so many injuries,” the coach said. “I’m not sure how many players we’re going to have for practice … maybe seven.”

Besides All-American Brianna Turner already out for the season as she continues her rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, returning starter Westbeld is still recovering from April ankle surgery and backup senior guard Mychal Johnson from April shoulder surgery.

Further, junior forward Jessica Shepard has “some nagging injuries,” according to the coach, as she continues to await word on whether a hardship waiver request will be granted by the NCAA.

If it’s granted, Shepard, an All-Big Ten player at Nebraska, will be eligible this season. Otherwise, she must wait until next season.

McGraw said Johnson should be ready before the Nov. 11 opener, but expressed doubt regarding Westbeld.

“I honestly don’t know my timeline,” Westbeld concurred. “I’m kind of taking it day by day, doing what I can. I certainly hope (to be ready by Nov. 11), but we’re trying to avoid pain right now. That’s the issue, so we’re having to take it kind of slow.”

Westbeld averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds — tied for second on the team behind Turner’s 7.1 — in 23.7 minutes per game last season, making 27 starts among her 32 appearances for the 33-4 Irish.

While Turner has announced that she will not to play in games this season, she might still be able to return at some point to participate in practice.

“Maybe in November or December, if at all,” McGraw said.

McGraw on FBI probe

While men’s college basketball is at the core of an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption, there are possible residual effects for the women’s game, McGraw said.

“Clearly, we don’t have that kind of money (involved),” McGraw said, “and that’s probably why we’re not having the same problem, but there’s still cheating going on, and maybe this is a wake-up call to clean that up.”

The Hall of Fame Coach also said she’s not surprised by the scandal.

“I don’t think it’s surprising to anyone,” McGraw said. “I think there have been rumors for years about players being paid. It’s really disappointing to know. Our jobs as coaches are first and foremost as educators and second to be role models. We’re supposed to be teaching them about accountability and how to live your life, and to see what’s going on in men’s basketball, it’s a travesty.

“And,” McGraw added, “it makes us so proud of Mike Brey and what he represents for Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld, who had ankle surgery in April, may not be ready to return when the Irish open the season in November. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)