They are former star players, team captains and all-area performers. They know the tendencies of the Big Ten’s top teams and players. They put in tireless hours at Breslin Center preparing for the next opponent with film sessions and scouting reports.
But at the end of the day, when their practice jerseys are drenched in sweat and their Nike basketball sneakers are kicked off, they get nothing from it but good exercise and a pat on the back.
They are the MSU women’s basketball scout team — 12 regular male students that put in hours similar to a part-time job to practice with the Spartans throughout the season. They’ll never step on the floor as scholarship athletes, but each time their female counterparts do, such as yesterday’s 67-70 loss to Ohio State, their unnoticed work becomes evident.
“They like being a part of the team. A lot of these guys have IM teams, but it’s not the same, they are invested in our program,” said Julie Dombroski, director of basketball operations and technology.
“When we win, they win. When we win a Big Ten championship, they win a Big Ten championship.”
We want you
Before the end of September, the athletics department will hold tryouts for prospective scout team members it has identified through word-of-mouth and by searching intramural courts. Girls interested in walking-on to the team try out at the same time, Dombroski said.
“We’ll basically split the court in half and run two simultaneous practices because we always tell our walk-ons, ‘If you can’t play with these guys, you can’t play with us. Because these guys are our practice guys,’” Dombroski said.
The tryout draws crowds as large as 40 with only seven to 12 guys being selected for the scout team. Players must be full-time students, compliant with NCAA rules — meaning they are volunteering their time — and even are subject to grade checks.
The only prerequisite is having previous basketball experience in some capacity.
“A couple of our guys made final cuts for the men’s basketball team,” Dombroski said. “Some of these guys were all-state, all-county. So the level of competition that they face — they’re all very good players. And they’re going to have to be, because … they train like student-athletes. They are student-athletes.”
Being on the scout team can be a thankless job, however, as the only compensation the players see is the rare occasion they’re tossed some exclusive Nike gear.
For finance sophomore John Stibich, a first-year scout team player, being on the squad is about regaining his former love.
“Basketball’s always been my main sport and, after my freshman year when I wasn’t playing, I just missed it,” Stibich said. “So I thought that I needed to find something to do and this was it. It fulfills everything that I wanted — I’m staying in shape and I’m playing basketball, so it’s a lot of fun.”
With three players sidelined with season-ending injuries and two players previously suspended for the first nine games of the season, the scout team has been forced into a larger-than-normal role.
Head coach Suzy Merchant has relied heavily on the scout players in lighter, slower-paced practices all season to conserve her team’s limited energy and bodies.
The guys started working with the team on the first day of practice in October because of the circumstances, Dombroski said, but they usually wait a few weeks into the season.
“They’ve been an absolute blessing, there’s no question, and we’ve got a really nice group of them, too,” Merchant said of the scout team.
“These guys, they get after it every day. They’re athletic, they’re talented, they’re skilled and they’re committed. … I’m always so impressed with their dedication and just how much they help us.”
At their busiest times — such as this week with three games in seven days — the scout team is practicing for two-to-three hours, four times a week. During that stretch, third-year scout player Marc Kanitz said he could learn as many as three teams’ styles and the tendencies of a handful of players.
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Different assistant coaches and graduate assistants rotate the duty of getting the scouts up to speed on MSU’s next opponent before each practice, Kanitz said.
Whether an opposing player likes to drive right or can’t finish with her left hand in the paint, it’s the responsibility of the scout team to know.
“The hardest thing, I think, is learning when you’re (playing) a shooter, when you have to shoot,” said Kanitz, a food industry management junior.
“You’re allowed to play outside your comfort zone. Like, I’m not a very good shooter personally, but if I have to shoot, I put a shot up.”
Work hard, play hard
Off the floor, the Spartans and scout team players have close relationships and often spend time together away from basketball.
That doesn’t always mean things on the floor are so friendly as MSU prepares to play championship-caliber basketball on a weekly basis.
“They’re really good ball players and we really get into them,” Stibich said. “I know a few of the players, Courtney Schiffauer, she’ll really get into it, get mad at you and push you around. It gets pretty interesting sometimes, but we have a great time with it.”
Dombroski said the players and scout team form a brother-sister relationship during the course of a demanding season — one in which the scout players go nearly unrecognized. If they don’t have class, the scout guys form the heart of the student section at women’s games, she said.
“They’re 100 percent of the reason why we get wins like we do,” said Schiffauer, a senior forward. “It’s gotta be hard for them to be told to play like someone else. … They’re like our brothers on and off the floor, so it’s great to have a good group of guys that really want you to win.”
Though they put in similar time and effort, none of the scout players names will appear next to an MSU win or loss — but they feel attached to the result as if they were.
“Their successes are your successes and their defeats are your defeats,” Kanitz said. “You take it kind of personally.”
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