On any given night this season, Coach Joe McKeown will look to his bench and see six women ready to spell a break for one of their five teammates on the basketball court. On the opposite end sit two well-dressed young women. Beyond occasionally clapping and mouthing words of encouragement, they sit and watch. And wait.
Junior Kate Popovec and sophomore Anna Cole are transfer student-athletes and, per NCAA rules, are to sit out this season to be eligible to compete for the Wildcats next season. It’s hard to miss them; red-haired Anna stands at 6-foot-7, while Kate comes in at a smaller 6-foot-3.
Junior guard Tailor Jones pays no attention to the bench. Michigan holds a tenuous lead, and little is going in the Wildcats’ favor tonight. By the evening’s end, she will have led the squad with four turnovers. But nary a year ago, Jones was in that same seat at the end of the bench.
Cole is a former Wildcat of University of Kentucky; Popovec a Panther by way of two years at University of Pittsburgh; Jones, a Florida native and former Florida Gator to boot.
During afternoon practice, all three are on the court. Jones plays guard with the starters, while Cole matches up against star center Amy Jaeschke and Popovec plays defense against versatile sophomore forward Kendall Hackney.
Popovec is all about heart and soul, actively engaging anybody and everybody, especially on the practice floor. Introducing herself prior to the interview, she’s assertive and confident. Cole follows her lead, comfortable in letting the junior take point. Only a year into learning a demanding system, Cole appears tentative on the floor, even hesitant. Jones is expressionless during the drills, but is aglow and passionately gestures when describing her perspectives.
Halfway through the period, Jaeschke takes a wide open 3-pointer and drills it, with Cole late on the cue. Popovec later loses Hackney on a screen and gives up a long jumper. Towards the end, Jones loses her dribble and surrenders a possession. Such is the necessary adjustment period.
When deciding where to transfer, Jones easily chose Northwestern over USC. The Trojans’ coaching situation was in limbo, and the allure of playing for a successful coach like McKeown was enough to sway her.
“I just said, ‘hey, Northwestern has everything I need; I want to be a Northwestern Wildcat,” says Jones.
With family in-state and having already adjusted to a college atmosphere, the second go-round was easier. “It’s unbelievable–I really felt at home the moment I stepped on campus,” says Jones. “It’s a family-oriented environment. I felt welcome, and I can definitely see myself here for the next three years.”
Cole and Popovec, new best friends through the transition process, were courted by a number of Big Ten schools, but Northwestern was a perfect fit both in academics and coaching. “We have a great team and the coaching staff is really helpful,” says Popovec. “That’s what makes it hard or easy. The fact that the girls welcomed us with open arms made it a lot easier.”
“We did turn to Tailor [Jones],” says Cole. “We ask, ‘how did you do this alone?’–because we want to help out teammates and it’s difficult if you’re on the bench.”
Next season, both Cole and Popovec will have the opportunity to make their marks on the hardwood, much like Jones has this year. Losing center Jaeschke to graduation places the burden on them both, but neither is fazed by the challenge.
“Anna and I, we just want to step in,” says Popovec. “We’re not Amy Jaeschke. We’re Anna Cole and Kate Popovec, and we feel that we can come in and bang inside and do what we do and compete.”
“This is your job,” says Jones. “Yeah, this is fun, but you’re here to win, to make this program better and to better yourself. Here, your blood and sweat is on that court, and this is what you live for.”
As the team pushes toward their first NCAA tournament appearance in 14 years, Jones continues to play by that credo, while Cole and Popovec sit in the wings, watching and waiting.