The forward progression of the University of Utah women’s basketball program can largely be credited to the talent of the handpicked players who are on the team. However, there are 10 lesser known people behind the scenes who have contributed to the Utes’ success.
Utah recruits male students to be volunteer practice players with the team. These former high school basketball players take their love for the game and use it to help the women’s team prepare for upcoming contests.
“My job is to be a scout player for the opposing team that the girls will play in the upcoming week,” said volunteer Colton Schofield. “I just play as if I am one of their players, and [I] try to give them the best look that they can get to be ready for the next game.”
Schofield was chosen to be a practice player in 2014 by the coaching staff, and he has been helping the Utes ever since. He enjoys the experience because he is able to continue playing basketball while helping the Utes improve their game.
The practice players are instructed by the coaches on how to play based on how Utah’s next Pac-12 opponent tends to perform.
“They are quicker and faster than the girls, so competing against them helps a lot with our quick step,” said freshman Tori Williams. “It’s a nice change even though the guys are harder to scrimmage against. It makes us want to win more and [it] brings out a new level of competitiveness in the team.”
The volunteers bring a relaxed vibe to practices, and the players appreciate having them on the court. They add to the family atmosphere that exists on the team.
Freshman volunteer Dakota Cisneros and sophomore volunteer Bryce Blackburn are both kinesiology majors with an emphasis in sports medicine. The two of them played high school basketball together, and they got involved with the Utes through a mutual friend.
“Basketball is one of my biggest passions,” Blackburn said. “It’s nice to stay around it and continue to play the game.”
Blackburn said his least favorite part of the job is defensive days when the practice players are working defensive patterns, instead of shooting and participating in scrimmages. It can also be tiring for Blackburn and the other volunteers because they are not as in shape as the team.
There are 10 unpaid volunteer players, all boys, who rotate in and out of practices. They enjoy working with the team because their efforts push the players to improve during practices, which leads to greater success in game situations.
“I have made a lot of friends by doing this. Between players, coaches and the other guys, I have gotten to meet a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Cisneros said. “The relationships that I have made have been the best part of this experience so far.”
And of course there is an element of competition. There is a bit of a rivalry between the Utes and the group of volunteers when it comes to which one is more dominant.
“It depends on the day and what happened in practice, but I would say that in the end, we are better,” Williams said.