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ALL PRACTICE, NO PLAY
By Joshua J. Darling, Sports Information Department

They come from different parts of New York State, have differing experiences and varied career goals, yet seven young men have come together for one common goal at Binghamton University - to better the women's basketball team. They do this by using the skills and lessons that their combined experiences have taught them. They sacrifice their bodies and their time for a single program.

Michael Buxbaum. Patrick Clifford. Joe Dundon. Dan Ciotoli. Evan Henderson. Joel Martin. Justin Ohnigian. These seven individuals serve as the all-male practice squad for the 2006-07 Binghamton's women's basketball team.

They stay on the court while fresh bodies are run at them play in and play out. They run the opponent's plays as the scout team and learn their team's drills all while having restrictions placed on them similar to those of a Division I athlete without near any of the benefits.

"I REALLY ENJOY BASKETBALL"

In order to understand why these gentlemen subject themselves to the rigors of a Division I basketball practice on a regular basis, it helps to understand their motivation and what drives them.

"I really enjoy basketball" says Dundon, a senior from Binghamton. "I've coached CYO for the past four years and I would really like to get into coaching down the road. I want to be a teacher and I figure that by practicing with a Division I basketball program I'll be able to see different drills and plays as well as new ways of looking at the game".

Dundon isn't the only member of the practice unit considering a career in coaching. Michael Buxbaum, currently a junior at BU and in his first year with the squad, has considered coaching for some time.

"My father was one of my coaches when I was younger and I've thought about going into the field for a while" he said. "I've been playing basketball for a while but doing this [serving as a practice player for the women's team] only motivates me more to be a coach in the future".

Both Dundon and Buxbaum also value the personal workout that a practice session can provide, but perhaps not as much as Ciotoli.

"I enjoy the fact that I've also been able to get a good workout and had fresh bodies coming at me for the whole period of time" said Ciotoli. "That has really helped my personal workouts and it's like killing two birds with one stone. I improve myself and I get to help the women get better at the same time".

Ciotoli has good reason to improve himself through practice and his personal workouts. Not only is he studying athletic training, he also has aspirations to play professionally overseas. "Before I think about any type of coaching, I still want to play".

Unlike so many players with that same desire, Ciotoli has two major things in his favor in addition to learning more about the game and staying in shape with the women's team - a personal contact and dual citizenship.

"I have a friend who plays pro ball in Europe and he has a lot of connections" said the 6'2 senior. "I might have an opportunity to play over there as well because I can compete for 16 roster spots instead of just the two that are available for non-European players thanks to my family's Italian heritage".

One thing that is universal among these individuals is the desire to help the women's basketball team get better.

"Basically I'm here to try and help the team out and help them get better" says Buxbaum. "It makes me feel good to know that I'm doing something to help the program. I feel like we are definitely making a positive difference at some level because I can see from one practice to the next, small improvements in individual player's games and the increased overall performance of the team.

In practice, I try to focus on defense and be the most annoying, in-your-face defender and just try to box out, rebound and play hard nosed defense" said Dundon. "The girls probably don't like me anymore, but it's okay" he said with a laugh. "I think that me doing that helps the girls more than just shooting the ball".

Ciotoli agrees, saying that "when we're out there, yes, we're helping the women get better, but it also helps us. With fresh bodies coming at me in every drill, it helps to increase my endurance and I get a chance to keep myself sharp and keep learning".

However, before any of these gentlemen are even able to get the opportunity to help the women's team get better or improve themselves through their involvement, they must go through a clearinghouse and meet all the requisite qualifications before even setting foot on the court.

GETTING THEIR FOOT IN THE DOOR

The National Collegiate Athletic Association strictly mandates the conditions that every student-athlete must meet in order to be eligible to play or practice for any intercollegiate team within its purview. Just to be able to practice, each individual must meet four clear standards as set forth by the NCAA. They must first be cleared by the NCAA Initial Eligibility Clearinghouse and be certified, at a minimum, as a partial qualifier, enroll in a full-time program of study leading to a four-year degree, sign a drug-testing consent form and still have remaining college eligibility.

Ordinarily meeting those standards would be sufficient to earn the necessary clearance for practicing with an intercollegiate team - except when you are a male student practicing with a Division I women's basketball team.

For these seven young men at Binghamton University, meeting those four requirements was only the first step on the way to earning the right to help prepare the Bearcats' women's basketball team for competition throughout the year.

In order to keep their eligibility to work with the women's team, these young men must meet and maintain certain standards throughout the year and are essentially Division I student-athletes without nearly all of the associated benefits. By NCAA rule, they cannot receive any type of financial aid that is based on their participation as a practice player for a women's team. They cannot be afforded travel to away contests and they cannot have special housing provisions made for them during regularly scheduled campus breaks, all of which are made available to the team's female student-athletes.

In addition to these specific rules, each practice player also had to fill out the appropriate eligibility, insurance and medical forms as well as pass a physical before they could be cleared to play.

Dundon touched on some of the main restrictions placed on the male practice players, saying that "we can't play fantasy sports that involve any type of money because that counts as gambling and we can't play intramurals or belong to another intercollegiate team in order to stay eligible".

"Basically we were told everything that one of the women's players is told concerning our eligibility" Ciotoli added.

Despite all of the restrictions, forms and physicals, serving as a male practice player for a Division I women's basketball team has its benefits.

"IT'S A GOOD CREDENTIAL TO HAVE"

While male practice players cannot be compensated by scholarship or other form of payment, they do benefit from the experience, usually in conjunction with their career goals.

"Working with the women's team and being in the atmosphere surrounding a Division I program is a good credential to have when you're going into any field that involves training or something physical" says Ciotoli. "The fact that we're working with the women and trying to help them get better shows versatility and dedication".

Each aspect of his involvement with the women's team has aided Ciotoli with his pursuit of a professional playing career, a coaching career and has furthered his knowledge of athletic training by seeing it from a different perspective.

For Dundon, the experience has proven to be very valuable towards furthering his aspirations of becoming a teacher and entering the world of coaching.

"By being at all of these practices, I'm learning things that I was never taught when I played the game in high school and they are things that I can teach to the 13-year olds that I coach in CYO. Seeing how the staff coach and interact with the players is very helpful to me especially with learning a new way to approach a player or an idea".

Buxbaum also believes that the experience is a positive one for him as well.

"One of my top reasons for being involved is that I love to play basketball and its great being part of a program where I can get to play every other day. This experience might provide me with some options down the road as well".

In addition to the exposure to Division I practices, Dundon received an unexpected benefit shortly after he began practicing with the women's team.

"When I went home after about a week of practices, my parents told me there was a letter there from the Binghamton Athletic Department telling them that I was a varsity athlete" he said. "I never thought I'd see one of those. I wasn't expecting any recognition when I got into this. I was just there to play basketball and everything else was just a bonus".

Dundon adds that "being a part of the male practice team probably opens up some more avenues for me than if I was a community college player because now I've been exposed to a Division I program. Coach [Bernitha] Johnson was at the University of Tennessee as a manager and she helped to organize the male practice team each year and now she's an assistant coach here at Binghamton".

A BINGHAMTON FIRST

Last season, Binghamton joined the ranks of many NCAA women's basketball programs, at all three levels, when it instituted a male practice team for the first time in the 33-year history of the program. Assistant coach Bernitha Johnson has been instrumental in establishing the all male practice squad since joining the Bearcat staff prior to last season.

Before the move to Central New York, Johnson served as a team manager for the women's basketball program at the University of Tennessee from 2002-05. There, she studied under legendary Hall-of-Fame coach Pat Summitt. Well known for having built championship caliber teams, including four Final Four squads and two National Runners-up when Johnson was on staff, Summitt is a major proponent of the use of male practice players and has made them a staple of her practices for many years.

As part of her duties, Johnson was responsible for organizing and running that all-male practice team for the Volunteers. That involvement was a major factor in the decision to establish Binghamton's first all-male practice squad for the women's basketball team.

"I know that Coach Conover had contemplated it before" Johnson said. "I had a lot of experience in it, so that when I got here we talked about it and thought that it would be a good idea as a coaching staff".

While starting the program up last year was surprisingly easy for Johnson, the approach was much different from her methods at Tennessee.

"My process of finding players was entirely different with UT than it is here" says Johnson. "You need to be a little more strict at the higher levels because you need to find players that are good enough to come in and compete with someone like All-American Candace Parker, yet not be at the level where they should be working with the men's team.

At that level, guys are a lot easier to come by because it is a bigger school and you have more that are willing to come in and do it. Here at Binghamton, you have a smaller environment and now you're looking to find guys that can come in and hold their own against Division I size athletes".

The NCAA also sets clear standards that must be met in addition to finding individuals that are skilled enough to compete at that level. Each person must meet and maintain the compliance regulations, which include not using other team's Division I athletes, further narrowing the field of qualifying players.

"When your just getting started you've got to put it out there and show the guy's what it's all about and what's expected of them" says Johnson. "It's a little different but it's like starting a tradition and it's pretty fun, too".

After finding the players, it is then Johnson's responsibility to get them to perform the way that the team needs them too, starting with the scheduling requirements and expectations.

"They are expected to come in each day that they are there and better themselves and our program. It's the team first. Think about your responsibilities and your commitments and come in and work hard" says Johnson. "I expect nothing less and they've done a great job with that".

A typical practice week for the players will be a Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule for about 2 ½ hours each day. Each of those days typically entails a combination of scrimmage work and drills with the women's team. From this time, both the team and the male practice players benefit.

"These guys are going to benefit greatly because people are going to see on their resume that they came in here, for little or nothing, and were part of a team and a program and were reliable and dependable" Johnson said. "Some of these guys are coaching youth groups and looking to go further than that and now they're in this organized coaching environment at the college level where they get to listen to these coaches and see their styles and see what it's all about. That's a great advantage to have.

As for our team, one of the main benefits is that we get a group of guys that come in and are genetically faster and stronger individuals and they are going to push our girls" said Johnson. "They're going to motivate them because these guys are coming in, playing hard and getting almost none of the perks. It brings a competitive atmosphere into our practice and that's something that you really need when you're trying to win games and elevate your team to a championship level.

It's fresh legs too" says Johnson. "It's great to be able to take some of your girls out that play a lot of minutes and just let them play defense or rest and then have them go against the guys on offense instead of our girls.

The guys are great, very respectful, and they have been a great addition to our program. When someone calls me on one of these guys, I'm going to give them one of the best recommendations that I can based on their dependability. That's something that you can carry with you".

"THE MORE THAT'S GOING TO HELP US"

For the members of the program that the male practice squad affects the most, the players, the response has been a very positive one.

"I think what is most beneficial about the guys is that playing against them allows you to go against individuals that are both quicker and stronger than us and our opponents" said senior guard Shea Kenny. "If we can play against players like that in practice, then we know we're going to be able to handle what any team we face is going to throw at us".

Four-year senior guard Rebecka Lindgren also believes that the team improves by using the male practice squad, saying that "the more we practice with them, the more that's going to help us. We don't know what their going to do on the court, we don't know their tendencies, so we have to play them honest".

Kenny has experienced the use of a male practice squad before, having played her first two years of college basketball for St. Louis University before coming to Binghamton.

"When I was there, we used the guys to come in and play five-on-five a lot but they wouldn't get involved in any of the drills like we do here. Our practice players are out there doing drills with us and we sub in and out against them every other play to keep ourselves fresh.

I'd never really thought about it, but it really does help you to not have to worry about defending something in a drill when the guys are out there. It gives us an opportunity to really focus on the goal of the drill".

A native of Sweden, Lindgren, too, has experienced playing against men on a regular basis, but from a different perspective.

"I was the only girl back home that used to practice with the men's team" said Lindgren. "I would go to get some work in and try and get faster because the men are usually faster than the women are. It was only about 10-15 times so I wasn't really used to it, but I was familiar with the concept when Coach Johnson started it last year".

Over time, the team has become very comfortable practicing with the men.

"I think more recently it's become more fun as the guys have become more involved" said Kenny. "They'd shoot our foul shots for us, and if they missed we'd run and if we missed, they would run. It's actually become more of a friendly environment as people are really starting to get to know each other more. It's definitely a good experience and it's one where you make more friends and form lasting bonds".

RUDY

In many ways, their situation is one that is comparable to that of the role played by Sean Astin in the 1993 film "Rudy". In that dramatization of a true story, Astin plays the role of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, a 5'6, 165 pound linebacker fighting to get into Notre Dame to play for legendary coach Ara Parseghian. After finally making it to South Bend, Rudy makes the Fighting Irish practice squad and constantly gets knocked down, bloodied and beat up each practice, yet keeps coming back for more. His goal is to make the team better, and if he isn't giving his all the entire time, then he isn't doing his job. He eventually earns the right to dress for one game and goes down in Notre Dame history.

These seven individuals get knocked down and run into on a regular basis during practice and keep coming back for more. Whether it is running the opposing team's offense, providing a stronger low post presence for Bearcat players to go against or a quicker guard to defend, the results of their hard work is evident in every game the women's basketball team plays this season. Yes, they are a little different than Rudy because they know that no matter what, no matter how hard they practice, they will never see their names listed among the all-time women's basketball players at Binghamton.

That doesn't matter to them. They're here to see to it that the names that will appear in those listings are a little brighter and a little higher on the all-time records list.

So, while you won't see the names Michael Buxbaum, Patrick Clifford, Dan Ciotoli, Joseph Dundon, Evan Henderson, Joel Martin and Justin Ohnigian on any rosters or in any game programs this year, do not be mistaken - they have worked just as hard and been an integral part of the team and its success.

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