Gamecock’s women’s basketball player Ashlyn Watkins goes for the basket during a practice. (Photo courtesy of Gamecock Athletics/Carolina News and Reporter)
The Highlighters, a group of men recently introduced by Dawn Staley on ESPN, are the players behind the training of the USC women’s basketball team.
The players’ job is to be the scout team and simulate the offense and defense of the team’s upcoming opponent, three hours a day, five days a week.
And, yes, they’re guys. All of them.
“We’re not there to shine ourselves and play flashy,” said senior Highlighter Max Holzman. “We’re there to help them get better and prepare for whoever the week’s opponent is.”
Holsman, a sports management major at University of South Carolina, enjoys getting to know the ins and outs of collegiate basketball.
“It’s really cool to be able to experience it and play with the best players in the country every day,” Holzman said. “They’re the best players in the country, but also the best coaching staff in the country. It’s cool to be able to say you were coached by Dawn Staley, who is a legend.”
Freshman Highlighter Ethan Wainer says his favorite part about being on the team is getting to say he knows the players.
“Making connections with the team and the coaches is honestly a really fun and cool atmosphere to be in,” Wainer said.
The atmosphere at practice is always fun, the guys say. They crack jokes. But it does get competitive.
“We’re always talking to them, I mean not trash, but a little bit,” Wainer said.
“When we make a shot on the girls, they show it. They make a lot of noise,” said Freddy Ready, the women’s director of player development who oversees the practice squad. “And when the girls make a shot on the guys, they let them know as well.”
Ready has been with the women’s basketball team since 2002. The vibe is “testy,” he said.
“It’s a brother-sister relationship,” Ready said. “They are part of the team. We are one, and they love the friendly competition.”
Ready said the men spend the first 15 minutes of practice reviewing the opponents’ plays they need to simulate for the day.
The guys come in shape and bring the energy to practice, he said.
“They are competing, competing with the girls,” he said. “They are actually trying to be better than our opponent.”
Highlighter De’Andre Graham says he’s never been dunked on, but the girls put up a fight.
“Sometimes, they are more physical than the guys,” Graham said. “We’ve got the marks to prove it.”
Graham, like many of the Highlighters, was excited to be featured on ESPN with the team.
“I was kind of just caught off guard in a way, but it was cool,” Graham said. “Seeing yourself on ESPN for the first time is like, damn, mama, I made it.”
Is there any doubt the men are part of the team?
Staley told ESPN last month, “We win championships? They get rings.”
Graham and Holzman said they hope to win rings like the guys two seasons ago.
“To get that ring, they said it was one of the coolest things ever,” Holzman said.
Ready said the way he sees it, the team missed out on a couple of rings recently.
“I should have got two more rings out of this thing,” Ready said. “But, hopefully, we’ll get another one this year.”
The Highlighters, who have to try out for the positions, don’t get all the perks of being a student athlete. But they still show up to practice every week.
“You just have got to love when you’re basically volunteering for something, but it doesn’t feel like you’re volunteering,” Graham said.
Winning makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s definitely a commitment …, but it’s one that you want to do,” Holzman said. “We really feel that pride because we put in the work with them every single day.”
A coach, player talk about playing with the women (Video by Madeline Hager/Carolina News and Reporter)
Highlighters defend Gamecock Tessa Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Gamecock Athletics/Carolina News and Reporter)
Number 0, Te-Hina Paopao, scrimmages at practice. (Photo courtesy of Gamecock Athletics/Carolina News and Reporter)