• Sophia Apteker

Sophomore Madeline Grudinskas Leads UMass Women’s Club Basketball to Regionals

Madeline Grudinskas knew that the basketball courts by Southwest Residential Area at UMass Amherst would fill up by about 3 p.m. So on a warm day last spring, she staked her claim at a hoop around 2 p.m. It was entirely strategic. If she was shooting around and other guys showed up afterwards, they’d ask her to play since she already had a hoop. It was better than showing up later and trying to awkwardly call the next game, unsure if they would let her join.

“Walking over there I was like, ‘I hope no one is there,’” Grudinskas recalled of her first time playing at Southwest. “I still don’t know how I managed to get into games with guys. I was just like, ‘I guess if I love [basketball] this much I’ll give it a go.’”

She felt anxious walking to the court, primarily because she knew that she’d be the only girl there. Still, she noted that the guys were always kind and accepting of her playing with them.

“I have literally never seen any other girls playing pickup,” Grudinskas said. “For me, and other people as well, that’s very intimidating. It’s a barrier, even if it’s not an intentional one.”

Grudinskas, a sophomore in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst, is still finalizing her areas of study, but would ideally pursue a dual degree in history and sports management alongside minors in economics and Italian. She is president and captain of the UMass Women’s Club Basketball team, and involved with the McCormack Student Leaders Club (the sports management club).

Despite her initial hesitancy on the Southwest court, Grudinskas has been playing basketball since she was in third grade, the first year that her hometown of Cohasset offered organized basketball through its recreation department. Given the town’s population of just over 8,500 people, she ended up playing with the same girls through elementary, middle school, and high school.

“I had the same core teammates,” she said. “It was really special.”

Her experience with the sport has been positive overall, though she has encountered minor inequalities along the way. In her community, for example, the boys’ basketball program was a bit more developed than the girls’. Boys had an opportunity to attend a summer camp organized by the boy’s high school team and coaches, but there was no equivalent program in place for the girls.

When she got to UMass Amherst, the near opposite was true. The school had a club team for women, but not for men. Emily Pettigrew, Abbie Weaver, and Ally Mahoney, members of the class of 2020, started the process of verifying the club as a registered student organization in 2018. In the fall of 2019, Sophie O'Brien, Jackie Raguso, Rhiannon Arnold, and Margaux Walsh completed that verification process. The later four all played intramural basketball together and graduated in spring 2021. Between 2018 and 2020, their intramural basketball team name was quite literally, “UMass Women’s Club Basketball Wannabes.”

The women’s club team was eligible to play their first season in the fall 2020 semester, but couldn’t do so because of COVID-19. To make the best of their situation, they held casual outdoor practices during the following spring. It was here that Madeline further refined her basketball skills, playing pickup games with others who shared her love of the sport. After responding to a query sent to subscribers of the club's email list, the four founders interviewed her and elected her as their next president.

“From our early conversations with Maddie, we knew we wanted her as an officer simply because of her passion and devotion to not only the game of basketball, but seeing that the women’s team continued on after our founders graduated,” O’Brien said. “We knew Maddie fearlessly went to play basketball at the courts with all of the guys, and saw that truly nothing would stop her from playing the game that she loved – and we admired her for that.”

Grudinskas’s first task? Build a team.

“It was a little hectic,” she said. “We had found coaches maybe a week before.”

Tryouts were held in late-September 2021 and their first game was played in early December. Forty girls tried out, and 10 joined the pre-existing group of four club officers.

In her current position, Grudinskas is responsible for creating her team’s game schedule with the league’s director (double-headers on Saturdays to reduce back-and-forth travel with opposing schools), finding gym space to practice at times that work with her teammates’ schedules (9:30-11:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), hiring coaches, holding tryouts, and assisting with other administrative tasks. She also completed extensive financial Moodle training and attended various club council meetings with other officers.

Their season ended on April 3 when they lost to Boston College in regionals by six points. Competing at a high level is an incredible achievement for any team, but especially for such a newly developed one. It was UMass’s first run. Had they won that game, they would’ve gone to nationals.

Though if you were at that game in Boston, you might’ve thought that the

UMass Women’s Club Basketball team was going to nationals.

“We cheered louder than the opposing team,” Grudinskas said.“We were down by 12 or 15 points and we literally got nine points in the last 50 seconds. Everyone was just draining threes. We were somehow making a comeback. We knew that we wouldn’t win, but we just closed the score so much and everyone was just doing so well. When the buzzer went off, we stormed the court. We were cheering around our teammate who made a buzzerbeater three. Just like BC was doing, but they won the game. They were probably so confused.”

A few of the founders, O’Brien and Raguso, attended the game. They cried with the team afterwards, just so overwhelmingly proud that they had made it all the way to regionals, that the passion they felt for the sport was transferred to the next group of players.

“Although only a sophomore, Maddie presents the leadership skills of someone much more mature,” O’Brien said. “She is able to bring the team together through motivational talks or making everyone laugh, and always knows how to make everyone feel seen.”

The UMass Women’s Club Basketball team is just heating up, though women’s basketball has a long way to go before it can be destigmatized, before girls can just show up to the courts and feel comfortable because the area isn’t male dominated. Madeline occasionally invites her roommates or other girl friends to play with her, but they’re not as eager to play because they haven’t grown up with the sport in the same way that she has.

But baby steps have been made.

“Just yesterday, two of my girl friends along with a couple of my guy friends went out to play knockout, which was really fun,” Grudinskas said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever get into an actual game, but that was really fun.”

She hopes that girls who are on the fence about playing basketball will give it a shot, just to see if it’s something that they’ll enjoy. After all, she took a chance by venturing to the Southwest courts last year. Now she’s familiar enough with the court's frequent flyers to play pickup whenever she wants to, not as concerned about her timing as she used to be.

“If you’re thinking about playing, just do it,” Grudinskas said. “I think sports are one of the best things in the world: mentally, physically, and emotionally. Your teammates will always be there for you. You build such a strong community. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. It's really, really scary, but it’s very much worth it.”

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