In the middle of practice, Christopher Reynolds dislocated his finger. An athletic trainer immediately popped it back into place so he could return to the court for the next drill.
Good thing help was available to Reynolds. His women's basketball team needed him.
As a University of Utah biomedical engineering major with ambitions of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, Reynolds spends most weekday afternoons as a member of the Red Army. He's part of a rotating cast of 10 men who practice with the Ute women, providing competition and preparing them for upcoming opponents.
“It’s a great resource for us,” said Ute coach Lynne Roberts. “They understand basketball, they’ve been coached and they’re competitive, fit, all those things. … They’re just awesome guys, I love 'em to death. They become part of your program. They’re really valuable.”
The Red Army is composed of former high school basketball players. Having male practice players is common around the Pac-12 and in other Division I programs in Utah. Describing what makes the practice opportunity appealing to these men, Roberts replied with a wry smile, “You give a college male free food, free gear and a chance to be around college women … I mean, not many say no to that.”
The breakdown of those rewards includes Under Armour shoes and practice apparel, chef-prepared meals with the team on home game days and snacks and occasional other meals after practice. Romance? No relationships have developed this season (“not yet,” a practice player said), but a former Ute and an ex-practice player from last season are currently a couple.
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR THE UTES
The Utah women's basketball team was in position to end its losing streak in impressive fashion Sunday, but the Utes lost an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter at then-No. 19 Arizona State. The Sun Devils outscored Utah 20-0 in the last eight minutes of a 60-58 win.
The Utes (18-7, 7-7 Pac-12) have lost six straight and are tied for sixth place in the conference with four games remaining: at home Friday vs. Washington and Sunday vs. Washington State, then March 1 at UCLA and March 3 at USC. The Pac-12 tournament is March 7-10 in Las Vegas.
Ute forward Dre’Una Edwards was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week for a sixth time. Utah’s collective nine awards this season is a conference record.
Two marriages have blossomed in Notre Dame’s program over the years. Former UConn star Jen Rizzotti is credited with suggesting that coach Geno Auriemma bring in male practice players in the mid-1990s — starting with her future husband and his friends, according to the New Haven Register.
The concept goes back to the ’70s with the late Pat Summitt in Tennessee’s legendary program. Athletic ability and a knack for simulating opponents’ plays make the practice players vital.
In 2006, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics sought to ban male practice players, based on the belief that they were taking opportunities away from women. Coaches successfully resisted the ruling, but they have to follow guidelines by making sure the players are full-time students, with eligibility approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse. The men are not allowed to receive financial aid, but the opportunity for priority registration was attractive to Haiden Bybee, who takes 18 credit hours each semester and needed certain classes at preferred times in his accounting and premed studies.
The Red Army is especially important this season, with injuries and a midseason transfer reducing Utah’s roster to eight active players. The men often recruit their friends to join them, although the Ute coaches scout pickup games at the Student Life Center to discover taller players who can challenge their athletes.
That's where staff member Willette White discovered the 6-foot-3 Reynolds, who's from Idaho Falls. He's charged with battling inside and absorbing punishment, like the time he was elbowed in the face and went to the emergency room (the athletic department covered the costs).
Similarly, “I was kind of shocked by how competitive the players are and how physical it will get during practice,” said Jerry Li, who played at Layton Christian Academy.
After graduating from LCA, Li said he was “not ready to stop playing sports.” That’s a common motivation among Red Army members.
Practicing with the Utes “gave me an opportunity to feel like part of a team again and push myself to get better, while helping others get better at the same time,” said Bybee, who's from Meridian, Idaho.
His brother Jorden has found that friends are puzzled when he tells them he’s going to the women’s basketball practices. But they understood, once he explained his role in helping a team that was ranked No. 14 in late January (the Utes’ downturn continued Sunday, when they blew an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 60-58 loss at Arizona State, the team’s sixth consecutive defeat).
The Red Army competes against the Utes in a formal preseason scrimmage every year, and the outcome is usually close. That’s why Ute star Megan Huff looked for chances to play against men in late-night games at a fitness center while growing up in the Seattle area, and appreciates the way the practice players prepare her for the real games.
“Playing against them definitely makes it easier when you play against girls,” she said.
In the process, the Utes are making believers of their practice partners. “I have gained so much respect for the women on this team and women’s sports in general,” Reynolds said. “They work so hard and put in so much time on and off the court, it’s really phenomenal.”