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Kyla Irwin emerging as mentor for UConn freshman class

The sophomore is helping to ease the transition for the program’s youngest members.

Ian Bethune - The UConn Blog

It’s never easy to be a freshman in college. But coming in as a freshmen to an 11-time national championship basketball team with three returning All-Americans? That’s a lot to handle.

Luckily, the UConn Huskies women’s basketball sophomore class is best-equipped to help the transition for the youngest members of the program, as they just went through being freshmen themselves a season ago.

“When you are a sophomore, you’re kind of an in-between class,” Kia Nurse said. “You just went through everything that the freshmen are going through and you’re kind of doing things on your own now.”

Since they aren’t far removed from freshman year, the second-year players have been working hard to establish the culture of the program.

“We just went through it so we’re able to relate with them more,” said Crystal Dangerfield. “Some of them are far from home so we want to make sure they feel like this is a family.”

One player that has taken on responsibility of the freshmen herself is Kyla Irwin. Even before they got to campus, Irwin was making them feel welcomed.

“Coming in the week before I even came in Kyla was texting me the week before telling me things I needed to do and be mentally ready,” Mikayla Coombs said.

“Kyla helped us a lot,” echoed Andra Espinoza-Hunter. “This morning at breakfast when I was with [fellow freshmen] Megan [Walker] and Lexi [Gordon] she gave us a couple words of advice. It was extremely encouraging and helpful as well.”

It was a tough first year for Irwin, who only saw limited playing time throughout the year. Even with the struggles, her teammates never wavered in their support. Now, she wants to make sure her newest teammates get that same backing.

“My teammates were really great last year and helped me through it,” Irwin said. “We’re a really great support system and I just wanted to be that for these incoming freshmen.”

While the second-year players are expected to assist the freshmen, their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the upperclassmen.

“The sophomores have been great for our freshman class,” Nurse said. “They’ve given them leadership, they’ve given them advice on how they got through it in their year and I think that’s something that’s important for us.”

Having such a strong support system is key, especially with the freshmen outnumbering the seniors.

“We have four freshmen so it’s not like us seniors can get to all of them all the time,” Gabby Williams said. “It’s good to have the sophomores and juniors there to help us out.”

UConn is bringing in the top freshmen class in the country, but talent will only get the team so far. The team needs to gel to be successful and by establishing a level of trust early in the summer, getting so many new players to click in the rotating becomes that much easier once the season begins.