It has been a whirlwind few weeks for Saylor Poffenbarger, UConn women’s basketball’s newest player.
After graduating from high school three weeks ago, Poffenbarger made her way to Storrs to begin a school-mandated 10-day quarantine. She didn’t practice with the team until last Tuesday and saw her first game action on Sunday against DePaul.
Because of the team’s busy travel schedule, Poffenbarger only had the opportunity to move out of the quarantine dorm and into an apartment with her teammates on Monday. Even with the largest snowstorm of the year hitting the state, Poffenbarger’s teammates were all eager to help.
“It was snowing all day and they — all of them — just got up and helped me move into my room,” she said.
Poffenbarger is joining a team — and a freshman class — that’s been together mostly nonstop since late July. It’s a difficult position for her to be in, coming from the outside and joining a group that is exceptionally close with each other. Regardless, they’ve immediately embraced Poffenbarger, so much so that she’s been taken aback by all the support.
“They don’t have to go out of their way and help me,” she said. “I mean, yeah, I’m gonna be their teammate but like they don’t have to go out of their way to make sure that I’m comfortable in this position. This was something I had to do, and I just think that like watching them interact, it’s really exciting for me to be able to look forward to joining a team like that — the way that they interact, the way they care about each other.”
Now that she’s officially on campus and a member of the team, Poffenbarger can finally live out the dream she’s had for as long as she can remember — one that started thanks to Maya Moore.
“I’ve always wanted to be like Maya Moore. I’ve bought her jerseys for years,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to come to UConn so that’s kind of how it started.”
Listed at 6-foot-2, Poffenbarger is a big, versatile guard known best for her ability to shoot from three. She pushed back on the notion that she’s only a shooter, though, believing she brings a lot more to the table than just her marksmanship.
“I feel like people always think I’m like a shooter but I feel like my strong suits are shooting, passing, and rebounding,” Poffenbarger said. “I also think just being a big guard will be helpful and for me, I can shoot the ball well, I can do a mid-range jumper, I can guard a bunch of positions, and I think that that’s going to be a big thing.”
She isn’t under any false pretense about this season, though. The coaches aren’t putting any expectations on her and she knows that it’ll be difficult to crack the rotation considering how far behind she is compared to everyone else on the team.
“I’m coming in February, and we’re going to be on the road for 90 percent of February, and we go to March and who knows what’s in March and I think that it’s hard for [Geno Auriemma] to sit here and say ‘You’re gonna do something’ because he’s in a very important part of the season — all of them are — I just kind of came in and I’m still trying to learn the plays, I’m still trying to learn the offense. I mean, today was like my fifth practice.”
Instead, Poffenbarger is just focusing on the things she can control.
“[Auriemma] kind of told me in practice to be the best defensive player I can and to rebound it the best, I can take open shots when I have the opportunity to,” she said. “He pulled me aside and was just saying ‘Just make sure that you control what you can control: how hard you play defense and how hard you rebound.’”
Luckily, the other six freshmen on the team have been an invaluable support system for Poffenbarger. Though they may have a head start on her by a few months, they know all too well what the first few practices at UConn are like and haven’t thought twice about helping her find her footing.
“They’ve definitely been really helpful just with experiences and practices like if I mess up or something after practice they’ll be like ‘Oh my god, don’t worry, like, I did that six months ago. I did this, I did that,’” Poffenbarger said. “They have just been super supportive in everything like cheering me on or through drills talking to me, talking me through them. They’ve definitely been really helpful and really supportive.”
Bueckers took that support to the next level on Sunday. With UConn up big late in the fourth quarter over DePaul, Poffenbarger went in for the final 1:52. Paige Bueckers re-entered the game at the same time and gave Poffenbarger a simple instruction.
“I said, ‘Saylor, I’m gonna pass to you. Shoot every time,’” Bueckers relayed after the game.
Though Poffenbarger didn’t make any of her three shot attempts, she was happy to get her first appearance out of the way and credited Bueckers with helping to ease the butterflies.
“I was definitely really nervous but I was kind of glad to get it over with,” Poffenbarger said. “Paige is a really good teammate, and I’ve known that but it was kind of cool for her to be like ‘I know you’re nervous but shoot every shot you get, don’t hesitate.’ I mean I was very nervous.”
Unlike the other six freshmen, Poffenbarger won’t have a few months to get acclimated to college life before the season begins. She isn’t starting out in the same place as everybody else. To this point, she’s had to adjust on the fly for everything. Yet Poffenbarger has embraced it and knows it’ll only help her be more prepared for the start of her true freshman season next fall.
“I definitely think it’s really beneficial to me because I think a lot of like what it is when you come here is you have to learn your role, learn how to practice every day, learn how to go hard in every drill, learning all those things while still doing what you do best,” she said. “I think that that’s what takes players a little bit to get in their roles. When you get here you have to learn their coaching style — what they’re going to put up with, what they’re not going to put up with while learning everything else, and I think with this year, it’s just allowing me the time to learn it all.”