February 26, 2023
‘I’m handing over the torch’: Sydnei and Saniah Caldwell cherish lone season together at Penn
Sydnei, a senior, and Saniah, a freshman, never expected to be teammates in college, but both found their way to Penn
The first skill that Saniah Caldwell developed on the basketball court was passing to her older sister Sydnei. She showed no interest in dribbling, and she wouldn’t even glance at the basket and consider shooting. Only passing, and only to Sydnei.
“I was very easily scouted,” Saniah joked to The Next.
Saniah has since diversified her targets and her skill set, but, as Sydnei’s teammate at Penn this season, she returned to her roots in a game against St. Francis Brooklyn on Dec. 8. Early in the fourth quarter, she caught the ball near the top of the key and rifled a pass to Sydnei on the left wing for a 3-pointer.
Born three years apart, the Caldwell sisters played together in youth leagues and for a year in high school at Saddle River Day School in New Jersey. Playing together in college didn’t seem likely because they were looking for different things in a school. Yet they both ended up at Penn: Sydnei transferred there in 2021-22 after two seasons at Arizona State and is now a senior, and Saniah enrolled as a freshman this season. They are cherishing their only collegiate season together with pregame routines and sister sleepovers — and they hope to cap it off by lifting a trophy together as Ivy League Tournament champions.
Though Sydnei and Saniah’s mother Kenya qualified for the Olympic Trials in track and their father Isaiah played 11 years in the NFL, Saniah was not a natural at any sport. “A late bloomer in every sport,” Sydnei told The Next about Saniah as the sisters sat side-by-side in the Penn locker room.
“It took me a while to follow you and get good,” Saniah agreed.
Both sisters initially followed their mom into track, Sydnei as a sprinter and Saniah as a middle-distance runner, before they decided that outdoor practices in the summer heat weren’t for them. So they turned more seriously to basketball, where they had to be teammates until Saniah mastered other skills besides passing to Sydnei.
After playing on separate teams for Sydnei’s middle school and early high school years, Sydnei and Saniah teamed up as a senior shooting guard and a freshman point guard, respectively, at Saddle River Day School. Sydnei had previously attended Gill St. Bernard’s, commuting about an hour each way, but transferred closer to home for her senior year.
“Logistically, it was too far and [our parents] didn’t want Saniah to do four years of that,” Sydnei said. “… [So] I made the hard decision to transfer to Saddle River Day School for her, to play [with] her my senior year … so we could have that experience and for our family to have that experience, honestly, too.”
On their first day of practice at Saddle River Day, Sydnei reiterated something she’d told Saniah off and on growing up: “Do not throw me a soft, lofty pass. I need a sharp, crisp pass to my shooting pocket.”
Sydnei got enough sharp passes to average 14.0 points per game that season, and she and Saniah helped Saddle River Day to a state title. The team also finished second at the Tournament of Champions, which pits the state champions from different divisions of New Jersey basketball against each other. The Caldwells remember walking off the court together after that final game, distraught.
While Sydnei and Saniah looked out for and cheered each other on as teammates, it was a different story in their one-on-one battles at home. The Caldwells moved often when Sydnei and Saniah were growing up because of Isaiah’s job as an NFL coach, but there was a hoop in every driveway — sometimes to Isaiah’s chagrin.
“The game didn’t end until there was a mark,” Saniah said.
“Yeah, until blood was drawn and we had to run in to Mom and Dad for Band-Aids,” Sydnei added.
Isaiah soon banned his daughters from playing one-on-one without an adult present, and preferably someone who could referee relatively well, to keep the peace.
Though Sydnei and Saniah relished playing together in high school, they expected to separate for college. Sydnei was drawn to the Pac-12 after the family lived in Arizona for two years when Isaiah coached for the Arizona Cardinals. She chose Arizona State partly for its journalism school and partly because the program was the first to recruit her. “I always had a soft spot for them,” she said.
Isaiah and Kenya told Saniah not to focus much on her sister’s recruiting process because they knew Saniah’s needs were different from Sydnei’s. Saniah is more introverted than Sydnei, who by her own admission is “always talking, sometimes too much,” and Saniah has always gravitated toward academics. “I would say I was the smart kid in the family when I was younger,” Saniah said. “So I loved school and still do.”
But Sydnei was homesick at Arizona State, with her family a long flight away on the East Coast and the time difference complicating efforts to talk on the phone. She decided to transfer closer to home in 2021, and Penn was looking to add experience after losing several upperclassmen to graduation and attrition.
Saniah tagged along on Sydnei’s unofficial visit, and that ended up helping both sisters realize that Penn was the place for them. Sydnei wasn’t sure at first, but Saniah loved it right away, even though Penn hadn’t started recruiting her yet. “It was like automatic,” she said.
“She fell in love with it before I did,” Sydnei said, laughing. But it grew on Sydnei, too, and she was officially introduced as a Quaker in June 2021.
Shortly after Sydnei’s commitment and with her blessing, Penn started recruiting Saniah, and Saniah committed in October 2021. Even though their parents had encouraged Saniah to separate her recruitment from Sydnei’s, they were thrilled that their daughters’ paths came back together.
“My mom used to say it all the time: We’re two completely different people that somehow end up doing the same thing and just are always in the same environment,” Saniah said. “So it just shows you how different people can be but end up in the same situations …
“You need opposites of each other. That’s why we go together so well.”
At Penn, the sisters remain close but have carved out their own identities. On the first day of practice, they were standing next to each other in warm-ups when an assistant coach told them to separate, wanting to make sure that Saniah wouldn’t be in Sydnei’s shadow. (The Penn coaching staff has experience with sisters: Associate head coach Kelly Killion played with her sister for head coach Mike McLaughlin at Holy Family University in the mid-2000s.) Sydnei and Saniah also have different close friends on the team and different roles on the court.
Sydnei is usually the first reserve off the bench for the Quakers, playing in all 26 games with one start. She averages 16.2 minutes per game, the most of any reserve, and contributes 4.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.8 assists per game. She can play shooting guard or wing, and she brings physicality, energy and leadership on both ends of the court.
“I’m like the Energizer Bunny,” Sydnei said. “… I come off the bench to give the team a spark, especially on defense and hustle plays and when we need a change in tempo or just some momentum, and I feel like I’m like that in the locker room, too. I’m busting into the locker room yelling, laughing, cracking jokes.”
McLaughlin particularly praised Sydnei’s ability to attack the basket and pressure the ball defensively, and he appreciates the mindset she has as a veteran player. “She’s not afraid of anything,” he told The Next. “… Any moment we’re in, it’s not too big or small for her.”
Saniah, meanwhile, is a rookie point guard trying to absorb the playbook and learn from senior starters Mandy McGurk and Kayla Padilla (read more about Kayla here). She has played a total of 77 minutes across 15 games, scoring 15 total points and adding eight assists. (At least two of those points and one of those assists were sister-to-sister connections.)
“I’m just in a learning phase, mostly,” Saniah said. “… [I have] to really note and pay attention to what the seniors are doing so I can lead my class or still help because I am a point guard, so I still have to … help others even though I’m still learning myself. So I feel like that’s one of my biggest roles on the team right now.”
Saniah had a career-high five points, three rebounds and three assists against Hartford on Jan. 10, while Sydnei’s season high of 16 points came against Yale on Jan. 21. Penn is currently 17-9 overall, 9-4 in conference play, and clinched an Ivy Tournament berth with an emphatic win at Yale on Feb. 17.
So far, McLaughlin hasn’t banned the Caldwells from guarding each other in practice like Isaiah did, but both sisters claim it’s only happened a handful of times.
“We just don’t for some reason,” Sydnei said.
“I think it’s a mental thing,” Saniah said. “… We were trained as a kid not to.”
“Yeah, trained as a kid,” Sydnei said. “Our dad did a good job, I guess.”
When they do get matched up, the coaching staff usually jokes that it will be the most intense play of practice — and it often lives up to that. “She’s gonna make sure I don’t get the rebound if the shot goes up, or I’m making sure if she’s cutting through the lane, she’s getting a nice … bump,” Sydnei said, gesturing with her forearm.
Throughout the season, Sydnei and Saniah have supported each other in ways loud and quiet. They hold each other accountable and give blunt feedback on the court, but they also build each other’s confidence and routinely spend time together off the court.
In a preseason scrimmage, the whole team saw what that accountability and support would look like when the sisters played on the same team. One moment, they were yelling at each other, and the next, they were hyping each other up for a good play.
“I’m like, ‘Get it together! What are you doing?!’” Sydnei recalled. “She’s like, ‘You worry about yourself! I’m the point guard; I got it!’ … [And] Coach Mike is standing on the sideline loving it.”
“Saniah doesn’t take a backseat to her sister,” McLaughlin said. “Saniah does it with a smile on her face all the time, but she’s competitive. But it’s all in good fun.”
“After the first time, [our teammates] realized that we’re not actually mad,” Saniah added. “… It kind of shows our team how — tough love, basically. How you can have both sides.”
Before games, the Caldwells stand next to each other for the national anthem. They don’t have a special handshake, but they’ll often say a few encouraging words to each other before tip-off, like “Let’s have a good one” or “We got this.” Saniah is also a key reason why Sydnei has everything she needs to play, fetching Sydnei’s headband if she forgets it or helping her carry her knee pads, ankle brace and shoes.
“She’s like my personal assistant,” Sydnei said.
“What would you do if I wasn’t here?” Saniah often asks her.
Sydnei often returns the favor off the court, hosting Saniah for sleepovers at least once every two weeks. Sometimes, Saniah stays two nights in a row on the inflatable mattress that she says is as comfortable as her bed in her dorm room. “I’ll end up staying so much she washes like half my clothes,” Saniah said.
With Sydnei’s Senior Night approaching on March 3, the Caldwells’ time as teammates is rapidly running out. Sydnei has decided not to play another season as a graduate transfer, so this season with Saniah will also be the end of her basketball story.
“I feel like I’m handing over the torch to her,” Sydnei said. “I always tell all the freshmen, as a senior you want to pave the way for the tradition to continue and the legacy of the program to continue, but playing with her, it’s … that much [more] special … All my teammates are like sisters, but she’s really my sister.”
Sydnei is feeling those emotions heavily as graduation creeps closer. Saniah, with three college seasons still in front of her, hasn’t felt them as hard, but she’s starting to realize that the window is closing on their partnership. They hope to extend the ride — and rewrite the ending to their season together in high school — by winning the Ivy League Tournament and punching their ticket to March Madness.
“I want to get more games for her,” Saniah said. “… As long as we can keep playing, that’s how long I want to go.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.