April 9, 2021
Former Ivy League rivals Eleah Parker and McKenna Dale team up in the ACC
How new Virginia duo will boost Tina Thompson's team
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Two Ivy League women’s basketball players are headed south on I-95, bound for the same ACC school.
This offseason, Penn’s Eleah Parker and Brown’s McKenna Dale both committed to the University of Virginia as graduate transfers. Their Ivy League careers didn’t end as they had expected, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the conference to cancel all winter sports for 2020-21. So instead of battling in the Palestra and the Pizzitola Sports Center for Ivy League supremacy, the two stars will team up to try to lift the Cavaliers to new heights.
Parker and Dale have known each other for a few years. They stayed in touch after traveling to Eldoret, Kenya, in summer 2018 with the nonprofit organization Play BOLD. Along with three other Ivy League women’s basketball players and six other student-athletes, Parker and Dale taught basketball to Kenyan children, often on grass courts. They hope that their familiarity will make the transition to a new school and a new conference easier.
However, Parker, a 6’4 center, and Dale, a 6’ wing, were two of the Ivy League’s best players and would likely have a smooth transition regardless. Parker earned back-to-back Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and First-Team All-Ivy League honors in her sophomore and junior seasons, and she averaged 12.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game in 2019-20. Her head coach at Penn, Mike McLaughlin, told The Next that Parker could have transferred to “almost every school in the country,” and Parker said that she strongly considered Louisville, Wake Forest, Missouri, Penn State, Seton Hall, Villanova, and Drexel in addition to Virginia.
Dale, a Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, ranked in the top eleven in the Ivy League in 2019-20 in points per game (13.4), 3-point shooting percentage (34%), and 3-pointers made per game (2.1). She also added 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. Dale was looking for a change of scenery from her native Northeast, and her other finalists were Florida International University and UC San Diego. She will have two years of eligibility at Virginia after missing her entire sophomore season at Brown due to injury.
Though Dale and Parker talked occasionally during their respective recruiting processes, their paths to Charlottesville were quite different. Because of her injury, Dale had intended to become a graduate transfer well before the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season. Parker, on the other hand, briefly considered taking the 2020-21 year off of school when the season was still in question, which would have preserved her Ivy League eligibility for next season. But she didn’t feel that she had enough time to set up internships and decided to return to school.
“I always thought I would just graduate and have to find a job,” Parker said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go to grad school right now.’”
During the fall semester, Parker realized that the opportunity to play another year as a graduate student was too good to pass up. “I was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, this is an amazing opportunity.’ So … I’m definitely excited that I have a bit more time to figure out what I want to do exactly [in my career] and get my master’s.”
For both players, the recruiting process as graduate transfers felt different than when they were in high school. Dale said she was calmer this time around and more willing to ask questions, and she looked more at teams’ culture and the academic and off-the-court opportunities rather than focusing on basketball as the single most important factor.
“[Virginia] was a really good combination of everything I was looking for in a grad school,” she said.
Parker’s emphasis on basketball changed almost in the opposite direction: in high school, she wasn’t sure what she was looking for on the court, so she decided to “really shoot for the top academically.” Academics were still crucial this time around—in fact, they were the first thing she looked at whenever a coach reached out—but she took a more purposeful approach to the basketball component, with an assist from her mother, Cheryl Murray-Parker.
“I spent a lot of time this time around watching games, watching film, talking [through] stuff with my mom, speaking with the coaches about Xs and Os and how I would fit in,” Parker said. “…What I was mainly looking for was seeing how I would work into that program… [and] where I could be used. My mom was a big help with this part because my mom watched games day and night, and she could give a scouting report on anybody.”
The relationships between a team’s coaching staff and players and the connection Dale and Parker felt with the coaching staff were also significant factors in their decisions. While being recruited by Virginia head coach Tina Thompson, a nine-time WNBA All-Star and eight-time All-WNBA honoree, both players were initially starstruck but quickly developed rapport with her and her staff.
“[In] my first conversation with Coach Thompson, she was just explaining to me her path and I could resonate with a lot of the stuff that she was saying,” Parker said. “And from there, we always had easy conversations, and sometimes it would go on for 45 minutes because we’re just chatting about our day, our life, and it felt very comfortable. … I felt like if I went to UVA, it would be a place where I felt supported and I could walk into my coach’s office, sit down, and talk about anything going on. That was really important to me.”
Dale added, “I kept thinking, Wow, I’m really talking to her, but the more I talked to her, the more comfortable I got. She really values the relationships with her players, and she really values you as a person. And, honestly, it just meant a lot that she could see potential in me, and that was exciting, coming from such a successful player.”
Partway through Parker’s recruitment, the Ivy League threw her a curveball when it announced in February that, contrary to longstanding policy, it would allow current seniors to compete as graduate students next year. Parker immediately added Penn to her shortlist, but the timing of the announcement meant that many application deadlines at Ivy League graduate schools had already passed and it would be difficult to find an academic program.
“I was excited to explore [Penn as an option and] talk about it with my coaches, because I do love it here and it does almost feel incomplete in a way because I didn’t get to finish out my fourth year here playing basketball. So I did want to see that option through,” Parker said. “But then it got to a point where I felt sure that I wanted to make my decision about UVA, so I do feel comfortable with that.”
Dale had already committed to Virginia when the policy change was announced, but she said that it would not have changed her decision. She has two additional years of eligibility while the Ivy League is only providing one, and she did not want to reenter the transfer portal next year. But she did face a curveball of her own: she entered the portal last spring, right as Brown was hiring new head coach Monique LeBlanc. LeBlanc could advise Dale during the process, but she wasn’t as familiar with Dale’s game as her predecessor would have been when other coaches called to inquire about Dale. So Dale relied on her AAU coach, her high school coach, and LeBlanc to help her by committee.
Although Dale did not lobby Parker to pick Virginia, they are clearly excited about playing together and lauded each other’s skillsets.
“[Dale] has a lot of pieces to her game that really diversify her,” Parker said, citing her new teammate’s shooting ability, post moves, and toughness. “… It’ll be fun to work off of each other and build a bit of chemistry on the court.”
Dale had trouble narrowing down what she liked about Parker’s game: “I think it’s twofold. She is a very strong offensive player; she’s great in the post and has great post moves. She’s a great finisher, great rebounder. But I think what’s unique about her is that she’s versatile. She is a great defender—she’s hard to get around and she moves her feet and it’s really hard to score in the paint. So I think that combination of offense and defense is very exciting and oftentimes you don’t see players that can play two sides of the court like that.”
They are both working to add new elements to their games before they arrive at Virginia: Parker is developing her face-up game in the mid-post and extending her range, while Dale is working on ballhandling and shooting off the dribble. Despite the post moves that Parker praised, Dale expects to play mostly on the perimeter for Virginia and is continuing to improve her 3-point shot.
Some of that skill development can finally come in practice with their Ivy League teams, as Penn and Brown both returned to practice in early February.
“[Eleah]’s out there doing drills with us. So it’s pretty cool in one sense, and it’s very disappointing on the other,” McLaughlin said. “… It’s disappointing that she couldn’t finish her career, four years, at Penn, but the situation didn’t allow it. [And] I’m happy for her … she’s going to do great things [at Virginia] like she did here.”
Parker set the bar high for her time at Virginia, stating that she wants to win an ACC championship and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in her career. Virginia had a young team this year with 10 freshmen and sophomores and lost its only two ACC games before ending its season due to COVID-19, so Parker and Dale will likely need to provide some veteran leadership to help meet Parker’s goals.
Off the court, Dale will pursue a master’s degree in public policy, while Parker will study public health. Both are still figuring out their desired career paths: Dale wants to play overseas and then potentially get her MBA, and Parker is undecided on whether she wants to play professionally. But they can lean on each other as they figure all of that out—especially if, as Parker speculated, they end up living together in Charlottesville.
Parker and Dale are two of at least six Ivy League alumnae who will play for Power 5 teams next season. Classmates Carlie Littlefield (Princeton) and Jadyn Bush (Harvard) signed with North Carolina and California, respectively. And two of last year’s graduate transfers from the Ivy League, Maryland’s Katie Benzan (formerly of Harvard) and Minnesota’s Laura Bagwell Katalinich (Cornell), will return for an additional year of eligibility.
“There’s going to be a lot of Ivy kids, men and women, in that portal over the next couple of years that have a year of eligibility left,” McLaughlin said. “So I think this is not the last conversation that someone in our league is going to go to a Power 5 league.”
“I think that just says, people look at the Ivy League as a mid-major and they say, ‘Oh, it’s just the Ivy League,’” Parker said. “But we’re really competitive here and we have some really good players and really good teams, and we can compete with anybody.”
Dale believes that the recent Power 5 commitments and the professional success of players such as Dallas Wings forward and Princeton alumna Bella Alarie are changing people’s perceptions of the Ivy League. Dale and Parker could open even more eyes to the talent that exists in the Ivy League with their play next season—and it’s only fitting that the former rivals are teaming up to elevate the conference as a whole.
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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.