The men of women’s basketball

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Photo: Cleveland State Athletics

Ask any member of Cleveland State’s team which player was the most important to the Vikings’ 90-58 win over IUPUI on Saturday, and you’ll get the same response each time.

It won’t be Colbi Maples, whose 20 points and five assists ended up as the final argument of a Horizon League Player of the Week-winning case. Nor will it be Mickayla Perdue, Maples’ partner in the games of Grand Theft Basketball that are often played in opposing backcourts. Carmen Villalobos and Sara Guerreiro, CSU’s perpetual plus-minus leaders who make plenty of winning plays overlooked by casual observers, won’t get the nod either.

The answer is Joe Chacha.

Joe Chacha?

Brooklynn Fort-Davis can explain.

“We had a deeper purpose to win,” the Vikings’ graduate forward said after beating IUPUI. “One of our practice players, who has given a lot to the team, he’s not going to be with us for the rest of the year. I think we wanted to give him a last good memory of the team that he could take back with him, and kind of have fun with him one last time.”

Male practice players are a phenomenon largely unknown to those who don’t follow women’s basketball closely. It’s a simple enough concept to explain: as the label indicates, they’re men, preferably with a high level of fitness and hoop acumen, who provide extra bodies during practice.

Coaches, of course, need to worry about limitations on the number of hours they have with their teams – both those imposed by the NCAA, as well as the practical ceiling set by competition and travel schedules – so it’s imperative that they’re as efficient as possible with every minute on the court. Practice players allow them to approach that ideal.

“If I’m going to use our players to simulate IUPUI’s zone offense, and then simulate IUPUI’s man-to-man defense, I’m going to keep our players out there for a long, extended period of time on practice,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier explained. “So really what they allow us to do is focus on Cleveland State, they can focus on IUPUI, and when they learn [IUPUI’s systems] well and have a good day, it helps us big time and it kind of just meshes everything together.”

Getting to that point isn’t easy. Kielsmeier’s practices carry a tempo that probably exceeds even what most see during CSU games. Practice players also need to have cognitive processing power on par with their physical conditioning, to quickly learn the scout for the next opponent well enough to execute the necessary plays and effectively assist with game preparations. The Vikings played Wright State last Wednesday, for example, leaving only two full days before the IUPUI game on Saturday. Likewise, the team will visit Oakland on Thursday, four days after the win against the Jaguars. That doesn’t leave a forgiving window to figure out who cuts where, and when, in the offenses run by the Raiders, Jaguars or Grizzlies.

“We adjust pretty well,” Chacha said. “That’s a big part of being practice squad, you have to adjust to every scout that you play. Realistically, you only have 20 minutes before every practice to learn a whole scout, or at least the plays and how to run them. Once you get used to it, it gets pretty easy.”

“Sometimes they come to film too,” Kielsmeier added. “But how invested are you? If you want to be successful in life, you’ve gotta really care, and you’ve gotta really put a lot into it. And those guys care. They put a lot of time into it, and they’re a major part of our team, and they certainly don’t get much credit outside of the program.”

The specifics of the role vary from program to program, but at Cleveland State, practice players are not mere hired hands who drop by the gym for a couple hours at a time. Whether it’s slapping palms with the starters as they’re introduced at the Wolstein Center, traveling with the team to take on Caitlin Clark and Iowa, or that indescribable connectedness unique to locker rooms across the sports landscape, Chacha has been a Viking in full for three years.

“That’s a big credit to the coaches and the staff,” he said. “They really like getting us involved as much as possible, including being on the bench and sitting for team meals. I feel like the coaches try to involve us as much as possible, Coach K views us like as big a part of the team as anyone else.”

“I really have appreciated that, and that’s one of the things that’s kept me coming back.”

Chacha’s time with the team certainly didn’t start with championship rings and lifelong friends though. In fact, it didn’t even start with the practice squad, because the Vikings didn’t have one prior to the 2021-22 season. It began with staffers circulating through the CSU Rec Center that summer, handing out flyers in an effort to find student managers.

As an international student from Tanzania just beginning college on the other side of the planet from most of what he knew, Chacha figured that he had nothing to lose and took the team up on the offer. But things quickly pivoted from there.

“In the midst of getting that manager job, they just asked me ‘Do you want to be a practice player? Do you want to just play with us?’ And I was like ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’” he said. “I like playing basketball, and it was a good opportunity for me to learn more from the coach, the team, just everything in the system.”

There was an important catch, however. One player does not a practice squad make, so Chacha quickly had to recruit some teammates. Every offseason beginning with that first one, the CSU staff would ask if Chacha could find some guys from either the rec center or his friend group, and every offseason he would deliver increasing numbers.

“I reached out to my friends first, we all play basketball,” Chacha said. “I know they’re really good and would understand what Coach K requires from them, and that they would be good fits for the practice squad.”

“And that’s what I asked them, to try it out. They weren’t sure if they would be able to do it, they weren’t sure if they would have the time, they weren’t sure if they’d like it. So I said try it out, try it for the first week, if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you like it, stay.”

Most of them stayed.

There’s never a simple answer explaining why any sports team wins or doesn’t. A transcendent star helps, but they can’t do it alone. Financial backing will likely raise a program’s floor, but it doesn’t guarantee anything when the games get toughest. A great recruiter can bring in talent, but the talent still must execute under the bright lights.

When evaluating Cleveland State’s program during Kielsmeier’s six seasons, it’s not hard to see the correlation between Chacha’s efforts and increasing on-court returns. In fact, Chacha’s first year, the 2021-22 season, was arguably when CSU became a true Horizon League championship contender after previously being a good team, but a decided underdog to Wright State, Green Bay and IUPUI.

Sure, a ton of that had to do with Kielsmeier and his staff ramping up the roster’s horsepower with Destiny Leo, Amele Ngwafang, Barbara Zieniewska and Brittni Moore during those pivotal seasons. But simultaneously, Chacha was hard at work growing the size of the practice squad from four, to five, and presently eight. That change can’t be overlooked.

“He started our program,” Kielsmeier said. “When I first got here and we tried to recruit [practice players], we tried to get it up and running, we had a hard time with it. It was kind of just sputtering the first couple years, but once we got Joe involved with it, he’s got a bunch of boys that really love basketball. He kind of pulled them in, and then they came in and saw how much fun this was, and how much they get to be a part of the team.”

“It’s elevated our program in a big way.”

Though a personal situation is forcing Chacha to return home in the middle of the season, his contributions will impact Cleveland State’s fortunes for the rest of this year and beyond. But perhaps more importantly, he became part of a chosen family.

“When Coach K was presenting me with the [game] ball [after the IUPUI game], I was really fighting back tears,” Chacha said, as those same tears attempted a second jailbreak. “It’s my third year, I’ve pretty much been working for the team my entire collegiate career. As much as I know school, I know this team.”

“I’m an international student. Coming here was a whole new experience, I was all alone, I didn’t really have anybody to connect or relate to, they really gave me a family with this team. It’s going to be really hard going away from them, they’re a big part of the reason why it’s been so easy to adjust in America and in Cleveland.”

As Fort-Davis, Kielsmeier and everyone with the CSU program can attest, Chacha has helped them adjust plenty as well.

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