GOLD RUSH: Immediate Impact
March 23, 2016
This article was originally published in the March edition of Gold Rush.
By Sam Walker
Elisa Penna traveled almost 4,500 miles from Bergamo, Italy, sight unseen to attend Wake Forest University and to play collegiate basketball halfway through the academic year and basketball season.
For her, it was a calculated leap of faith. Wake Forest welcomed Penna to the team uncertain of much as well but knowing Penna had a great upside to her game and possibilities.
Head coach Jen Hoover said that the whole process was really "kind of quiet until she was in the United States and on the Wake Forest roster." Since joining the team, Penna's play has been anything but quiet.
Penna, who is quite versatile at 6-3, played her first game Dec. 28 against Hampton University and, in her 22 outings this season, averaged 9.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest and playing more than 33 minutes per game.
She scored in double figures in 13 of 22 games and had three double-doubles. The first came was an 11-point, 10-rebound outing against Virginia on Jan. 10, the second was a 10-point, 10-rebound performance in a 64-58 victory over Duke on Feb. 14 and her final double-double was an 11-point, 12-rebound outing against Charlotte in the WNIT.
Little did either know how quickly she would adjust to a new style of play, a new team, new coaches and a new culture.
"She came in the day after Christmas, and we had two practices, and then we played and it was like she had been here all year," junior forward Milan Quinn said. "She is definitely a facing four, and she can knock down the three, so when she is on the wing it opens up the inside for us, which is something we didn't really have before. I think we've all benefited from her being here because teams have to be worried about everybody on the perimeter, and that opens the inside more.
"She is finesse player, but she can shoot it, she can drive it, she can rebound. ... If you play off her, she can hit a three, and if you are up in her face, she can step back. People weren't expecting that at all. It was a new look to the team. We were a totally different team."
There were calculated uncertainties both embraced, but little did they know her mid-year addition would provide such a different dimension to the team while adding a whole new day to day experience for Penna.
"Here is so different from Italy, but they are small differences," Penna said. "There isn't any one thing that I don't really like other than not being able to talk to my family. I am able to text them in the morning -- my morning -- but usually when I am up they are sleeping since they are six hours ahead.
"Monday is our free day so we can see each other with Skype. That's the hardest part of staying here -- not seeing family. The food, at the beginning, was hard to find the right food to eat, but now I have adjusted. The language is not going so well with the speak, but listening, I'm improving.
"The girls are amazing and helping me a lot, and we are getting better day by day. It's because of the teammates and the staff. Coach speaks very fast, and my teammates explain slowly so I can understand what plays and what they ask of me."
The journey to Wake Forest actually began two summers ago when assistant coach Clarisse Garcia contacted Penna wanting to know if she was interested in bringing her game stateside.
"I wasn't sure then, so last year I decided to stay in Italy," Penna said. "This past summer she came and asked me again if I was interested, and I said yes because this is the best feeder. It's so difficult to play at a high level in Italy, so I decided to start here. I know here the school is so good, and they care about the school, but you play, too. So you are able to play and study, too."
According to Hoover, it's fairly uncommon to bring in a player mid-season, but Penna's situation was unique.
"With your international students, you have to get their transcripts translated, you have to translate what the core GPA is, and then you have to get a working visa among other things, so it's not it's something that can happen in two days," Hoover said. "You have to be accepted to the school, and she had to wait to meet with her embassy to get all that done and we only found about her (desire to play at Wake Forest) until about two weeks before school started. We knew it wasn't going to happen that quickly.
"We knew about her, but word of mouth and through some people we knew, we had heard she might be going to Rutgers. But then we heard differently, and (former Deacon) Dearica Hamby had some influence. And by September, we knew we had a good chance we could add her at Christmas."
Penna joined the team in Miami, Fla., the day after Christmas, having had limited prior contact other than phone calls, email and a Skype call. Since then, the team has been getting healthier and better at the right time of year. Including the Jan. 21 victory over North Carolina, Wake Forest finished the season winning eight of its final 15 games on the way to the WNIT.
Penna also earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors on Jan. 25 after setting career highs against UNC and Boston College. Penna had 18 points and five steals against the Tar Heels and 22 points against Boston College in a game where she was a perfect 12 of 12 from the foul line.
"I think the strongest part of her game is her basketball IQ," said her teammate and roommate Ariel Stephenson. "She may struggle with what we are asking for, but she always figures out a way to understand. It's that way with everything. I'd say she has acclimated very well."
Hoover said that Penna's abilities on the court have been a welcome addition.
"She has opened up a lot of the offense for us and a lot of the offense we already run just gives us so much more versatility having a post player who can shoot it," Hoover said. "She's a great passer and (at 6-3) is really a guard. We just happen to be playing four guards even though Elisa is my height. She's a big guard. When she gets a smaller player on her, she likes to post up and hit that turn-around jumper.
"But what she has been able to add to the team gives our post players more one-on-one looks inside and takes the pressure off some of our scoring guards because they can make that one extra pass.
"Now we're a month and a half playing with each other, and now we've started to understand how to play with each other and what each of us brings to the table. It's a good time to do that, and you have to look at our leaders keeping us together and to stay the course. This team believes in each other. I would have loved to have Elisa here in the first part of the season, but now we can catch her up, and she can graduate and go right into a pro contract. We're excited about our future, and Elisa is part of that."
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