Alex Azzi

Editor, On Her Turf

Q+A: Notre Dame’s Nat Marshall on the Shamrock Classic, gender inequity in basketball and more

Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dara Mabrey (1) and forward Natalija Marshall (15) react to a play from the bench against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at the Carrier Dome
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The first ever women’s college basketball Citi Shamrock Classic, featuring the University of Notre Dame and Cal Golden Bears, will be played this Saturday, November 12, in St. Louis, Missouri. The game will air live on NBC and Peacock at 4pm ET, marking the first live broadcast of a women’s college basketball game on NBC. 

Ahead of the 2022 Shamrock Classic, On Her Turf caught up with Notre Dame redshirt junior Natalija “Nat” Marshall about her team’s focus for the 2022-23 women’s basketball season, what it’s like to play for head coach Niele Ivey, and her long journey back from an ACL tear. 

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

On Her Turf: I’d love to start with your journey to the University of Notre Dame. Can you tell me about where you grew up and your early years playing basketball? 

Natalija “Nat” Marshall: I’m originally from New York City and I’m an only child. Basketball was kind of the last sport I tried. I did t-ball softball, tennis, gymnastics, tennis, kind of everything. Basketball was the last one that clicked, when I was in fifth or sixth grade.

I grew up playing basketball outside. New York City basketball, Dyckman basketball and Rucker Park, there’s a big history there. So I really fell in love with the game in New York City.

I went to a pretty big basketball school in high school (Christ the King), started getting some offers, played on the AAU circuit, travel ball. The final three schools I was deciding between were Duke, Stanford, and Notre Dame. Notre Dame was always my dream school. I’ve been big on academics in school for a long time. I also wanted to play for a woman coach, that was huge on my list. And all three of those schools had that.

Coach Muffet McGraw (who recruited me) really pushed women’s empowerment and being passionate about social justice as well. Obviously, I didn’t have the chance to play for Coach McGraw, as she retired before I got here. So I’ve been under Coach Niele Ivey. But I’ve loved it so far.

On Her Turf: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone so clearly articulate that they wanted to play for a woman coach. Did you ever have a female head coach prior to getting to Notre Dame?

Marshall: I had one (when I was playing) in a small recreational league when I was in like, third grade, but that was only for a few months.

On Her Turf: Wow. Given that you only had male coaches, how were you so certain that was something you wanted from your college basketball experience?

Marshall: I don’t know. I think in high school, I took a step back and was like, ‘I’m on a team with 12 other young women and we have an entire coaching staff and strength staff and conditioning staff and athletic training staff that is all men.’ It was like, this just seems a little odd. I don’t see that on the men’s side (with women coaching men).

So it was just something that I started to explore and learn about. And I saw that all of these top programs were led by women: South Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford, Duke. So it just became something that (I realized) I wanted.

I don’t think we really realize the impact that powerful women have in our lives. But once you do get a glimpse of that… I’ve been really intentional about the women and I’m surrounded by. I think just being around women cultivates this super empowering environment that I love.

On Her Turf: So Muffet McGraw recruited you, but you’ve been playing under Niele Ivey since getting to Notre Dame. What has playing for Coach Ivey – or do you call her Niele? – been like?

Marshall: Oh my gosh, Niele is great. We’re definitely on a first name basis. Sometimes when it’s heated, we’ll say Coach Ivey, but yeah, we usually refer to her as Niele.

I think she does a really good job wearing multiple hats. She has the head coaching hat, the mentor hat, the mom hat, the recruiting hat. And she’s really, really good at showing us what strong, powerful, successful women leaders in sports look like. I think she cultivates that with all of the people on her staff and it trickles down, from the associate head coach all the way down to our sports psychologist and support staff.

I (also appreciate) the way that she carries herself and encourages us to carry ourselves and use our voice, just like Coach McGraw. I think she’s the best person that could have gotten that job after Coach McGraw. So, yeah, we have a really good relationship.

On Her Turf: While women, in general, are underrepresented in coaching positions, women of color are even less represented. What has it been like having one of those few women of color coaching you?

Marshall: It’s everything. I’m really passionate about social justice and equity, not just in sports, but in general. And so learning from a Black woman is so incredibly powerful. Showing young, specifically young Black girls, that you can be in that position of leadership, that you can lead the top team in the country, that you can be just as good and better than men in your position. I think at Notre Dame, we exemplify that. And I think Niele has done a great job being in that spot.

On Her Turf: Going back a couple years… Y­­ou arrived at Notre Dame, your dream school, but you were dealing with an ACL tear. What did that transition to college look like for you? 

Marshall: Yeah, I think my situation is a little bit different. I tore my ACL two days before the first game of my senior year of high school. That was the fall of 2019, going into 2020, which was obviously the COVID pandemic. So I tore my ACL, had surgery, and was out that whole year.

And then the world shut down… So basketball was taken away from me, but it was also taken away from everybody. So that year was super, super tough — for everyone.

When I got to Notre Dame for my freshman year, I wasn’t ready to play, health-wise. So I redshirted and then had two additional surgeries. And then I had another surgery. And then a fifth one in January.

So it’s been a tough ride, battling injuries. It’s been a learning experience– a humbling, learning experience. But having amazing coaches and staff and athletic training has gotten me through.

On Her Turf: In addition to not having enough women in coaching positions, there’s a lack of women in sports science, and women are even underrepresented in research studies about sports injuries. Did you witness that gender disparity at all while rehabbing your ACL?

Marshall: I’ve actually never thought about that before. But looking back, in those early days right before the world shut down, I did get that vibe in rehab. It was all men working with me and they really only worked primarily with male athletes with ACL tears.

Then when I got to Notre Dame, there was this big switch. That 2018 team that won the NCAA national championship, four players were out with ACL tears. So unfortunately, we have a lot of experience with women tearing their ACL.

So Notre Dame has been amazing and the sports medicine is unmatched here. They’re really good at what they do and I’ve been blessed in that way.

On Her Turf: So the women’s college basketball season is just getting started, but can you tell me what Notre Dame’s dynamic has been looking like in practice?

Marshall: I think this is the best chemistry of a team I’ve ever been a part of.

And I thought I felt that way last year. But this team, I don’t know, we just have this special bond and this incredible way of translating our off-the-court chemistry on the court. Besides the talent and the preseason watch lists and accolades, we have this way of having each other’s backs. All of those intangible things. I think we push really hard on the court. We have this great rotation and we really trust each other.

On Her Turf: In terms of team chemistry, what does that look like in practice?

Marshall: I think we’re still trying to find out our identity. Niele really pushes us to think about our identity in terms of our defense, that’s a really big focus for us this year. As we know, defense is what wins championships and it’s the biggest component of basketball in the last few minutes of the game.

So the practice environment is good and we have some amazing practice players that get us better every day. I think we’re just really we’re open to criticism, trying to get better every day, and (make it back) into that Final Four again.

On Her Turf: Looking ahead to the first ever Shamrock Classic vs. Cal… How did you find out that this event had been scheduled and would air on network TV?

Marshall: Our staff told us that we were going to have this special game in St. Louis, but we didn’t really know what it was. Then we got all of the details when the press release and social media posts went out and it was amazing. I think it’s an awesome opportunity, not only to bring attention to women’s sports, but the fact that it’s on NBC is amazing.

And we are playing in St. Louis, which is Niele’s hometown — and Cal head coach (Charmin Smith)’s hometown too… We’re just so excited. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On Her Turf: I know you don’t want to give away any scouting report secrets, but what stands out to you the most about Cal’s strengths as a team? 

Marshall: I think their pace and their guard play is really impressive. Like I said, we are huge on defense here. We are focused on our offense for sure, too. But we’re focused on shutting down their best players. I think our defensive schemes – I’m going to be broad here – but our defensive schemes for this game are going to be really good.

On Her Turf: Given the national audience for the Shamrock Classic, I’m guessing some fans will be watching Notre Dame women’s basketball for the first time ever. What do you want people to know about you and your team when they tune into the game?

Marshall: First of all, I want them to know that women’s basketball, college women’s basketball, we play at a really high level. And Notre Dame has a history and tradition of consistently being one of the best programs.

We’re still building our identity this season. And like I said, (we’re focused on) defense, defense, defense. So I want people to watch us and be like, ‘Dang, that’s something that they are really, really good at, they are really shutting down Cal and their best players.’

You can watch the 2022 Citi Shamrock Classic featuring the University of Notre Dame and Cal Golden Bears this Saturday, November 12, at 4pm ET on NBC or stream it live on Peacock. 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

For NWSL players, there’s work, play, and the things not in the job description

Portland Thorns player Morgan Weaver trains on an empty field
Getty Images

Seventeen-year-old Olivia Moultrie, the soccer phenom who successfully sued for the right to play in the NWSL, uses the word “training” to describe the time she spends with her teammates and coaches.

“But my family likes to joke around and be like, ‘Hey, when are you leaving for work?’”

Thorns captain Christine Sinclair, who is 22 years older than Moultrie, sees things through a similar lens as her younger teammate’s family.

“Jokingly, I’m like, ‘I gotta go to work,’” the 10-year NWSL veteran explained. “Even though I don’t think I’ve worked a day in my life. I think we’re very fortunate to work (this job) because I mean, it’s the best job in the world.”

“It’s hard, changing it from ‘I have to train today’… But it’s actually my job now,” said Alex Loera, who just finished her rookie season with the Kansas City Current. “I have this epiphany every week that’s like, ‘Wow, I actually get to do what I love and get paid to play soccer.’ It’s incredible. I’m very thankful for that.”

This word choice — Is it training? Or is it work? — highlights the complexities of playing a game because you love it, and then having that game become your job.

“I don’t think it’s really set in that I finally made it to where I’m getting paid to play soccer,” said Kansas City rookie Jenna Winebrenner. “Soccer is what my life revolves around — for a really long time — but now I’m actually getting a paycheck that cashes to do it.”

Many NWSL players have spoken about how they have been expected to produce an elite product without access to basic resources or workplace protectionsall while being told to be grateful for the opportunity. Due to low salaries, many players have historically taken on second or third jobs, a fact the NWSLPA highlighted last year with its No More Side Hustles campaign.

The decision of players to unionize in 2018 and the signing of the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement earlier this year represent a shift, both in the resources available to players but also in how players view themselves.

“I think our union was the first step in creating more of a professional environment,” San Diego Wave and USWNT forward Alex Morgan said following the release of the U.S. Soccer-commissioned Yates report, which detailed how a lack of basic protections and infrastructure led to widespread abuse in the NWSL.

Added Morgan: “Listening (to), believing players, and putting players’ safety first was also a huge step this year that players really demanded by using their voices and sharing their stories.”

“We deserve an environment where we get to go out and play and enjoy doing what we do. And we deserve to be in an environment that protects that joy,” said OL Reign and USWNT defender Alana Cook after publication of the Yates report. “We’ve been the ones arguing for protection and guardrails and safeguards for the entire time.”

The NWSL minimum salary is still low ($35,000 in 2022), though each player is also provided with either housing or a stipend. This year’s landmark CBA also included requirements for playing field conditions, standards for team medical staff, and paid mental health leave.

Crystal Dunn, who gave birth to son Marcel in May and returned to NWSL competition just five months later, said thinking of herself as a “working mom” didn’t happen automatically.

“As athletes, we don’t sometimes put ourselves in the same boat as women who don’t play sports. I think it’s important that we realize like, ‘No, our job is to play soccer, but it’s work.’ I’m a working mom. I have to leave my baby at home in good care, but I have to leave him to go work,” Dunn explained.

Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby said she typically uses the word “training” to describe what she does. “But if someone needs something from me, (I’ll say), ‘I’m working from here to here.’ It’s not just two hours out of the day, like I’m working this amount of time. Training is in there, but it’s not just training — I’m at work.”

Many players also shared the enormous amount of emotional labor they’ve expended as a result of the abuse and misconduct itself, as well as burden of being asked continually about the investigations and reports.

“These women and the women of the NWSL are frequently asked to be spokespeople for major events,” Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson said in her first media availability after the Yates report was released.  “And it takes a toll. And people don’t recognize that.”

“For me personally, soccer was like an escape from all the things going on,” Sophia Smith said after leading Portland to the 2022 NWSL title.

The 2022 MVP added: “We’ve gone through a lot of stuff that isn’t in the job description.”

On Her Turf writer Lisa Antonucci contributed to this report. 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

PHF: Storylines that set the stage for 2022-23 hockey season

PHF player and Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Isobel Cup playoffs
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), previously known as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), had a busy offseason filled with signings, expansion, and new hires coming aboard. Here are a few of the biggest storylines that set the stage heading into the 2022-23 PHF season, the eighth in league history.

Some PHF players able to focus on hockey full-time thanks to higher salaries 

PHF players will benefit from higher salaries this season, the result of a $25 million, three-year commitment from the league’s Board of Governors, which was announced in January. In addition, this season marks the first time players will receive full health care benefits.

While each PHF team is allowed to have 25 players on a roster, most teams are closer to the league minimum of 20, which comes out to an average of $37,500 per player (assuming each team is spending to the cap limit).

Buffalo Beauts defender Dominique Kremer, who has the highest officially disclosed salary ($65,000) of any PHF player, said the impact of that salary cap boost has been huge.

“Just the difference in how we trained this past summer was exponential,” said Kremer, a Merrimack College grad who enters her third season with the Beauts.

“In the past, I was working an 8-to-5 job, coming home and working out… my mom would make me dinner so I didn’t have to cook. And I would go to bed and do it all over again the next day. So this was the first summer where I could completely dedicate everything I did to hockey and I think — I hope — it’s reflected in my play.”

“The salary cap increasing is very exciting because it’s allowed more opportunities for players,” said Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, who has played in the NWHL/PHF since the league launched in 2015. “And with that extra compensation and extra training obviously (brings) in some players who are going to have those increased opportunities that I think we’ve all been working towards.”

That said, many PHF players still won’t be paid enough this season to focus on hockey full-time, at least not without some other financial safety net.

The PHF confirmed that it will impose an individual salary minimum ($13,500) as well as a $562,500 salary cap minimum for each team (75 percent of the $750,000 team cap). Still, that doesn’t cover PHF practice players, who make $150 week, do not receive benefits, and are required to sign a liability waiver, according to the league’s bylaws.

PHF expands to seven teams with addition of Montreal Force

The Montreal Force joins the PHF as the league’s seventh team. While a Montreal PHF/NWHL team has long been rumored – dating back to the league’s inaugural season – the team was made official over the summer.

Montreal’s roster is captained by Ann-Sophie Bettez, who previously played with the CWHL’s Montreal team(2012-2019) before joining the PWHPA when that league folded. On making the jump to the PHF and the Montreal Force, the 35-year-old Bettez said it was the right choice for her at this moment in time.

“I’ll put it this way: it’s a selfish decision. It’s where I am in my life, this is what fit for me,” she explained. “I don’t want to compare the association (PWHPA) with the league (PHF). … For me, the opportunity of having a franchise in Montreal, it was the right fit for me to be part of a team and work towards a common goal. This is what I have been lacking in the last few years and that’s what I wanted to do. So I didn’t have any resistance (from the PWHPA) whatsoever.”

While the Montreal Force will train at Centre 21.02 in Verdun, the team’s home games will be played across the province of Quebec.

“When you look at our schedule, you realize that we play 23 out of 24 regular season games on the road, if you will,” said Montreal Force head coach Peter Smith.

“There’s two sides to that. For a first-year team, I think it’s a really good opportunity to spread the word across the province. … The downside is that we’re on the road 23 out of 24 games.”

The team’s furthest “home” game will be played in Sept-Îles, Quebec — a 10-plus hour drive (or one-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal) — and the hometown of Bettez.

“Even the traveling will be good team bonding,” said Bettez. “Every time we go away on the road, it will be a chance for us to get to know each other even more.”

Team ownership further complicated after Toronto Six sale fizzles

The PHF made headlines last spring when it announced that a BIPOC-led group including Anthony Stewart, Angela James, Bernice Carnegie, and Ted Nolan had purchased the Toronto Six, but that deal quietly fell through over the summer.

The PHF finally confirmed this detail last month when it announced Sami Jo Small had been hired as Toronto Six President. According to the PHF release, the Toronto Six will continue to be owned by BTM Partners, while the new BIPOC-led ownership group will hold a minority stake in the franchise. The league’s release did not mention whether the four new owners announced in March — Stewart, James, Carnegie, and Nolan — were still involved. On Her Turf reached out to the league for clarification in September and was told that the team is “planning a separate announcement that relates specifically to ownership in the coming weeks.”

With the news of the Toronto deal falling through and the addition of the Montreal team, BTM Partners now owns four of seven PHF teams (Montreal and Toronto, plus the Boston Pride and Metropolitan Riveters).

While the PHF has said that the long-term goal is for every team to be owned by a separate group, in the interim, the current ownership structure has the potential to create actual and perceived conflicts of interests, especially now that the group holds the majority of seats on the Board of Governors.

The dynamic is also complicated by the fact that BTM Partners is led by John Boyntonwho is also chairman of Yandex, Russia’s largest tech company. Yandex has played a role in suppressing factual information and promoting propaganda related to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine (more here).

Influx of European hockey players join PHF

Thanks in large part to the increased salary cap, the PHF has seen an increase in the number of European players signing with teams. (Due to visa rules, it is difficult for players to work additional jobs if they are on a visa to play hockey.)

Just under 15 percent players in the PHF this season hail from outside of the United States and Canada, up from about six percent last year.

“I’m just looking forward to the whole experience and to play on such a high level,” said Hungary’s Reka Dabasi, who signed with the Metropolitan Riveters after team president Digit Murphy reached out to her over the summer.

“You can see the improvement of the league, year-by-year… It’s nice to see that we have the chance to play professionally,” Dabasi added.

“(This will be) the first time in my 26 years that I’m going to make some money from (playing hockey),” said Czechia’s Dominika Laskova, who signed with the Toronto Six. “(To) call hockey as my job is something we’ve been dreaming for.”

Getting players across the ocean has had its challenges, though, particularly when it comes to player visas.

“Our immigration lawyer (helped with) all of the that, said Buffalo Beauts head coach Rhea Coad, who has four players from outside of North America on her roster (Lovisa Berndtsson of Sweden, Antonia Matzka of Austria, and Emma Nuutinen and Jenna Suokko, both of Finland).

“It’s a little bit nerve wracking because there (were) still times where they could get denied coming into the country.”

PHF players head into 2022-23 season with new Players’ Association leader

Nicole Corriero took over as the new head of the PHF Players’ Association shortly before last season’s Isobel Cup playoffs, though her hiring wasn’t made official until after the PHF season concluded.

“What (the players) emphasized to me is that we’ve got a good, positive relationship with the board, with the league, with the office,” Corriero told On Her Turf after coming on board this spring. “We obviously need to be able to know that we can hold the league accountable, when need be, but we’re sort of working out of a place of mutual goals, mutual objectives.”

Corriero, a personal injury lawyer based in Canada, played collegiate hockey at Harvard. Her first introduction to the PHF came from fellow Harvard alum and PHF owner Johanna “Jojo” Boynton (wife of John) at a Friends of Harvard Hockey event.

“She had done a presentation just for a group of the alumni to sort of say, ‘You’re a group of people who have consistently supported women’s hockey for all of these years. This is what we’re doing. This is our vision,’” Corriero recalled. “They talked about options for ownership because they wanted independent owners for all the different teams and other options that might be available. Being a team owner is not an option for me. I mean, I’m not a sultan or anything like that. But I just sort of said, ‘I think this is amazing’ and I started following the league.”

After the previous Players’ Association leader, Alex Sinatra, was hired and then let go in January 2022, “I was notified by Jojo that the players were in need of a player rep,” Corriero explained.

Toronto Six forward and Players’ Association representative Shiann Darkangelo said the PA was in touch over the summer, going over its goals for the future.

“Working with the Board of Governors and the other teams as a group to go over the player agreements and different things,” Darkangelo said. “We have monthly calls, sometimes twice a month, to go over all of that.”

Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps move to new arenas

Of the six returning PHF teams, three are playing in new arenas this season.

The Metropolitan Riveters’ new home got the most attention after the team announced it will be playing its home games at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

“For us that’s an investment in marketing,” John Boynton, the principal owner of the Riveters, told Sportico, noting that the team is paying 2x-3x more to play at the mall than it would at a traditional suburban rink. “We need to build visibility for this team. We need to build brand. And playing in a facility like this is going to be a big leap forward for us.”

The team plans to set up around 1,000 seats for each game, while shoppers will also be able to stop and watch games from upper levels of the mall.

Still, the goal of turning shoppers into PHF fans may be hindered by the team’s game schedule. The Riveters play seven straight games on the road from before Thanksgiving until after the New Year, meaning the team will miss out on the holiday shopping bump.

The Minnesota Whitecaps also changed venues, moving from Tria (the Minnesota Wild’s practice rink) in downtown St. Paul to Richfield Ice Arena, which has 1,300 seats and standing room for another 500 spectators. The move means the team will have access to their own locker room and training space.

“Now having our own space, you’ll walk in the rink and you’ll notice it is the Whitecaps rink, our logo was just put on it,” said Minnesota head coach Ronda Engelhardt. “You see a place you can call home and the players can call home. … There’s a lot more time at the rink now than there was previously.”

The Connecticut Whale also have a new home at the International Skating Center of Connecticut (ISCC) in Simsbury, where the team will play on the NHL-size rink. Whale general manager Alexis Moed told On Her Turf that the arena will fit around 600 fans.

While many PHF teams were on the move during the offseason, the Toronto Six remain at Canlan Sports’ York facility, a 1,200-seat, Olympic-size rink. The team’s new head coach, Geraldine Heaney, is quite familiar with the venue, having played there in the early 1990s in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL).

“It’s actually kind of funny because when I played with the Aeros, my home rink was what is York. It used to be called the Ice Gardens,” Heaney said. “So it’s kind of ironic that I’m back at the same facility that I started with the Aeros.”

(For context: The COWHL pre-dated the first iteration of the NWHL, which pre-dated the CWHL, which pre-dated the current NWHL/PHF. The longer history of these women’s hockey leagues folding and launching can be found here.)

Heaney went on to note how that the facilities have gotten a major upgrade in the intervening three decades. “I think it’s great to see how far it’s come and just the facilities alone,” she said.

PHF expands front office, while some hires spark questions

During the offseason, the PHF hired several big names to its front office, including new commissioner Reagan Carey, Scout and Player Relations Liaison Kacey Bellamy, and part-time Team and Player Development Advisor Brianna Decker.

Other hires, however, have raised eyebrows.

Digit Murphy, a Senior Vice President at BTM Partners, went from being President of the Toronto Six to President of the Metropolitan Riveters, a move that received backlash from some PHF fans and staff members.

The Buffalo Beauts announced that Jeff State would be joining the team as an assistant coach. State played hockey in the AHL/ECHL in the early 2000s, but the team’s press release mentioned no prior coaching work or experience in women’s hockey. Asked why State was hired for the role, Beauts head coach Rhea Coad said this week that the team was looking for someone with pro experience, but that they also liked his personality and ability to relate to players.

“Something that he shared is that he really has a good understanding of reading players,” Coad said. “For me, I can’t see everything. Having someone on the staff who understands exactly what we want for our culture… We really do have something special and unique in Buffalo.”

The Boston Pride has a new general manager in Maddie Rigsby, who previously served as the team’s equipment manager.

Finally, the Connecticut Whale posted a job listing for a new head athletic trainer. The required qualifications made no mention of athletic training certifications or sports medicine experience, but did specify that the position required “demonstrated expertise in minimizing workers compensation claims.” While the person ultimately hired for the role, Hailey Rock, is a board-certified athletic trainer, the terminology used in the listing still raised red flags for reporters and fans about the team’s commitment to player safety.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC