The Seattle Pacific men’s basketball team has continued its trend of red-headed forwards with a knack for big plays. The Falcons experienced a major loss with the graduation of ginger-haired star Jobi Wall, but sophomore Mitch Penner is proving a worthy successor. One just has to look to his two separate successful 3-point plays (off fouls) in Saturday’s closely contested double-overtime win over Montana State Billings to be convinced of that.
“Coach let me know even during the season last year that this year would bring a bigger role for me, and in the years to come,” Penner said. “We had some older guys in front of me at my position last year, and it was more of a waiting game for me. I had to get locked into the culture of the program first and step up when I got the chance.”
Penner’s love for the game was never an issue. From an early age, there was no question what sport Penner would embrace.
“Growing up I played a bunch of different sports like baseball and tennis, but basketball was always kind of my favorite,” he said.
One of the biggest influences in developing Penner’s love for the game was his mother, who played college ball herself at Seattle University.
“With her knowing everything she did about basketball, it was kind of an easy choice for me,” Penner said. “It was always my favorite sport, and so I started just playing it alone around 7th grade and quit all the other sports. It became my number one thing, and it never got old for me. It was always fun, and I just stuck with it.”
Once Penner committed to just basketball, he never looked back. He made the varsity team as a freshman at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien. He would go on to dominate as a Lancer, averaging 19.2 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game overall. His best season came as a junior, with a double-double average at 22.8 and 10.6 respectively. He finished his senior season ranked the No. 22 best prospect in the state of Washington.
In addition to his school-affiliated competition, Penner also played in an AAU league during his high school years. It was through this that he met two of his future Falcon teammates, playing with redshirt freshmen guards Luke Hamlin and Will Parker on separate occasions.
“We were always confused by the other team and coach because we both have red hair cut at similar length and near the same height,” Hamlin said. “Many people would get us confused. A great memory was Mitch and I receiving the Seattle Times Star 5 player award for the statewide best basketball player. I love playing on the same college team with him because our history goes back a long ways now.”
Once senior season started winding down, recruiting offers began to pile in for Penner. There were two things at the top of his criteria list: nearby location and a winning program. Despite offers from various smaller NCAA Division-I schools, including Portland State and Idaho State, Penner chose SPU because it fulfilled those attributes.
“The fact that it was close to home played a huge factor,” Penner said. “It’s a big thing for me to have my family be able to come watch our home games live and be there for support. They don’t miss too many games. Anywhere within driving distance, they’re there, just like in high school. It’s kind of a family event. My grandma comes out, my aunt and uncle, it’s really fun to see them up in the crowd time after time.”
As for the other side of the equation, head coach Ryan Looney and his staff were initially drawn to Penner based on his passion and enthusiasm for the game.
“The first thing was how hard he plays,” Looney said. “There weren’t a lot of kids during that recruiting period that could match the effort that he played with.”
Penner joined the team last season with Parker, Hamlin and Australian import Brendan Carroll. The four of them shared a suite on Third East Emerson last year.
“He is a goofball, one of the funniest guys I know,” Parker said. “Some key qualities of his are his humor and dancing. Sometimes his jokes don’t make any sense, but that’s what makes them funny. And he loves to dance.”
In addition to those traits is Penner’s self-professed love for juggling.
“Last year he would steal oranges from Gwinn to practice,” Carroll said.
“When we were studying, he always had a juggling break mixed in about five or six times an hour,” Parker said.
“He juggles anything… socks, soda cans, basketball balls…etc.,” Hamlin added.
Those juggling skills have come in handy this season, as Penner has taken on the role of sixth man. In addition to taking on new expectations, he shifts between different positions and can fill multiple different gaps for the Falcons.
“His biggest strength is his nose for the ball,” Looney said. “He somehow finds a way to be in the right place at the right time to make big plays. I think to continue progressing his game, he needs to become better on the defensive end of the floor and probably value that as much as he does offense.”
Penner is well aware of this focus disparity, as it is something his mom has critiqued him on for years.
“She always tells me, ‘Defense breaks my offense,’” Penner said. Sometimes I get focused on offense a little too much and I’ll let it affect my defensive side, and that was one thing she always told me in high school. Once I really thought about it and brought that mentality into my game, it really helped me out.”
Despite acknowledging he still has areas to grow in, Looney has been impressed with the work Penner has put in to get to where he’s at now.
“I told him exactly what he needed to do in order to get an increased role on the team, which was to get in the weight room and get his body stronger, which would allow him to get better in a lot of different areas,” Looney said. “To Mitch’s [Penner] credit, he did that in the offseason. He’s had great energy and given us another scorer off the bench.”
Penner is winning over fans with his performance this season, but he already gained the favor of the Falcons’ most rabid supporters, the Orangemen of Sixth West Ashton, before the year even began. Senior Clark Kegley, the peer advisor of the floor, and in turn, leader of the jumpsuit-wearing troupe, happened to be Penner’s P.A. in Emerson last year. They developed a playful relationship while living on the same floor, and there is one gag in particular that has stuck with Kegley, who prefers the last-name moniker “Danger.”
“The Mitch Penner Special stems from a running inside joke we had on the floor last year,” Danger said. “Mitch [Penner] always has eccentric signature moves/a certain energy about him; we call that the MPS. I made signs saying ‘MPS’ for him at games last year, but since being on Sixth West we’ve upgraded to a chant.”
Penner appreciates the support, but doesn’t want the chant to be his only legacy. He has high hopes for both himself and his team this season and before he graduates.
“Obviously the No. 1 goal is to win a national championship,” Penner said. “If anything, I think we have the team to do it right now with how we’re built and how we’re coming together. Most of all, though, I just want people to remember me and our team as hard-working and that we cared about each other and fought for each other.”