While the women’s basketball team’s matchup against Penn on Friday will be an opportunity for the Bulldogs to gain ground in the Ivy League, the game has perhaps more meaning for forward Verena Lehner ’12.
After a year and a half of ineligibility, Lehner, a native of Gmunden, Austria, will finally be eligible to play for the Elis this weekend. Lehner — who arrived at Yale during the summer of 2008 as a freshman — was surprised to discover that she was ineligible to compete for the Bulldogs. The NCAA had determined that because she had played for a club team in the highest basketball league in Austria for over a year, she had violated the association’s amateurism rules.
“I was shocked,” Lehner recalled. “I had absolutely no idea this was going to happen.”
The NCAA restricts athletes from competing in college athletics if they have had a contract with a professional team, received a salary for participating in athletics or practiced, competed, or tried out for a professional team, among other criteria, according to the NCAA Web site.
Lehner said she was unsure exactly which NCAA criteria she had violated. She said that at the time she told Yale she was not playing professionally because she thought the experience was just a way to play basketball recreationally. Still, she acknowledged that she received a salary and had a contract with the Austrian team.
But head coach Chris Gobrecht contends that Lehner was not a professional, adding that it cost Lehner more money to play on the Austrian team than she received for doing so.
Amy Backus — who, as the senior associate director of compliance at Yale, is responsible for ensuring that Yale athletes comply with NCAA regulations — declined to comment on the specifics of Lehner’s case.
While Lehner was ineligible to compete for the Elis for a year and a half, she was still able to practice with the team, Gobrecht said. Strength and conditioning coach Kathryn Whartenby said Lehner has been working on her strength and conditioning during her time with the team, and Gobrecht praised her work ethic.
Gobrecht and the team have known about Lehner’s talent on the court since the 6’1 player scored a game-high 24 points for a Bavarian all-star team against the Bulldogs in an exhibition game while Yale was on a foreign tour in the summer of 2007. Lehner said she had already received a full scholarship to play basketball at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, but she approached Gobrecht after the game to ask about playing for Yale.
Lehner said Gobrecht told her she could not help her but encouraged the talented player to enroll in the Pomfret School, a college preparatory school in Pomfret, Conn. Lehner said she chose to work toward being accepted to Yale instead of accepting Louisiana-Monroe’s offer; she went on to become an All-League player and team MVP in both volleyball and basketball during her senior year at the Connecticut prep school.
Lehner, the daughter of a former Austrian collegiate volleyball player, said she competed in both sports during high school in Austria but chose basketball upon graduation. Since Austria has no collegiate women’s basketball, Lehner said her only option was to play for a club team.
Yet Lehner said she was not happy after more than a year with her club team and decided to re-consider playing college basketball in the United States.
She will finally get her chance on Friday when the Elis travel to face Penn. Lehner will be the third international and first European player to play for Yale’s women’s basketball program.
Still, Gobrecht cautioned that Lehner will not fundamentally change the team, but will have a minimal role as she essentially “starts from scratch.”
As she finally gets the chance to play this weekend after a year and a half, Lehner is excited about finally being able to contribute to the team.
“I just have to take the chances I’m given,” she said.