Despite the Pandemic, They Rebounded
After countless Zoom meetings, daily screenings, masked practices and some hopeful thinking, we got the green light to play in our first Division I women’s basketball competition against Cal Baptist University on December 21, 2020 at RIMAC Arena.
It had been nine months since we had last played a game together in the gym, and for a brief period, it felt like things were falling back into place. Because we were newcomers to the Big West Conference, we were considered underdogs and not expected to perform at the same level as everybody else.
That game, however, proved that we were not only capable but determined to show up and show out. We were up at halftime by three points and were eager to finish with a win. Of course, it was impossible to shut out the growing COVID-19 pandemic, and reality quickly set back in (I did say it was for a brief period of time).
As some might know, our game was cut short due to a potential positive test from the other team. While we were disappointed that we did not finish the game, we all came out of RIMAC Arena with the same electric energy, knowing that we could still compete and successfully comply with all the COVID-19 protocols and demands.
It quickly became obvious that we would all need to adapt a lot and often to continue with our season. This applied to all of our travel games, bus rides, locker room set-ups and meal distributions. Throughout the year, our team emphasized the importance of flexibility. We were told we would have to wear masks for the first eight weeks of practice. Fine. We would have to be tested three to four times a week to play. Great. All of our classes would be online for the foreseeable future. Awesome.
At one point, I would have to run to the end of the gym, whip out my computer or borrow someone else’s, take a 10-minute quiz, and then race back to the court to practice out-of-bound plays. We knew, though, that these were required steps if we wanted to play. We learned how to get creative with our conditioning and lifting workouts and developed new ways to cheer for each other on the sidelines. Our athletic training staff was determined to make sure that all tests and screenings were completed before entering the gym, not afraid to call out those who were behind. Our coaches made sure we kept our distance during drills and wore our masks when required. We established trust and accountability for one another.
We made it a consistent goal to always remember how lucky we were; lucky that we were one of the few teams to have anything remotely close to a season; lucky that we were all healthy enough to run up and down the court; lucky that we had our friends and families to cheer us on through laptop and TV screens.
Many student-athletes over the past year or so weren’t as lucky. Many saw their college careers concluded without a proper send-off. We saw the pain in the eyes and faces of our seniors, who were with us in Hawaii for the NCAA first-round playoffs when we learned about the severity of COVID-19 and its ramifications for our season. Every game we played and every opportunity we had during practices and lifts, we did our best to remember that at any minute we could easily be in their shoes.
We were also reminded that, if we learned anything, it is that most things are bigger than athletics. As I write this, it is important to note that I can’t possibly speak for every person on our team because we all experienced our own individual struggles and hardships during the most insane year of our lives.
Between the ongoing social injustices in our country — highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement — and the impact this pandemic continues to have on the collective and individual mental health of so many, it seemed impossible to think that college basketball would be a sufficient Band-Aid.
It wasn’t and isn’t.
But coming together to educate and support one another, as well as understand each person’s limits and comfort with the challenges each day offered, was a starting point. We made it a goal on our team to check in with each other and make the space between us as comfortable as possible. This was important to establish and maintain for both our physical and mental well-being. And for many student-athletes across the globe, the choice to come back and play was extremely personal. I have respect for anybody who had to make that decision, whatever it turned out to be.
Because we were so meticulous about staying safe and following all of the guidelines, playing basketball, especially at the Division I level, did not seem as daunting or massive as we originally thought. There were struggles throughout the season, but we competed every game, and at the end of the day, it was basketball, something simple and second nature to us all. As we played in the middle of a pandemic, the Big West didn’t seem so big.