Closing the Circle: Players Matter More Than Even Championships

I have been working as an Assistant Coach for Daemen College for the past three years. It has been rewarding to watch the team grow under the leadership of Head Coach Jenepher Banker. Every year the team comes up with a goal that they want to achieve for the upcoming season. My first year, the goal was to make the conference tournament. My second year, it was to secure a bye in the conference tournament and to win the conference tournament. This year, the goal was to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Almost a year ago, I sat in our locker room surrounded by the team, while we spoke about the year that we had. Daemen Women’s Basketball had taken multiple strides during the 2018-19 season; we ended the year with 18 wins and 10 losses, earning the most wins since Daemen joined Division II in 2013. We also secured the number 2 seed in the ECC Championship Tournament, which also secured us a first-round bye. We were ranked regionally by the Division II Sports Information Directors Association East Region Poll and the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II East Region poll at 9th.  It had been a historic season, however, we lost in the semi-finals of the ECC Championship Tournament. Additionally, the NCAA only takes 8 teams from each region, thus we missed receiving an at-large bid by one spot.

As we sat in the locker room discussing the year, we asked the team to come up with a goal that they wanted to achieve in the 2019-20 season. The returners immediately said they wanted to make the NCAA tournament in 2020.  In Division II Women’s Basketball, coaches are not able to work with the student-athletes in the summer.  Coaches can only provide workouts if players ask for them and coaches are also unable to have the players track their progress throughout the summer and report back that progress back. Therefore, the summertime can be challenging for coaches, as you want the team to come back in shape and having worked on their basketball skills, as three and a half months of summer is a long time. However, it wasn’t a concern this past summer. The team was focused on getting better, they were focused on coming back in shape, they were focused on winning games, and they were focused on accomplishing their goal. They were ready.

At our first team meeting when the players returned on campus in September, Coach had us arrange our seats in the form of a circle.  At the end of our first team meeting Coach asked, “Do you know why we are sitting in a circle right now?” The team looked around coming up with things like the circle represented “unity or family.” Coach laughed, stating that those were all true, but her intention was to show that we were in a circle because we were chasing rings this year. A team usually orders rings to represent that they had won their conference tournament, and had secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

On November 8, we opened our season to Northeast 10 powerhouse, Stonehill College. This was a great test for us. If we wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament, this was the type of game we were going to have to compete in, and win. Stonehill came out in the first quarter on fire and led us 22 to 10 going into the second. After the first quarter, we played Stonehill even, but we couldn’t make up for our slow start. We lost the game by 7 points, 77-70. The team reorganized and refocused, and understood that if we wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament we needed to get better, and we did. Going into our last weekend in the conference we were 13-1 in the conference, and 19-3 overall. This was the program’s best since turning NCAA Division II in 2013. We were also ranked 6th in the region polls. Unfortunately, we played 3rd seeded NYIT and 4th seeded Molloy away in the last weekend. We lost to both Molloy and then NYIT that weekend. However, we’d get the chance to face both of them less than a week later in the conference championship. We finished conference Co-Champions with a record in the conference of 13-3, and an overall record of 21-5. Nothing was going to get in the way of our goal, and our team’s dream of making it to the NCAA Tournament. Since losing the previous weekend, we dropped out of the region’s poll leaving only one way to make it to the NCAA Tournament, punching our own ticket.

Two challenging games later, we won our conference tournament against the same two teams we had lost to the weekend prior. All of our team’s focus and dreams were realized, and we played in the first ECC Final in Daemen Women’s Basketball history. We won the first ECC Championship in Daemen history, we secured the first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in Daemen history, we made history. After the historic win, we stood in the locker room, all so proud of the dream that was realized. Coach brought us back into a circle, arm, and arm, and asked once again, “Why are we standing in a circle?” We had done it. We were getting rings and going dancing.

A little over a a week ago, we left on Wednesday and drove to New York City to play our first NCAA Tournament game against none other than Stonehill College.  When we left Buffalo, the Women’s Division II East Regional was still on with all fans.  Eight hours later, when we arrived in Long Island, things were changing rapidly due to the Coronavirus.

Conference tournaments began to limit the number of spectators that could view the games. We were told at 4:15 pm that every player could have 6 tickets to provide solely to their family members, as the NCAA was attempting to limit the number of spectators at the game. At 6:38 pm, the Big Ten followed suit and closed the men’s basketball tournament to fans. At 7:58 pm, the ACC closed the men’s basketball tournament to fans. At 9:27 pm, Jazz All-Star player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the Coronavirus. At 9:32 pm, the NBA suspended games indefinitely.

Thursday, even more things changed. However, our life went on relatively normal for our team. We had practice at 12:00 pm, preparing for our chance at the big dance. There where a lot of whispers about what was going on, and if we’d actually get the chance to play or not. However, the NCAA administrators at the gym verified that the game was still on and would just be closed to spectators. As we practiced, Donavan Mitchell tested positive for Coronavirus, the Redskins suspended travel for all coaches and scouts, the NFL informed all staff to work from home, the MLS suspended the season for at least 20 days, the Big Ten canceled its men’s basketball tournament, the NHL suspended its season indefinitely, the SEC canceled it’s men’s basketball tournament, the ACC canceled its men’s basketball tournament, the Pac-12 canceled its men’s basketball tournament, the Big 12 canceled its men’s basketball tournament, the PGA closed all events to fans, the Big East canceled a game at halftime, and called off the rest of the tournament.

We came out of the gym, with 1,000 notifications from ESPN regarding all of the cancellations. Still no word from the NCAA, so we ordered lunch and went back to the hotel. We were becoming stir crazy, unsure about what the future held. That is when Duke University suspended all athletic activities indefinitely, and withdrew from the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Kansas University, likely the No. 1 overall seed, also canceled all athletic travel. After this happened. we knew it was a matter of time, we knew that the game would be canceled. At 4:16 pm, the NCAA officially canceled all remaining winter and spring championships, including men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

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We had accomplished our goal; we had secured an automatic bid to a tournament that would never happen. Although we were all saddened that our season had come to an abrupt end, we all knew that it was the right decision. As coaches, the safety and health of our players is paramount and we knew that our moral obligation to them was far greater than any game we would ever play, or not play. As we drove away from the tournament, our girls were in good spirit,s stating that they were going to tell their children someday that, “they went undefeated in the NCAA tournament.” Although we never got the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, it was truly an honor to be a part of such an amazing group of young women.  

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