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Next in line, Seawolves basketball prepares to take on the pandemic

A basketball going through one of the hoops at Island Federal Arena. Men’s and Women’s Basketball is preparing for their season despite rising COVID-19 cases. SARA RUBERG/STATESMAN FILE

After disrupting the fall sports season, COVID-19 is still a threat to Stony Brook Athletics. Despite the rising number of cases and hospitalizations in many states, both Men’s and Women’s Basketball are preparing for their respective seasons that are set to begin on Nov. 25. 

When the America East conference postponed fall sports back in mid-July, both basketball programs had not received any news about their seasons yet. It was not until two long months later that they finally had some clarity. On Sept. 17, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) published a press release setting Nov. 25 as the starting date for both the men’s and the women’s programs. 

Along with a new starting date and a slightly-adjusted schedule, players and coaches from both teams have had to deal with plenty of other obstacles to get to where they are now. With just a little more than a week until the regular season begins, they have to deal with not only these challenges but also others that may arise once they start playing. 

For athletes, summers are usually full of practices, training and preparation for the upcoming season. However, the COVID-induced quarantine that started in spring and lasted until the summer forced the team to go digital. 

As it has been with academics, Zoom was crucial in this process. 

“We all kept in touch with Zoom,” senior guard Victoria Johnson said. “With the workouts, our strength and conditioning coach had a plan set up for everyone.” 

Not having the gym at their disposal was not easy, but sophomore guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore was able to make do with what he had. 

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a basketball hoop in my driveway,” Stephenson-Moore said. “My dad’s a big guy on running, so I would run with him like six, seven miles usually every other two days.” 

This summer was just as different for the coaches as it was for the athletes. Recruitment was turned upside-down as coaches had to recruit at a different time in less than perfect conditions. 

Right after the basketball seasons were canceled in March, the NCAA created a “mandatory recruiting dead period” that was repeatedly extended until it included the entirety of 2020. This meant that all recruitment had to be done via phone calls and Zoom. 

But now that the athletes have reunited with each other and their coaches, the focus has shifted from individual training to group training. Because of the pandemic, practices and procedures have had to be adjusted to meet with safety standards. 

Junior guard Anastasia Warren said that the most difficult part of the new normal is “wearing masks and getting tested every week — I know they said they’re going to up that to like three times a week.”

Shortly after the announcement was made on the start of the new basketball season, the NCAA released health guidelines for all basketball programs. Among the guidelines is the suggestion that athletes and officials be tested three times a week. Even though the teams are playing and practicing together now, there are still things that have changed. 

“Now more than ever, things are pretty virtual,” senior forward Hailey Zeise said. “It’s hard for us to meet as a full team, even still.” 

For Zeise, one of the most difficult parts of the transition has been “trying to stay connected and build that team chemistry, even despite the fact that everything has been pretty virtual.” 

While the regular season has not started just yet, both teams are already looking ahead to what obstacles could come up in the future. One of these hurdles is fan attendance. Like many other sports and leagues around the world have been doing, games will be played without fans in the bleachers — only some media personnel will be allowed. 

“I’m excited about some things that we can potentially do with cutouts and making our own energy and noise,” Women’s Basketball head coach Caroline McCombs said. “I think our team does an outstanding job of cheering each other on, and sometimes you want to be in the game, but our team is very selfless in the fact that they are cheering on their teammates when they’re successful on the court. That, to me, is really going to continue to help make an impact and help us through these times.”

Home-field advantage is key for athletes, especially for crucial moments and playoff games. It can also, however, be a pressure-cooker for the players.

“It’s going to be tough because, especially in college basketball, you know that we really do feed off the crowd,” senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye said. “It is, at the same time, kind of like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. We don’t have that in the back of our heads that there are people watching … so I feel like it helps people, especially players who struggle with playing in front of crowds.” 

Unfortunately, with cases steadily rising and colder months coming, neither the lack of fans nor other COVID precautions will change anytime soon. The season has not even started yet and there are already things to be concerned about. Across athletic programs, players and coaches are doing what they can to stay motivated and tune out the noise of the pandemic. 

“Always be ready and keep that same focus no matter what because things could change at any second,” redshirt-sophomore forward Frankie Policelli said regarding the advice he has received from the coaching staff.

Sometimes, though, this focus is not entirely possible. 

“You can say I’ve been good sometimes and then recently, kind of like everything is starting to get to me a little bit,” Stephenson-Moore said. “It’s kind of like affecting my play a little bit.” 

Team unity, albeit slightly different than usual, remains just as important as always. 

“I would definitely say what’s keeping me motivated is my coaches and teammates,” Johnson said. “They help us with anything we have a problem with.”

It’s natural for basketball to not be the only thing on the players’ minds right now. The COVID-19 pandemic is a volatile situation with no easy or quick ending in sight and these athletes have had to adjust to the new normal. 

“Every day, somebody is probably going through something different,” McCombs said. “So just be mindful of the place that people can be in every day as it can get wearing on you.” 

Basketball is the first sport to attempt to come back to Stony Brook, and the preparation has been a lengthy process. However, players have prepared themselves both mentally and physically to embrace whatever will come in the upcoming season.

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