Aggies discuss conference tournament cancellation, plans for future
With the cancellation of this year’s Big West conference tournament, the UC Davis women’s basketball team has had to adjust to a season cut short. The team cruised through the regular season, winning their fourth consecutive conference championship and had been on its way to defend its conference tournament title when Big West officials made the decision to cancel the remainder of the competition due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
After winning the regular season, the Aggies had earned the top seed and a double bye in the tournament and, as a result, did not have a game scheduled until the semifinal round on March 13. Although the tournament had started a few days prior on March 10, the team was still in Davis at the time, practicing and looking on anxiously to see who it would be playing against.
After the conclusion of the quarterfinals on March 11, UC Davis was set to take on eighth-seeded Cal Poly. The following day, the Aggies were practicing for the tournament and getting ready to board the bus that would take them to Anaheim when they received word that the remainder of the tournament was cancelled.
“It was definitely heartbreaking,” said Head Coach Jennifer Gross in a phone interview. “I won’t say it was shocking because that morning, a number of conference tournaments were starting to get cancelled and so we were wondering if that might happen. And we understood. We understood that it was the best thing for everybody’s health, but it was really heartbreaking.”
Gross relayed the message to the players as soon as she heard the news, and she said that although the decision was understood, there were definitely some tears. For the team’s three seniors, the decision was especially devastating. After winning yet another regular season conference championship, the seniors were looking forward to playing in the conference tournament as a way of ending their college careers. When senior forward Nina Bessolo initially heard the news, she was in shock.
Bessolo described feeling “numb” and looking around to see people in tears when the news was announced in an email. Later, Bessolo recalled feeling “frustration, anger [and] sadness” while still being understanding of why the season had to end. These feelings all occurred with the realization that the team members “had worked so hard […] just for it to end like this.”
For Bessolo, the realization that, as a senior, her time playing with the other members of the team with whom she had forged tight bonds had come to such an abrupt end was especially saddening. After injuring her thumb earlier in the season, Bessolo had been working hard to get back on the court. Having to end the season without being able to showcase everything she had been working for was frustrating. Despite these feelings, she was also understanding of the situation and that continuing to play would have been putting others at risk.
Redshirt-senior guard Katie Toole also had a hard time processing the tournament’s cancellation and the abrupt end to the season. A transfer from Utah State, Toole was a major player for the Aggies in the 2019-2020 campaign and ended this season ranked among the top 100 in the NCAA for field goal percentage — 60th with a 51% rate in 29 games. Toole had been looking forward to playing in the championship game this year and was devastated to hear about the cancellation.
“I have never played in a championship game before,” Toole said via email. “We have gone to the championship game but I didn’t actually get to play any minutes in those games. And I thought this season would be my year. It was really hard to wrap my head around the fact that I may never get that chance. The whole team was really distraught and there was a somber feel in the locker room after practice. We were ready to go down and win another championship, and now we don’t even get the chance.”
Part of the difficulty that both Bessolo and Toole have had with adjusting to the new reality is the isolation and the inability to be with the team. Both players found a home with the team and were able to bond with their teammates, and not being able to see them or play with them has hit hard.
“Some of my most memorable moments of my basketball career was traveling with my teammates,” Bessolo said. “I loved joking and fooling around with them on the bus, in the hotel rooms, and at meals. I am going to miss playing with them very much.”
Team members were used to seeing each other everyday, but when the season ended and classes at UC Davis transitioned to the virtual format, many players decided to go back to their respective hometowns.
“It has been weird adjusting because as soon as we heard the news many of my teammates went home,” Toole said. “It is strange going from seeing these people everyday to not at all within a few days. It has affected my future plans [too] because I am wanting to play overseas and many teams aren’t even sure if they are going to be able to have a season next year let alone take on new players.”
Despite being physically separated, the players are still making efforts to stay in touch with each other. Team members regularly text one another and make use of a variety of social media platforms, including snapchat and instagram, to stay in contact.
In addition, Gross has been using Zoom to conduct team building sessions with the players. The team generally does a variety of these activities throughout the year that reinforce the core values of the program, as well as help build relationships between the team members. Usually these activities would be done in person, but the team has had to adjust to a new situation.
“Usually we would do once a week where we would meet with the team and do all different kinds of activities and have team discussions,” Gross said. “Sometimes, they’re just a chance for us to get to know each other better. Other times we’re discussing something that we think is really important to our team. Other times, we’re just playing some games and having fun. But, we’re trying to get creative and do some of those things virtually.”
As the team continues to process the end of an incomplete season, its members are also beginning to look to the future. Although it is difficult for the athletes to practice right now since some do not have their own basketball hoops and many public facilities are closed to the public due to health concerns, Gross has been working with her team and offering optional strength and conditioning workouts.
“We’re moving on to: How do we prepare ourselves as best we can for next season? And one thing in our program that’s really important that we talked about all the time is having really strong relationships, player-to-player, player-to-coach, [and] coach-to-coach,” Gross said. “Because we can’t be working on our physical game right now, that’s something that we’re trying to do — work on building the foundation for our team heading into next season. Really strengthening our relationships, both with the players on our team and the incoming players. We’re really trying to be very intentional with that aspect of our team right now.”
In addition to looking out for the incoming athletes, Gross and other members of the coaching staff have remained in touch with the current seniors, offering them support, words of encouragement and advice for those interested in continuing their basketball careers post-graduation. The team as a whole is continuing to move forward and is looking toward next season.
Written by: Priya Reddy — firstname.lastname@example.org