Saturday, April 17, 2021

A team, one vote and one season were released in Anguish

Word was awarded in late December to Dixie State University, a women’s basketball coach, JDA Gustin, a Southern Utah college leaping into NCAA Division I athletics, that some of her players continue to play during the pandemic There was a misunderstanding about.

At the time, most players and coaches had previously contracted coronaviruses, and the team canceled three of its first six scheduled games due to infection. But his Western Athletic Conference season was about to begin, and coaches needed to know where his team stands.

So Gustin handed his players a brief letter which he himself typed. This reassured him that his scholarship was safe, but asked no-or-no questions that he could answer anonymously: Did he want to get out of the season? He asked everyone to think about it overnight and then fold the papers in half and return them.

The next day the decision came: eight wanted to play; Six wanted to get out.

“It surprised me,” Gustin said of the split. “I was thinking again.”

Immediately, he started meeting the players in person. One was struggling with online classes. Two had parents who lost their jobs. Some players had injuries that were probably linked to being ill. Others had lost family members to the virus.

Still, Gustin thought There were enough who wanted to play, and they also felt obliged to honor their wishes. For some of them, basketball can soothe feelings of isolation.

So on 3 January, he sent a letter to the team on a university letterhead detailing how the team had voted and wondering why the season might move forward. He asked the players to tell them whether they were inside or outside by noon until the following day. He closed the three-page letter by writing, “Love you all no one knows”.

The next day of practice, one of the players who wrote that she wanted to play asked to speak with him. She said she was actually afraid to continue playing, Gustin said, but was uncomfortable expressing that because her parents wanted her to keep moving and because her roommate, a member of the team, also favored the game.

That night, Gustin went to athletic department administrators. “I said, ‘We can’t do that,” he said.

A news release was produced, and announced the following day, January 5: the Dixie State Trailblazers were canceling their season.

As the women’s national tournament on Sunday in San Antonio progresses toward its championship game, and as the men progress toward their finals on Monday night in Indianapolis, the teams are praised for their tenacity to play during the epidemic. Hundreds of games were postponed or canceled during the regular season; Some teams halted their season for weeks; And those who have advanced to NCAA tournaments have been isolated in hotels to combat the virus.

But not everyone made it to the finish line. Or even the starting block. Eight Ivy League colleges were among those that never got started, with their presidents putting the sport at great risk. Others arrived at the same decision after the season started. According to the NCAA, 27 Division I women’s teams and 13 men’s teams, including Ivy, canceled their season early due to concerns about the virus.

Prominent names in the women’s teams were – Duke, Virginia and Vanderbilt. Various circumstances contributed to the decision to cancel: Southern Methodist players had previously accused their coach, whose contract was not renewed last month, of abusive behavior; A Vanderbilt player developed a heart condition associated with the virus; Cal State Northridge did not have enough players.

Appeared as a common factor: the decision was not simple.

Vermont coach Alisa Kursge said in an interview that her team finished their season in late January, saying “it’s an internal battle.” Two of her grandparents died in the nursing home from the virus, both of whom said their last goodbyes on a video call. And his players went into quarantine three times, texting roommates with advance notice to distribute food and the roommates. But for many of Cresge’s players, who had won three consecutive games at the end of their season, basketball was an emotional and mental outlet.

“I sit on the fence every day,” she said. “Are we doing the right thing?” Should we make decisions for others? There are many layers to it. “

Those struggles were not particular to the teams that missed their season. Mike Krejiewski, Genno Auriemma, Rick Pitino and Tara Vandekar, all Hall of Fame coaches, express misgivings during the regular season about playing between the pandemics. And an NCAA poll released in February, surveying more than 25,000 athletes, found that mental health concerns were one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half times higher than last fall.

In Dixie State, worries were eradicated for months.

In his fifth year as coach, Gustin understood from experience that the varieties that bind a team are only partially manufactured in practice and games. In a typical summer, his players worked as counselors at the Dixie State youth camp during the day and played pickup games at night. In August a team will go on a group walk for a barbecue, a retreat to the cabin in the hills, football games and student events. Later, there will be Halloween and Christmas parties.

All of that was erased in the past year.

When the players returned to campus in St. George for the fall semester, some obstacles among teammates, which could be knocked down in a typical year, stood.

Emily Isakson was recovering from surgery to fix the torn knee ligaments, which reduced her spirits. Isaacson, eager to please and spec-on-the-map Perry, a fast student from Utah, had spent the summer putting himself in rehab. Even if she was not ready to play the 40-minute game, she was ready to start the season. “I was very grateful to play,” she said.

MaKayla Johnson, a senior at Fort Worth with an earthly outlook and a big personality, rushed away from the size of the game. Players know instinctively who the laser is to focus on practice, after taking extra shots or arriving in the weight room early, but few at Dixie State understood what the epidemic was for Johnson.

Her church superintendent and a relative died of the virus in the early stages of the epidemic. Johnson, who has asthma, contracted the virus in June and struggled with his conditioning. Her father developed Kovid-19 in August and suffered a series of strokes, prompting Johnson to return home from campus. His mother also contracted the virus. Johnson said she lost someone almost monthly last year.

She has previously experienced a loss: an older sister died when Johnson was in fourth grade. But it was different.

Dixie is one of two players in the state who died in their extended families. “It’s tough for me, but basketball has always been a sad tool,” Johnson said. “I’ll use it as an escape. Whenever I was working with something, it was not difficult for me to separate things from inside the lines. “

Johnson said he had voted to continue the season, but fully accepted his teammate’s decision to end it.

The ability to turn off crowd noise, the pressure of a big moment or an off-the-court drama – is often seen as a valuable tool for an athlete. Some players in Dixie State do so more faithfully than Isaac. He had to spend his birthday under quarantine, and then soon after Thanksgiving, he contracted the virus with mild symptoms. But he had basketball.

“I wanted to play so badly,” Isakson said. “Because of my last year, you don’t know what it’s like until you have it. I love basketball. It’s a part of me.”

When Duke canceled its season in December, he thought, “Oh, there’s no way that will ever happen to my team.”

And then it did.

Isakson, who cried when Gustin told the team that his season was over, was angry and disappointed to lose in the second season. She was also saddened that she did not know how deeply some of her peers were hurt.

“It broke my heart,” he said. “I had no idea that the teammates’ families were ill and kept it to themselves. I did not want any person wondering if I could get through this practice? It opened my eyes. I have to feel that it is bigger than basketball. “

Three months have passed since the decision to stop the game.

Everyone has got time to think – especially Gustin – in the program. Their teams had improved each season, from five wins to 12 to 15 and then to 18 in 2019-20, the team’s second season in Division II. He went to watch games at the WAC tournament in Las Vegas and meet with conference officials. He has spent more time watching the film than he can ever remember.

He also spent time contemplating the decision to stop.

Another instructor at the college told Gustin that he must have found the children on the street to keep playing. Although senior administrators were ultimately supportive, there was some initial conflict between them. All of this was happening in a community where the epidemic was seen, in some quarters, as overblow. “New York City is different from St. George,” Gustin said. “This is a very conservative, white community.”

There is also another consideration: the security of his job.

As a result, he decided to overhaul his roster.

The NCAA has allowed each athlete to take an extra year of eligibility due to the uncertainties of an epidemic season in fall or winter sports, but only eight Dixie State players are returning. Some are not renewing their scholarship for strategic reasons – Gustin wants to play a more up-tempo style. Others were refused because they felt that the players had used the epidemic as an excuse not to work on their skills or physical condition. (He stated that only three players, one of whom was Isakson, had voluntary individual workouts with the coaches in January and February.) Others chose to go ahead; A player wants to become a firefighter.

He said that the conversation was often turbulent.

Gustin said, “It’s like you’re depositing, but if you’re mine, it’s your choice.” “I’m not trying to be a bad guy, but this is DI basketball. I understand that this is debatable, but we need a fresh start. The past is infuriating. I respect Kovid, but Kovid’s days are over. “

Johnson is one of those who did not return, saying that a decision was his. She is on track to graduate with a degree in recreation and sports management – she is completing an internship in a gym near campus – and wants to transfer to a college near her home in Texas for her final semester.

“I’ve started a new journey,” he said.

When the next season’s Dixie State team held their first practice on March 15, that too felt like a fresh start. The Trailblazers will go to Costa Rica in August to play three exhibition games and spend a few days at the beach. This is partly a reward, for sticking around during the last 12 months, Gustin told the players.

It is also insurance. Players will get to know each other, and coaches will get to know them as well. The college sports psychologist was with the team several months ago, without a coach present, and reported back to Gustin: There was no trust in this room.

“It’s something,” Gustin said, “a coach doesn’t want to listen.”

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