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Women’s basketball focuses on staying united despite canceled season

<h5>Julia Cunningham '23 dribbling the ball in a home game against Harvard last winter.</h5>
<h6>Beverly Schaefer / Princeton University Athletics</h6>
Julia Cunningham '23 dribbling the ball in a home game against Harvard last winter.
Beverly Schaefer / Princeton University Athletics

A little less than a year ago, the women’s basketball team stood on the court together for their last game of the season. Their victory against Cornell maintained their standing as first in the Ivy conference. However, this was only a snippet of their successful season. In the 2019-2020 season, the team won every game aside from an overtime loss (75–77) against the University of Iowa.

While the cancelation of the winter season due to the pandemic forced the team to find new ways to stay united off the field, the resumption of practices for the spring semester has been a cause of excitement, as Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Dalila Eshe expressed in a recent interview with The Daily Princetonian.

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Although the COVID-19 restrictions in place have created a different practice scene, knowing that the players will be able to stand on the court together once again is enough to raise the team’s spirit.

According to Eshe, about half the team took a gap year in response to the pandemic. In addition to COVID-19 restrictions, Eshe and Head Coach Carla Berube have been navigating the NCAA rules in place for gap-year athletes, struggling to find a way to keep the “gappers” involved with the enrolled athletes. Eshe explains that they try to keep the team as cohesive as possible via Zoom meetings by offering opportunities to bond as a team virtually. 

Julia Cunningham is one of eight members of the 17-person team who has chosen to take a gap year. As a sophomore, she broke personal milestones. This year, however, she said she’s taking things a little slower. As per NCAA rules, Cunningham is not allowed certain types of contact with her coaches.

“Athletically, we’re limited in what we’re able to do with the player, so technically we’re not allowed to do coaching via any type of Zoom session or anything like that. But [the gap year students] are able to work with our strength and conditioning coach, who gave them packets with a lot of workouts to follow,” Eshe explained.

“The coaches have been great,” Cunningham said. “Regarding basketball, or if we’re having any life issues, personal issues — things like that, they’re always very available. And I think they’re also missing being on the court with us.”

In the meantime, Cunningham takes classes at a local college and is applying to physician’s assistant (PA) programs. “Not having to take them at Princeton while in season, I feel, has been a real blessing,” she said. “Just being fully engaged, and not missing anything, and you know, not having the pressure of the whole season on you.”

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Though she is not attending Princeton, Cunningham has still chosen to remain in town. She and a few other teammates have rented an apartment near campus and lift weights, play basketball, and go on runs together, maintaining their strong team bond. The extra time afforded to her as a gap-year student is, in her eyes, being put to good use. 

“We've been using this to get better at things that we needed to improve on and taking advantage of time that we normally would not have had if we were in the regular season. For sure, it’s been different, but I think it’s a good different,” she notes.

Cunningham spoke about getting to know two of the three freshmen on the team last semester, who happened to be living in the same building as her. 

“We got to know them really, really well over the fall. [We] kind of helped them with their classes and that transition to college even though it was a little different than it normally would have been. I really do feel for them, coming in as freshmen. Like the transition is hard, regardless.”

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The six enrolled players living on campus have already begun transitioning into phase one of practices. Though they’re able to practice on the court, they are required to maintain a distance of six feet away from others with masks on. In phases two and three, athletes will be able to practice closer together and have contact with masks remaining on.

To keep the team united and to maintain a competitive nature, the coaches hosted an informal Olympic-style competition for the players during quarantine. During the seven days that students on or near campus were required to remain in their rooms, the athletes participated in a variety of fitness competitions — pushups, sit-ups, etc.

As of now, the game plan is to break down film as a team and work on individual player goals. Though focused on developing foundational skills for each athlete, both coaches and players are also working towards keeping the tradition of being a defense-based team.

“Defense is always the anchor of our program. Coach Berube is very much a defensive-minded coach, so that's not going to change. Our emphasis is going to be on the defense for sure, but then translating that into points quickly, where we don't even necessarily have to get set into an offense. We want to just run in transition and be able to score,” Eshe explained.

Transitions on the court are not the only kind of transition that the team is working to navigate. Berube and Eshe recognize the importance of introducing new leadership. With three seniors on track to graduate this spring, the coaches have been working to prepare the current juniors to become the next leaders.

Eshe commended the captains and seniors, explaining that “they did a really good job of helping our juniors transition, which was excellent. It's a difficult situation. Imagine that feeling as a senior where you thought you're gonna play your senior year, and you keep holding out hope, and then all of a sudden, you're not going to play at all. And you still have to kind of be in a role to help transition your position of leadership to the underclassmen. They did a really good job of that.”

Cunningham, like the rest of her teammates, mourns the loss of the season and the opportunity to carry through last year’s momentum. “The NCAA has granted us that year of eligibility back, but we don’t get that year of experience back,” she said. 

And while the next basketball season is still almost a year away, the players are doing everything they can — in the most unprecedented circumstances — to mentally and physically prepare for another successful season. 

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