It was a season like no other for the Stony Brook women’s basketball team. A 28-3 record, marked by owning the longest win streak of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) season and a total domination of the America East, had the team setting its sights on the ultimate achievement: the team’s first ever NCAA tournament bid. The Seawolves had home court advantage in the America East Tournament, and they were ready to make history.
But as with so many things in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down. The NCAA Tournament was canceled, leaving one of the best teams that the women’s basketball program has ever put together without their shot at a title. But now, with coronavirus safety measures and a season in place, the 2020-21 Stony Brook women’s basketball team is ready to pick up right where it left off.
In the face of such adversity, veteran experience and leadership is necessary for success. And with senior forwards India Pagan (the team’s leading scorer last season), Hailey Zeise and McKenzie Bushee, as well as guards Victoria Johnson and Jonae Cox returning to the court, head coach Caroline McCombs will be able to rely on them to guide a relatively young team through a tumultuous season.
“The biggest thing is just taking it from our new players, just helping them understand the program because of the things that we’re not able to do with them, or the limitations that we have,” McCombs said in a virtual press conference with The Statesman. “Just transitioning from new players into our program, them having to be able to just fully see it and understand it.”
The new reality will set in quickly when the season begins on Nov. 25. To reduce the risks of the pandemic, this season will feature back-to-back games and consecutive road games. While this is helpful for the pandemic, it remains to be seen what type of impact the rules will have on the outcome of the season.
“I think it’s going to be different for all of us because we’ve never had to be in that situation where we’ve had to play one like one team back to back like that,” Bushee said. “So I think it’ll just be different for us, because we’re not used to having a schedule like that and having games back to back, but I don’t think it should stop us in any way. I think it can almost give us more of an advantage because we get to play them twice and see their highs and their lows and stuff like that.”
Any advantage that the Seawolves can find may be crucial to their success, as the league expects a tight race for the crown of America East champions. Despite last year’s dominance, the Seawolves were edged out of the top ranking spot in the preseason poll by the Maine Black Bears by just two votes. No matter the ranking, the Seawolves are doing their best to prepare for the road ahead.
“I think it’s just adjusting to that new normal and remembering to do all the things that you’re supposed to do,” Zeise said, regarding the team’s adjustment. “We’re about to start getting tested three times a week, and it’s just like ramping that up … it’s adding on to another thing that we have to do and just trying to be as safe as possible.”
While the team does not feel any pressure to repeat last year’s success, Zeise summed it up best when she spoke about the most important part of this season for the team: returning to the court.
“Like I said, the chip on our shoulder is pretty big this year, after the way things ended,” Zeise said. “I think we’re coming in with an edge, or sense of urgency. But on top of that, we’re just grateful to be able to play together, because I know not every athlete is in the position that we’re in and also, when it comes to health and well being and stuff, I think we’re all super blessed to be healthy and to be able to do the thing that we love every day.”
McCombs is excited for what the team will accomplish next.
“There’s not a ton of separation in some of our players,” McCombs said. “It’s really going to be about chemistry and who’s performing best on that day depending on what we need. Last year we were very deep, this year I believe we’re very deep, and I’m excited about that for us.”