On Feb. 19, when the Stony Brook women’s basketball team beat the Vermont Catamounts 72-68, it was on top of the world. Stony Brook had extended their winning streak to an NCAA-best 22 games, they had clinched their first conference title and they had claimed the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
It was the climax of a historic season as the Seawolves looked forward to battling their way to March Madness with their fans and school at their side. Almost a month later, after beating the Albany Great Danes in overtime in the quarterfinal and handily beating the Binghamton Bearcats in the semifinal, the rollercoaster ride came crashing down. Instead of playing the Maine Black Bears in the conference final and possibly making it to the NCAA Tournament, the Seawolves’ season was over. Nothing could have prepared them for that news.
“Yeah, I think everyone was crushed, heartbroken,” head coach Caroline McCombs said in an interview with The Statesman. “Just knowing how much [work] had gone into everything and just not being able to finish it off.”
Senior forward India Pagan, who played a big part in the Seawolves’ success, described the difficulty of what happened: “Our athletic director, he came into the gym and he gave us the news and the entire team just broke down crying.”
Even though the Seawolves were still crowned as the America East Champions for their first-place finish during the regular season, not playing against Maine meant that this championship was not exactly the same.
“We obviously wanted to play Maine,” Pagan said. “We had practiced so much prior to that game just for it to be canceled like that — it was really heartbreaking.”
But this disappointment is simultaneously met with optimism and hope. Different players have taken their own lessons from the last season’s ending and from the pandemic itself, using them as they move on to a new and hopefully better season.
“We learned that anything can really happen,” senior forward Hailey Zeise said. “Tomorrow isn’t promised [and] the next practice isn’t promised.”
COVID-19 has created a myriad of uncertainties. From the 2020 NCAA Tournament being canceled, to the delayed start to this season, to the recent increase in cases throughout the U.S., nothing can be taken for granted.
To combat this, the players are trying their best to stay focused and motivated while shutting out the many future doubts and the memories of that March despair. Some are driven by faith.
“What really motivates me is God giving us this opportunity to be able to play again,” senior guard Victoria Johnson said. “He’s able to give us another opportunity, another chance to compete at the sport we all love.”
For the seniors especially, it is last season’s unsatisfying finish that motivates them.
Even though Zeise had planned to leave Stony Brook after last season, she decided to stay and help the Seawolves make another run.
“That was for a reason,” Zeise said. “I just felt like I had unfinished business and I came back to finish what we started.”
Others are driven by their teammates, who have become like family in the absence of their loved ones back home. This is what drives senior forward McKenzie Bushee.
“Our teammates and our coaches are really just our big motivators,” Bushee said. “I think it’s really important that we have each other right now because it’s like that’s all we have with this pandemic going on.”
No matter what they’re driven by, the goal for all these players is the same: winning. Having played so well last season, the pressure is sure to be on this team from both fans and coaches to replicate those great results.
But for Zeise, there is no pressure.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s pressure,” Zeise said. “I think that the expectation is that we just do our best and that we compete at the level that we’re capable of competing at.”The Seawolves’ first chance to defend their championship and challenge themselves to meet expectations is on Wednesday, Nov. 25 home at Island Federal Arena against Fordham. The Rams finished last season 21-11 as they lost in their conference final to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).