Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
When the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) announced its spring schedule on Oct. 12, they confirmed that basketball would be the first sport to compete this academic year. Now with a little over two months before they begin, players and coaches are getting ready for what they hope will be a successful season.
As with every other sport, the basketball teams have faced many challenges during this unusual semester. But for Thomas Johnson, women’s basketball head coach, the response from his players has been inspiring.
“When you have so much change and so much uncertainty, sometimes your spirits get down,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you get a little deflated because you thought you were going to practice and all of a sudden you couldn’t, but our team has been just amazing under the circumstances and been very flexible. I don’t think their desire to want to compete and want to practice has changed any, so I’m really proud of our team.”
Senior power forward Madeline Sandman agreed with her coach, saying the uncertainties have brought out a new determination in her teammates.
“We’re very inconsistent as far as times we can actually get in the gym due to COVID, but honestly the times we have been in there I can see a huge difference,” Sandman said. “Everyone just seems a little bit more motivated and ready to show up every single day, so I think that’s a good sign that we are kind of coming through the adversity of it and able to still get work done when we are allowed back in there.”
On the men’s team, senior center Austin Brooks also said there have been some positives to the semester.
“The best part about it, I would say, is we get to practice more and really focus intently on how we play as a person instead of how we play as a team,” Brooks said. “Since we’re not playing other teams right now, we’re able to really hone in on our skill level right now and try to get that to perfection.”
This does not mean there are not still difficulties, as even with a season announced there remain many uncertainties. For Mitch Cole, men’s basketball head coach, that and the COVID-19 protocol, such as mask wearing during practice, have been the biggest challenges.
“Everything is so up in the air that it’s just been hard to plan, hard to get a rhythm going as to preparations for the season,” Cole said. “Everything’s the great unknown right now, with just the anxiety of not knowing when things are going to take place and the difficulty of practicing with difficult conditions.”
With the first game of the season for both teams occurring before classes resume in January, basketball players will spend several weeks at Berry over winter break. They will go home for Thanksgiving and return after finals week, before getting another short break for Christmas. With this travel comes the risk of infection, and Cole said that was one of the main aspects they were concerned about at the moment.
“The health of our student athletes is our first priority, so we’ll make sure that they’re keeping distances and staying masked and just reinforce the idea that it’s in our best interest to stay healthy so we can play and have a season,” Cole said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to test more rapidly and more often by that time and hopefully there’ll be some things in place where we know what we’re getting into. I think it’s just a matter of staying as safe as we can and following all the guidelines.”
Student athlete testing protocols, as well as other matters such as potential fan attendance, are still being discussed by the SAA’s president’s council and COVID-19 task force. Faced with these uncertainties, Johnson said the important thing will be to focus on what his team can control.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Johnson said. “The only thing that we can do is prepare our team as best we can to compete and be prepared and be safe and be healthy. If we can do those things, then we’ll adjust to whatever other difficulties come our way, but we’re just excited that we’ve got an opportunity to participate and play.”
As the first SAA sport to compete since the pandemic began, basketball will serve as a test run for the conference’s other teams, and Johnson said he hoped they would be able to set an example for everyone to follow in their bid to find back some sense of normalcy.
Brooks said that guinea pig role did not bother him, as he preferred to see the silver lining there.
“I rather be first than last,” Brooks said. “Even though you might have more things to understand, in the end I’m happy to be that first person because, just in case it goes bad, we still got to play a little bit. That’s more than a lot could say if it went bad.”
Sandman said she was not concerned about it either, as she was just happy to get a season to close out her final year.
“Being a senior, it being a possibility that we don’t get a season at all has just been awful,” Sandman said. “We are all so ready and fired up to go, and the fact that we were able to finalize the schedule last week, you can just tell it’s in the air. We are ready for it.”
Sandman also acknowledged that even if the team stays healthy, concerns about getting COVID-19 could still have a mental impact.
“As much as we want to try not to worry about it, it’s just always going to be there,” Sandman said. “It’s going to be lingering, and there’s always the concern of one of us getting it on the team.”
But having dealt with those situations this semester, Johnson said he did not believe it would affect his team.
“I don’t think we can be disrupted any more than we’ve already been,” Johnson said. “Like I said, our kids have done a great job of just staying positive and understanding that the only thing they can control is what they can control. Any outside influence we just have to adjust to, so I don’t think there’ll be any other type of distractions, other than the fact that we just got to be flexible with our scheduling and with the way we stay healthy.”
Cole expressed similar sentiments, saying he did not expect performance levels to be different despite the changes to their usual seasons.
“It’s a shortened season, so the competition is going to be at an all-time high,” Cole said. “There may not be as many fans, it may not be as exciting as they have in the past in terms of having a full gym, but I think players love to play and they love to compete. Whatever it looks like, we’re going to be ready and trying to play for a championship. Nothing changes, whether there’s two thousand people or fifty people or whatever, we want to have the same standards of competition and play that we have no matter who’s watching.”
For both the men and women’s teams, the objective therefore remains the same: win the championship, and Johnson said that will remain the goal no matter what.
“Our objective is to win a conference tournament, win a conference championship and participate in the NCAA tournament,” Johnson said. “That hasn’t wavered since day one. Our kids really worked hard and that’s their ultimate goal. They want to compete. We want our seniors to go out having a successful year and getting great experience, as we do all of our players, but our goal anytime we step onto the floor is to compete for championships.”
Both teams will begin their season by hosting Oglethorpe University. Though the date has not yet been confirmed, Johnson said he expects it to be the weekend of Jan. 16, 2021. The first confirmed game days are for Jan. 22 and 24, 2021, when Berry will host Sewanee: The University of the South and Centre College, respectively.