Nothing has been certain during the past six months. That’s why Cori Close is even more grateful for days like Wednesday.
After half a year without her players, the UCLA women’s basketball coach welcomed some back to campus for their first group workouts of the new season. The eight players who returned and passed a weeklong quarantine were split into two socially distant training cohorts. No one was allowed in the locker room. Coaches wore masks. Everyone was separated by 10 feet — still an improvement after being states and countries apart for so long.
“There have just been so many things going on that we have been venturing to attempt to do together, but it’s just really hard to connect,” Close said. “It was really good to see them face to face, to be with them and I’m really proud of this group of young women. I’m proud of their fortitude, I’m proud of their perseverance, I’m proud of their hope.”
Hope remains a driving force for UCLA, as the coronavirus lurks at every turn. Even as they started training at the Mo Ostin Center, the Bruins still didn’t have an official start date to their season. The NCAA approved basketball competition to begin Nov. 25, but Pac-12 teams are bound by the league’s decision to postpone all sports until at least 2021. Advancements in daily testing have prompted the conference to reconsider that decision, and it is up for a vote Thursday.
UCLA was not full strength during Wednesday’s workouts. Some international players, including Australian freshmen Izzy Anstey and Gemma Potter, are caught up in travel limitations and coronavirus-related restrictions on international students. Other players are considering opting out of the season, said Close, who added she hopes those decisions will be made by week’s end.
“Of course, I want them to be here,” Close said. “More than I want them to play, I want them to be here, with us, to experience this with us. But at the same time, I really respect everybody’s journey is different. We are fully supportive if anybody does make that choice.”
To stay in contact during the quarantine, the Bruins met for videoconference meetings twice a week, one for basketball, another to cover off-court topics. They read a mental training book together, “It Takes What It Takes,” by Trevor Moawad and Andy Staples, which taught them the value of having a “neutral mind-set.” But talking to each other through computer screens just wasn’t cutting it anymore.
“I’m just really excited to get back on the floor with my teammates,” senior guard Natalie Chou said. “I try not to overthink, so I’m just stuck on [that] I’m really excited to get back and see and play again with my teammates.”
— UCLA W. Basketball (@UCLAWBB) September 23, 2020
After the first day of workouts, Close was pleasantly surprised with the foundation of strength and skill the players had despite the long layoff. The strength staff led virtual workouts. Athletic trainers hosted remote rehab sessions. The Bruins, who were prepared to host the first two rounds of the 2020 NCAA tournament when the season was canceled in March, have “unfinished business,” senior forward Michaela Onyenwere said.
The standard is still championships, Close said, both conference and national. But the Bruins also recognize that meeting that goal on the court will be more difficult and stranger than ever before.
“We know this season is going to be really weird and it has been weird,” Onyenwere said. “So just continuing to be adaptable, giving one another grace and just being there for one another is really, really important for us this year.”