Coaches credit mental strength of athletes during pandemic season

Louisville players huddle while Stanford warms up across court. Louisville Athletics photo.

There’s a reason most people don’t become collegiate student-athletes.

The time management skills, the attention to multiple details and the high-level execution required for this demanding job put it out of the reach for the majority of the population. And that’s in a normal year.

This season college athletes had an extra ball to juggle as they negotiated the demands of COVID-19 pandemic protocols.

Every team had a unique journey throughout the year. Some saw temporary program shutdowns, while others had to cancel games when missing roster members left them with too few players to take the court. Every squad had to limit their activities to stay safe, and coaches noted the mental strength and fortitude of their athletes throughout the NCAA Tournament, which includes living in a quarantine bubble for the duration of their stay.

Louisville, which ascended to the Elite 8 before bowing out to Stanford, had a three-week COVID pause in December. Coach Jeff Walz credited them for returning to their winning ways immediately, and not letting up.

“They committed to want to have a chance to get to this point, and we believed from day one that we had a team that could make a run at this,” he said. “I’m really proud of them. It’s been a challenge, and it’s not just a challenge for us, it’s been a challenge for all these teams that are here.”

“They really closed their circle of friends. Besides their teammates, I’m not sure what they did or who they hung out with, if anybody. It got to the point on the weekends, we get back on a Monday, I wouldn’t even ask them what they did because I know it was nothing.”

Missouri State coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said she was proud of her team for persevering through the difficult season and into the Sweet 16.

“I told the players, we had an amazing ride,” she said. “And to do this in a year filled with so much adversity, so many ups and downs, so many quarantines. We didn’t play a game for a month at one point. I was out. I threw my back out. I missed a game. We just had so many things that went on. Some people were – injuries at times that kept us out. We had about 12 games that we played without somebody in our top six rotation.”

Agugua-Hamilton said the Lady Bears didn’t allow off-court issues to distract them.

“So it just was a lot. And everybody’s going through a lot, just with the pandemic, social unrest, the systemic racism, everything that’s been going on. And so for us to stay focused and have over a 3.5 GPA in the classroom, go beat Maryland and have the non-conference we had and go undefeated in conference and then make it to the Sweet 16, with all the challenges we faced, some that other people in the country was facing, some that we were just facing, it was just a great, great, amazing journey.”

Michigan saw two long COVID pauses – the second being a complete shutdown of the school’s athletic department for two weeks. Coach Kim Barnes Arico said her Wolverines ignored doubters and believed they would reach the round of 16.

“Our season, even from last March, all the way through today, we didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring,” Barnes Arico said. “We had been put on a number of pauses, university shutdowns, COVID. It just felt like all through the year one thing after another thing was being thrown in our direction.”

“But we had such a tremendous start, and we had such a positive group of young women, that really I felt so great about them. I was hoping that we would have the opportunity to be in the position that we were tonight because I felt so confident about them. Just our experience and our maturity, how we handled every single thing that was thrown our direction, it was absolutely incredible.”

Texas A&M was one of the biggest success stories of the season. Picked to finish third in the SEC, they went 13-1 and won the regular-season title. They rescheduled each game that was canceled and finished 25-3 overall, while being ranked a program-high No. 2 in the AP top 25 poll. The Aggies maintained a full roster throughout the year, and had no COVID pauses. They ascended to the Sweet 16.

Coach Gary Blair called the sacrifices that his team made “unbelievable.”

“A lot of adults could say, ‘well, we went through the same thing,’” he said. “Not if you’re trying to be that student-athlete and pay the price that they had to pay, the mental price they had to pay. Being away from their loved ones, their friends, boyfriends, everybody. It was an unbelievable thing.”

“That’s the most important thing about this game today, is what these young ladies and young men over there on the men’s side have sacrificed to make this thing happen.”

Arizona regrouped after a COVID pause and a rough end to the regular season to have a stellar Tournament run, which led to their first national semifinal berth. Coach Adia Barnes is impressed with the Wildcats’ mental toughness.

“COVID has been hard for student-athletes – it really has been,” she said. “I give my team so much credit for being at the Final Four, being in lockdown, just finding a way to make the best out of it and still have a good attitude, (to) still want to stay here and play.”

“So I’m just so proud of our team and our players and our organization, everything. Just words can’t describe how I feel.”

The South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate after winning their regional final and advancing to the Final Four. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

South Carolina overcame a brief COVID pause and four tough regular-season losses to win the SEC Tournament and return to the round of four. Coach Dawn Staley said the challenges have continued throughout their NCAA Tournament run in San Antonio.

“Every single one of our players have gone through something, and our coaches,” Staley said. “They probably don’t want me to say this, but I’m going to say it…..we had an assistant coach lose her mother while being in this bubble. We’ve had a player lose her uncle the other day.”

“It would have been very easy for them to say family’s first. I got to go home. I’ve got to leave this bubble. But the sacrifice and resiliency. We’ve got another one that’s going through cancer treatments. But they all are able to just put things to the side, focus on the task at hand, and then pick it up when we’re done what we’re doing.”

Staley said she respects the fight of her student-athletes.

“So that’s the commitment that young people have, and people really don’t know they’re going through those things, but they handle them with so much class,” Staley said. “I am just incredibly proud of them. I’m glad I’m part of their village because….aside from being great basketball players, they are super great people. I mean, they don’t give us any issues…..we don’t hold grudges. We just handle it, and we move on.”

Staley also commended players’ mental fortitude.

“They are incredibly strong for being able to handle all of that,” she said. “And to perform the way they need to perform. I do think we are mentally tough, and I question that from time to time, but when they’re able to tangibly (win), they made huge strides, and that’s all we were trying to do throughout the season is get them to a point where we could compete for a National Championship.”

The Final Four tips tomorrow with Stanford facing South Carolina, followed by UConn vs. Arizona.