LOUDONVILLE — Siena women’s basketball head coach Ali Jaques has been impressed by her team this fall.
“Our team went through a lot of growth this summer, even not being together,” the eighth-year head coach said at a press conference Thursday. “With everything that happened, we’re just at a very mature place and I think this group is hungry, understands what coaching means and what that feels like and wants to get better.”
It was not until after the Saints’ 72-56 loss to Fairfield in the MAAC quarterfinals last spring that the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic would begin to hit Jaques and her team. After a season that Jaques called a huge learning experience, they would be off the court for six months.
Summer workouts and camp weeks with local kids were replaced with weekly team Zoom conversations. Most times, the players remained on after the coaches left to bond and get to know the few new faces on a team with a lot of returners, including four of five starters and eight of nine rotation players.
Everyone is grateful to be back on campus and be back on the court. Jaques commended the MAAC, as well as the Siena administration, for being on top of everything and giving her and the team great direction as they moved forward amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Once we had a plan in place, we were able to really commit to being able to have great workouts,” Jaques said. “From where we started to where we are four weeks in, we just love getting on the court together everyday.”
The level of experience and leadership has already been serving the team well as it tries to make up for lost time.
“It helps a lot because now there’s less mistakes when we do drills and stuff like that, and coach doesn’t have to talk a lot,” said junior Lala Watts. “The freshmen are pretty smart and learn pretty quick. So, I think it’s really good that we have a lot of veterans coming back.”
When the Division I Council released the timetable for return to play for the 2020-21 men’s and women’s basketball season in mid-September, it began with a “transition practice period” to help athletes mentally and physically move from out-of-season activities into preseason mode. That began Sept. 21.
Teams are allowed to practice strength and conditioning activities, sport-related meetings and skill instruction for 12 hours a week, and skill instruction can only account for eight. The Saints are split up into two groups for practice in order to maximize social distancing, so one group is in the weight room while the other is on the practice courts. All participants must wear masks at all times.
For graduate transfer Isis Young, who has played at Florida and Syracuse, adapting on the fly to new systems is familiar. However, the challenge of split practices has been a roadblock to getting to know her new teammates. She has made a few trips to the mall with teammates, and gets into the locker room early to grab every moment of conversation she can. But once they lace up their sneakers, she is off with her group.
The split practice is tough on team chemistry out on the floor. Young said when it comes time for game situations, she feels good with her group but she knows she still needs time with everyone else.
“Any other preseason you do team workouts with everyone,” Young said. “Everyone learns to play, so you get a feel for everyone. So, I think that’s been a challenge.”
Watts and Jaques both commented on how Young has stepped in and proven herself to be a great fit for the Siena culture. She is a mature player in the direction which her head coach wants to see the team take steps this year despite lost time since March.
Young said endurance is something she wants Siena to focus on this season.
She faced tough stretches in ACC play where she could not get hung up on losses to a team like Duke or Louisville because North Carolina was coming up next. In a season where the Saints only have no preseason and four non-conference matchups to prepare for conference play, Young offered an important lesson.
“You’ve got to prepare,” Young said. “So, I think having endurance is extremely important to know when we get into those long stretches in conference in January and February to not go into a lull and really be up and be competitive for every game.”
Jaques said the non-conference schedule is set and should be announced next week. They are just waiting on contracts to be able to announce. Three of the four are returning teams from last year’s slate. Conference play begins Dec. 9 at home versus Niagara.