LOUDONVILLE — On the court, the competition is fierce.
Away from it — and removed from the recruiting trail — that fades away for the women’s basketball coaches of the MAAC.
It’s a group that stays in regular contact, and one that Siena head coach Ali Jaques appreciates for how it looks out for its members.
“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team. We’re trying to create better women’s basketball and push each other,” Jaques said recently. “We all have the same problems, just under different roofs.”
So when one of those problems popped up earlier this month, Jaques found help from an expected source within her conference’s coaching ranks. Already working to help some of her team’s international players make it back home amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Siena shifting to a distance learning model for the remainder of the spring semester, Jaques received a message in her group text chain from Manhattan head coach Heather Vulin wondering if anyone else was struggling to make travel arrangements for players heading out of the United States.
And Jaques was in that camp.
Literally, the same one.
“I didn’t realize Manhattan even had a player that was from the same place,” Jaques said.
While it wasn’t necessarily easy to make travel arrangements for Siena’s other four players that live outside the United States, making sure junior Marilena Gerostergiou — who is from Thessaloniki, Greece — made it home presented unique challenges, including that direct flights were lacking, costs were high for some options, and the constantly changing state of things in the world made it uncomfortable to send the player on a solo journey since there was no guarantee connecting flights wouldn’t cancel and leave her temporarily stranded.
But with a buddy, things could be more manageable — and Manhattan freshman Christina Katsamouri made for a very logical traveling partner for Gerostergiou when their coaches realized the two MAAC players were from the same city, and could lean on each other in order to get home.
Within a couple days of Jaques’ and Vulin’ initial text-message exchange, Gerostergiou and Katsamouri — who played for the same club program growing up — started March 20 a series of flights together that took more than 24 hours to complete and got both safely home.
The pair started in Newark, New Jersey.
Made their way to Montreal.
From there, headed to Frankfurt, Germany.
Finally, to Greece.
“It was a whole process, having to do three flights,” said Gerostergiou, several days after she made it home. “So it was nice to have someone else to actually be around.”
The 21-year-old Gerostergiou and the 19-year-old Katsamouri made the trip wearing protective masks and gloves. Gerostergiou said she needs to self-quarantine in her bedroom for 14 days — “I can’t hug [my family] yet” — but that she’s relieved to be back home and keeping herself occupied with her online classes.
“It’s going well,” said Gerostergiou, who started 28 games for the Saints during her junior season. “I have a lot of time to do homework.”
Jaques is making sure Gerostergiou and her teammates are staying in touch, too. Basketball business is carrying on as normal as it can under the present circumstances, and Jaques said she’s made a habit of making sure she reaches out individually to at least four of her players each day to check on them. Coming up, Jaques said her coaching staff has plans to set up “little challenges” for their players to tackle together.
“We’ve got to create opportunities to stay connected with each other,” Jaques said.
Most of their players, Jaques and Vulin said, headed home within a couple days of the MAAC tournament’s cancellation on March 12. International players and seniors tended to stick around the longest, but headed home within the last two weeks.
Like Siena, Manhattan’s squad is operating remotely and connecting through technology. One of Vulin’s assistant coaches, Callan Taylor, was tested for the coronavirus and needed to self-quarantine, but Taylor — via text message — confirmed Monday her test results came back negative.
Beyond that, Vulin’s program is in a similar place to so many others with the uncertain future into which it heads.
“I’m just nervous about when we’re going to get these girls back [on campus],” said Vulin, who now spends a healthy portion of her day making sure her two children, 9 and 5 years old, keep up with their schoolwork. “There’s no firm idea of when this is going to be over.”
In the weeks since the college basketball season shut down, Jaques said the text-message group with her fellow MAAC head coaches has stayed active as they bounce ideas off of each other in terms of how to best handle the current situation with their respective players.
“We have a great group of coaches who support each other and understand that it’s about our players,” Jaques said.
Jaques credited MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor for helping to foster that type of community within the league’s coaching ranks. For Jaques and Vulin, that camaraderie paid off in significant fashion when it allowed both coaches to work together on behalf of their players during a trying time.
“We’re all here to help each other out,” Jaques said.
Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.