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Dawn Staley diary: Starting back at one

Ahead of the start of college basketball season, South Carolina’s coach reflects on the coronavirus’ impact — and how her team is pushing through

With college basketball readying for its restart, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is picking up where she left off. For the first time in school history, the Gamecocks will start the year as the No. 1 team in the nation, playing their first game of the season on Nov. 25.

Throughout the season, Staley will share her thoughts with The Undefeated, chronicling a season that will be unlike any other in college basketball history. In the first installment, Staley discusses the challenges of preparing her players for this unprecedented season and details what’s at stake for her team.

‘COVID is the ultimate competitor’

You need to be at your strongest in those weakest times.

Despite last season’s unfortunate ending, and the delay of the Olympics, moving forward was not really a process to move on from. Here’s why: The hurt from our players, the hurt from them not being able to play in the tournament — I had to be their strength. It helped me get over it a lot quicker. We had to act fast and make sure that we gave them a space to grieve and to move on.

We’re ready to move forward as a group this year.

This season is the most challenging season we’ve had because you have to prepare for our toughest opponent, which doesn’t have legs or arms, and can’t shoot, rebound, or box out or run the fast break. COVID is the ultimate competitor.

We don’t know what the aftereffects are. We don’t have any answers. It’s hard. It’s hard to keep our players focused, it’s hard to keep things in perspective, especially if you have a player or someone on your immediate team that is impacted by it. We’re guarding against that, something that could actually kill us. That is incredibly challenging.

Our kids are dealing with social justice issues. Our kids are dealing with COVID issues. Our kids are dealing with being away from their parents — some of our kids don’t even want to go home because they want to play.

The [other] weekend, we gave our players the weekend off because they’ve been going at it since Aug. 1. Three of our players went home. The rest of them that are here, they’re so afraid. They’re so afraid to leave their dorms, they’re so afraid to live a little bit. Here’s why, though: Obviously they don’t want to contract COVID, they want to play. They want to play because they know it’s an escape and they’re protecting that. They want to protect that sanctity of actually winning the game.

For me, it’s a matter of life and death. My sister was diagnosed with leukemia in May, had a stem cell transplant back in August, and I’m her primary caregiver. I cannot put myself in harm’s way when it comes to that. So I did stress to them that they need to adhere to the protocols that we have here and just be safe. You talk about the challenge of mentally staying in that place, it’s hard. It’s more taxing mentally than it is physically on our players. They’re doing a good job, they’re focused, they’re aware. I do think they are building up mental strength, for whatever. We have to keep them strong, and they have to keep strong.

Our team has experienced two quarantines. They had to lock themselves in, and it’s hard mentally. It’s tough to spend 14 days in a college dormitory. When you’re confined to it, the wall closes on you. We had to be creative in making sure the negativity doesn’t creep in. ‘Are we going to have a season?’ ‘This sucks.’ All the things that can creep in that can derail you and detract you from where you need to be.

We continued to do film sessions, we continued to talk to them through Zoom. On Day 8 or 9 they were allowed to get out for an hour and do conditioning with our strength and conditioning coach and trainer present. Then you get back on the court and they actually love being on the court after having that time off. Then you have to couple that with creating our bubble and making sure you’re not putting anyone in harm’s way and adhering to the protocols.

It’s hard for them to enjoy college right now. It’s hard. Everything is virtual. They probably like that part because they don’t have to get up and get dressed. They lack interaction with people, making friends, going to parties. They’re lacking that part of it.

Preparing for this season has offered some sense of normalcy. We’ve pivoted so much that I just think that when we’re preparing for basketball season, you have to compartmentalize. Every day that we can practice is always a great thing because we get to escape for the two, 2½ hours that we’re in the gym together. I get to be with my team.

We don’t hug as much as we used to, but I get to high-five them. I get to interact with them. I get to have fun with them. I get to coach them up. I get to get on them. Even if I get mad at a player or a performance, I’m happy in that moment because I’m not thinking about anything but correcting a mistake. All those things that we used to do, and it was just par for the course. It’s an escape now. I’m trying to enjoy each moment.

The moment that it’s over with, you dive right back into it because you have to start thinking about travel, you have to start thinking about every detail, like who is allowed through what door in the arena or where we’re going to sit during games. It’s going to take a little bit of time to make that transition, but we’re preparing for a season. We’re preparing for a home opener. We’re preparing for a basketball season to get off the ground.

‘Everybody doesn’t have a shot’

When I was at Temple, and during my early days at South Carolina, we used to say, ‘We’re here to win a national championship, that’s what we want to do.’

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have said that.

Everybody doesn’t have a shot. They don’t. Everybody says it, but until you’re able to experience it and know what it takes, you’re just talking. I don’t want to bust anybody’s bubble, but history says that when those top teams play a season, there’s a national championship that comes out of it probably 95% of the time from those top teams.

When all is said and done, I think our name is going to be in the conversation of one of the top teams in the country — if not the top team.

I think we’ve got a team that’s filled with talent this year.

There’s still some challenges. Losing Ty Harris is pretty big [Harris was drafted in the first round of the 2020 WNBA draft]. She’s been our quarterback for four years. There’s some certain things for me as a coach that we didn’t have to worry about. Those things, we have to worry about right now. Point guard play, really good point guard play — our point guards this particular year are in a position they’ve never been in. When it’s all said and done, somebody — or somebodies — is going to have to call the shots, understand the pulse of our team.

Aliyah Boston, I’ve never seen a player that was as good, that got better in the offseason — a player who brought something back just like that. She can legitimately shoot the ball: 3s. Midrange. Step-back. She’s probably our most consistent outside shooter.

Zia Cooke, she’s cooking. She’s ready to take on the reins of giving everybody more of her than she did last year.

Laeticia Amihere. She looks how she looked her junior year. I thought she was the best player I saw her junior year. She was the best player I saw play. She’s back to that level. No knee brace, nothing.

Everybody has gotten better.

Usually, I can tell by the personality of a team if we’ll be successful, or not as successful. I like the personality of the team I’ve seen so far. They’re different. They’re nice.

For me, I’m nice, but I’m a competitor. They’re showing me a way in which nice people can win everything they want to win. If they accidentally trip you on your way down the floor, they’ll stop and pick you up. I’m the type, make the layup, pick ’em up on the way back.

We don’t really have any, I call ‘em, a–holes. I like one or two, I just don’t like a team full of them — but we don’t have any. I told them I like Kiki Herbert Harrigan — she was a butthole at times. But I liked it! Because it was so much different than everybody else. I knew everybody else was going to hold a nice card. Kiki, Ty [Harris], they had a little pushback. These players, they’ll do anything that we ask them to do — no questions asked. None. They’ll ask questions about basketball. You know, goody-two-shoes questions. They’re legit questions, but I like a little if I tell you to do something, turn your back and say a little something. I like a little bit of that. They’re like, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, y’all are too nice.’

It’s not their weakness though. Their niceness is not their weakness.

They are competitors, they get it done.

This season, the team that can maintain and be toughest mentally will come out on top.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.