The UConn women’s basketball team arrived in Storrs just two weeks ago. Prior to its return, the team had been absent from campus for approximately five months, the lone exception being Evina Westbrook, who stayed on campus to rehab her knee. But despite lacking the ability to take part in summer workouts as normally planned,this promising group of athletes managed to maintain their health and physicality in the midst of coronavirus pandemic.
Sophomore Anna Makurat took the initiative to work with a nutritionist in Poland to improve her diet and worked with the Polish national team for three weeks, while Aubrey Griffin challenged her brother in friendly competition to strengthen her skills.
Christyn Williams took full advantage of her time at home.
“I got a chance to go home, reset and just basically go back to the basics,” Williams said. “I lost weight, I’m eating healthier … and you can see it. I noticed I’m quicker and more explosive like I was in high school.”
As Williams was presented with the ability to focus on her personal needs during quarantine, she arrived back to campus with plenty of responsibility. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook and Williams assumed their positions as the leaders of a team with no seniors.
The three took the initiative to collectively read a book on leadership and learn as much as they could about the new role they are taking on. They will attempt to assist the six new freshmen in getting acclimated to the school and the team, Nelson-Ododa said.
Their leadership role has shaped their living conditions, as they are only able to physically interact with those that they are living with in their apartments rather than the entire team. Freshman Mir McLean referred to these “pods” as a breath of fresh air, as she is able to build chemistry with her teammates gradually, especially the team leaders. Nelson-Ododa expressed how it allows focus and individual attention to be given to the freshmen in their transition.
This skilled freshman class, consisting of players like top-recruit Paige Bueckers, is soaking in everything that it can from the leaders of the team. During her interview, Bueckers expressed her admiration for Williams’ work ethic.
“With Christyn, just seeing how hard she works, seeing how hard she goes in the workouts is obviously something I want to be like and I aspire to be like her in that regard,” Bueckers said. “So, her just kind of leading by example and showing me how hard it is to be a player here and how hard you have to work is something I’ve learned from her really quickly.”
As far as Westbrook is concerned, even as the team captain, she said that she owes it to the rest of the team to hold herself and the other leaders accountable before anyone else. In doing so she expressed the importance of earning the respect of her teammates.
“We’re being watched constantly,” Westbrook said. “These younger guys are watching our every move, which can be good and bad … If our energy is high and we’re talking and we’re communicating, they’re doing the exact same thing.”
Freshman walk-on Autumn Chassion described Westbrook as a great leader.
“She’s super vocal with everything,” Chassion said. “If we have any questions we can always go to her … Anything we ever need Evina’s there for us on and off the court.”
While Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook and Williams become more aware of their actions, it is not just the freshmen that notice, but the coaching staff as well, specifically Auriemma.
“They’ve been very responsible and disciplined,” Auriemma said. “They’re really holding themselves and each other accountable. [Nelson-Ododa and Williams] can speak from experience. They had the kinds of experiences that taught them a lot of lessons and they’re really anxious and excited to impart some of those lessons and give some of that advice to the young kids and the young kids follow them around … Christyn and Olivia, having been the ones that have played the most of the juniors, are really anxious to get them at a level where we can be playing in that final game.”
Hanaisha Lewis is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.