Spire women happy to be playing again after tough fall

Jason Brown
The Leavenworth Times

The University of Saint Mary women’s basketball team has had a busy start to 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Spires to sit out of competition for nearly two months. 

After opening the season in November with a win against Ottawa and a loss to Peru State, the Spires saw their next 10 contests postponed due to pandemic. Since returning to play the Spires have competed well, but failed to secure a win in five games. 

Head coach Brett Schneider said the layoff was tough on the team because they had avoided exposure to COVID-19 for most of the semester with just one positive test since August. He said the coaching staff has taken measures to ensure the athletes are staying mentally well. 

“The mental health of our players was a bigger concern for our staff,” Schneider said, “because many of our players had already been quarantined several times since April. We invited a therapist to come talk to our team. We also reminded our players constantly about seeking guidance if they felt anxiety, depression and anger were becoming a problem.”

Without the ability to frequently meet for practices early in the season, the Spires were faced with the challenge of learning how to play with new teammates on Zoom. Schneider said the university’s decision to suspend athletics for over a month starting in November forced the Spires to go over 50 days without a normal practice. 

“With so many new players, it was difficult for us to know what style of play and which players would work best together,” Schneider said. “Just this week we had our 50th practice. In a normal season, we’d reach our 50th practice by the first week in December.”

With competition resumed, the Spires are in the midst of a three-game week that saw them play Monday and Wednesday before finishing the week Thursday. The good news is that they will have a six-day break before playing again. Schneider said the busy schedule has allowed the coaching staff to shorten practice and focus on technical skills in smaller groups.

“Conditioning shouldn’t be as big of an issue at this point,” he said, “and we really want to keep practices short with our players excited about improving every day.”

Schneider said he has been impressed with team captain Danielle Cassady as well as veteran guard Jerrica Johnson, who scored 30 in the Spires’ season-opening win at Ottawa. Johnson is also the Spires leading scorer at over 14 points per game

“She (Cassady) has been a great floor general and team captain for us,” he said. “I’m really thankful for her maturity and positivity during this time.”

In addition to the upperclassmen, Schneider has liked what he has seen from sophomore guards Macy Walker and Rebecca Gilpin in terms of consistency on the offensive end. 

Schneider also heaped praise on a recent addition to his coaching staff.

“I also want to mention our assistant coach, Mackenzie Skupa,” he said. “She joined our staff about the third week of the school year and has done an amazing job mentoring our players. Stepping into such a chaotic situation can be difficult and I really appreciate her perseverance and dedication to our team.”

The Spires opened the season with 15 rostered players and planned to end the season that way but injuries have started to mount, leaving them with 12. 

“We’ve lost two starters to injury in the past week,” Schneider said, “so we have had to make some major changes on defense.”

Regardless, Schneider said this team is not reflective of its 1-6 record as he affirmed that the Spires could compete in a more normal season.

“I truly believe we would be in the top half of the KCAC had we played a full schedule and started workouts in August,” he said.

Despite that, he said the team is grateful to be able to compete together.