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Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Feature: A Season of Pauses

Jan 19, 2021
Red Box Pictures / Washington Athletics

Halted. Paused. On hold.

“Frustrating,” was the first word that Washington coach Jody Wynn used to describe her team’s experience after being taken out of action on January 6 to enter the COVID-19 protocol, with both active cases and contact tracing bringing the season to an abrupt, disheartening stop.

The Huskies are among the seven Pac-12 teams that have had to pause their seasons, either at the start of the season or at some point during the midseason. Twenty-one conference games have been either cancelled or postponed to this point.

With Oregon State able to play its first game in a month on Sunday, currently Arizona State, Washington and Cal are unable to play, the number of cancelled and postponed games are piling up as the season turns toward the second half of conference play.

“It’s a time of so much uncertainty and we have to learn to live with it,” Wynn said. “But it really hits home for some of our players. They are competitors. They want to play. Even the ones that don’t have COVID, they can’t get better, they can’t stay in shape, they can’t even get out and walk. They were not able to leave their residents for 10 days. It’s been really taxing emotionally.”

Washington is hoping that it is coming out of the COVID tunnel and preparing to play again.

Cal has just entered that tunnel, finding out late last week that it’s weekend games against Utah and Colorado would be postponed.

Like Wynn, Cal coach Charmin Smith said she was living in dread of this possibility.

“I’ve been thinking ‘We’ve been lucky, we’re doing well.’ And then it happens,” Smith said. “I guess it’s our turn. 

“But this whole experience has been extremely, extremely challenging.”

Washington’s players returned to the court on Saturday. The team won’t be allowed to have a practice with physical contact until Wednesday. They will not know until later in the week whether their scheduled games at Oregon State and Oregon on the weekend will be going forward. The decision will be based on testing following that practice on Tuesday.

The Huskies returned from the holiday break, and made a trip to Colorado and Utah, playing both games. They were home for several days before one member of the traveling party tested positive. And all team activity was immediately paused.

“It’s been very clear to us all along that if somebody contracts COVID within the travel party, that the likelihood would be really high that we would shut it down,” Wynn said. “Right now, I am most worried about how that people will come out of it and making sure there are no lingering effects or anything. That’s the motherly side of me. These are my daughters. We have an incredible medical team, but at the end of the day, I worry.”

Wynn said her players have struggled with watching other teams across the conference getting their games in.

“They are missing those opportunities to play. They are seeing their season interrupted. They are losing games,” Wynn said.

Smith is working hard to keep in close touch with her players, and their practices are limited to individual, non-contact work, similar to how it was in the fall before the season began. In the meantime, the Bears’ next two weekends of games have been postponed.

Cal’s struggles predated the team’s competitive pause. The Bears are still looking for their first win of the season.

“Our players have been making the best of challenging situations all season,” Smith said. “It’s extremely disruptive. I’m trying to keep tabs on everybody and it’s a tough situation to deal with. But we have a really good group. It hasn’t been an easy season, but we need to keep chugging and get to the other side of these obstacles.

Now Smith is trying to get up to speed quickly on return-to-game protocols and scenarios.

“We are looking forward to competing and getting better, but I’m proud of how we’ve operated through adversity so far,” Smith said.

Oregon State returned to the floor for the first time since pausing team activities on December 20, falling in Tucson to Arizona on Sunday. The Beavers have logged seven games this season and are still coming together as a group.

Beavers coach Scott Rueck addressed that after the Wildcats’ loss Sunday.

 "I think just as we go the communication, the efficiency, the experience will begin to develop in this group, as they're still relatively new together in a competitive situation that will allow us the chance to win games like this,” Rueck said. “I was super pleased with the way that we came out. I thought we prepared very well and you didn't see any rust there. The rust was seen later when we needed a special here or a special there to create a shot and we just didn't quite execute that way we needed.”