“This Team” – Grace Vander Weide on the Abrupt End to a Dream Season

I don’t care if it’s a cliché: it’s a time that I will remember for the rest of my life. My team was on a mission to win the MAAC tournament. All season long we kept saying, “it all comes down to three days in March.” Of course, we were talking about the three MAAC tournament games that we needed to win in order to advance to the NCAA tournament. Playing in the NCAA tournament is something that any mid-major women’s basketball player dreams of doing. But this team? This team was different than your typical college basketball team.

Every team sets their goals before the season starts; ours was to win a MAAC Championship game. We had made it to the championship game twice previously, but 2020 was our year to finally come out on top. This is where our team went deeper. Not only did we talk about the mere fact that we wanted to win the conference tournament, but why. Through prayers with God and discussions with teammates, I knew in my heart that the reason why I was so hungry to win a MAAC championship game was because I longed for an even deeper sense of friendship. This desire was instilled in me through my creator who desires for us to experience community where we are. Simply put, I was chasing this God-installed desire of deeper unity with the community around me.

Time to walk you through exactly what I’m getting at, the roller coaster my teammates and I endured Wednesday, March 11, only one of the three days in March on which we had to win a game. We played Monmouth, a team that we had already beat twice, both times by double figures. Though we were as focused as we had ever been – our collective “Beat Monmouth” mindset never wavered — we were relaxed before the game, making Tik Toks as a joke, dancing and singing our hearts out.

(I have to mention here that my favorite pregame locker-room song was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, because all five of us seniors had a goofy dance we would do to its tune. Hannah, Alana, Molly, and I would circle around Bekah (no matter what she was doing) and do this “spirit-finger” dance that I can’t describe any better than that. It’s one of those inside memories that only my teammates will be able to understand, but I had to tell you. Okay, anyway…)

During the game, we were determined to do whatever it took to win, possession by possession. In all of the basketball games I have played, that game was the most determined we have been. And it was only the quarterfinals!

Our preparation before the game manifested itself in focus and grit during the game. It then showed in the box score, as we won by 24. Every. Single. Possession. Mattered.

We were set to advance to the semi-finals, riding a 12-game win streak. Little did we know things were not going to go as planned. For background: the coronavirus outbreak, at this point, was quite serious but had yet to “hit the fan,” if you will. The NBA would soon suspend its season, but we had no idea. We were there to play our game. That’s what we planned on.

At our team dinner after the Monmouth game, we got news that there wouldn’t be fans for the remainder of the tournament. It was terrifying; at that time, it seemed to be the worst case scenario. Little did we know what was coming.

We didn’t have a game on Thursday, March 12, but we planned on scouting our next opponent in their game and then going to the gym for practice. No matter which team we played, we knew that we’d leave it all out there trying to beat them.

As we sat in the arena and watched Fairfield beat Siena, we saw the MAAC Commissioner, Richard Ensor, making a statement to about 15 reporters, holding their phones up to his mouth. News came to us that there was a conference call happening at 2:00 that afternoon involving Ensor and all of the presidents of the 11 colleges in the MAAC. They’d be deciding whether or not the tournament would continue. Shortly after 2:00, all of our coaches were called into a meeting room in the arena, leaving us, 13 anxious teammates, in this huge arena practically alone.

The only thing that I could think to do in this moment was to get my team together to pray. Pray like we did before every single practice and game. Out loud. Praising our God. Begging him to give us a chance to fight for something that we wanted so bad: to compete for and to win a championship game with that group of 13 girls and five coaches. After about 15 minutes of being huddled together, hoping and praying that we would not hear the news we were about to find out, Coach E waved us down into the back hallway of the arena. Walking down the steps of the arena we were sobbing, feeling like a nightmare was unfolding in real time. But we thought we’d wake up.

Marist athletic director, Tim Murray, told us that the conference tournament and NCAA tournament had both been canceled. All we could do was cry. Coach E rubbed my back as I laid my head down on the table, tears streaming down my face, listening to the sniffles of my best friends also crying. Coach Giorgis gave the most heartfelt speech that was supposed to happen on Saturday after we won the championship game but that had to come early. Coach Giorgis has always found a way to ask more from us, challenge us, and push us past our limits and in return, honestly, we always had this mentality tough mindset. This mentality that we all took on was something that Coach intentionally instilled in us as a tactic to make us the best basketball team we could possibly be.

It worked.

It still feels like I haven’t woken up, but there is hope and light in this whole “your season has been canceled” ordeal. God answered our prayers in a way that we did not expect. Having our season canceled is what bonded me and my team closer together than I think winning a championship game would ever do. In that moment of finding out our season was canceled, and we would have no shot to even fight for a championship game, we needed each other more than we could have ever imagined.

Here’s where I get even more sentimental: Coach Giorgis, I want to say thank you for giving me and my 13 best friends an opportunity to fight for something that was bigger than ourselves and for always being the consistent leader we all looked up to and respected, even on the hard days. I will never forget the jokes that you would make in practice to try to get your point across. My favorite one this year was when you told the people in the triangle away from the ball screen to not stand there straight up and down like “the father, the son, and the holy spirit” (If you have ever played for Giorgis, you will know what I am talking about). Or the one where you were trying to get an elevator screen to be perfect and you said, “Noah and his two animals could have fit through that screen!” Coach, you have taught me so much and I am so blessed to have been your point guard. There is nobody else I would have rather worked so hard for. I have been blessed to be part of the legacy you have built for Marist.

Though my team did not get to experience winning a championship game, I can feel deep in my bones that this group of people was so determined to accomplish the goal that we set at the beginning of our season. We were going to die trying to win that thing.

I also feel this sense of unity across the MAAC and nation that every athlete is experiencing the same thing. Togetherness is something that we are all valuing right now, not through joy, but through pain, and that is okay. Let this virus unite us closer than we have ever been and let us have a futuristic mindset through this hard time.

To my teammates, I cannot piece together words that can accurately describe how much you have meant to me. Your friendships are something that I will never take for granted. We not only spent time on the court together, but literally every second off the court together, too. We chose to be friends, not just teammates. I love each and every one of you.

Foxes up.

Edited by Will Bjarnar

3 thoughts

  1. Grace, your name is a perfect fit for the person you are. Although I never got to meet you personally, I did enjoy chatting with your mother last year at both Elon and Duke when I made the drive up from Myrtle Beach. Good luck in whatever field you enter after you finish at Marist. I’m sure you will excel.

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