Our First Year Back

2/24/22: USF MBB vs Gonzaga at War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center in San Francisco, CA. Image by Chris M. Leung for USF Dons Athletics

On March 11, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before Congress that the coronavirus outbreak in America, which at the time involved 647 confirmed cases, would continue to progress. Later that day, the National Basketball Association announced the suspension of the remainder of the season, and within the next couple of days many of the major sports leagues and conferences, as well as the rest of the world, would follow the same protocol.

For the University of San Francisco, many students were forced to pack up and return home to their families, not knowing when they would be able to return to campus. Student-athletes were forced to abandon their season, not knowing that they would lose the support they’re used to getting from the stands for the next couple of years.

For redshirt sophomore men’s basketball team member Isaiah Hawthorne, the pandemic presented him with circumstances that forced him to think outside the box and find alternative ways to work on his game. The 6-foot-8, junior guard, from Tracy, California, had just returned home from the West Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas. The Dons were coming off a loss in the semifinals to the University of Gonzaga Bulldogs, and the team was away enjoying their spring break. Hawthorne expected to return to campus, but the reality of remote classes was soon realized.

“I was shocked and surprised that this was all happening, and I did not know what the future would hold for all the athletes, and especially the students,” Hawthorne said. Fortunately for Hawthorne, he lives about an hour outside of San Francisco and was able to easily return home. For other students, going virtual presented more of a problem.

However, Hawthorne had to get creative in figuring out ways to continue improving his game amid a global pandemic. “For me personally, where I’m from, they were already stingy with the gyms, and then COVID hit so all the gyms were locked down,” he said. “I would go with my homies and go to the park to get some shots up, we would run the track to try and keep our stamina up, and we would go to any park and try to get in as much work as possible.”

Hawthorne utilized past connections to be able to continue to excel in his craft. “I would head to Oakland, and work out with my trainer in a gym, whenever I possibly could,” he said. “I did not want to risk anyone getting sick, so I tried to be as smart as possible with that. I would try to stay outside at the park, and one of my ex-AAU coaches has a hoop in his backyard, so his son and I would get shots up every day in the 100 degree heat.”

Junior women’s soccer player Megan Nail also had to find new ways to refine her game. Nail has been a member of the women’s soccer team for the past three seasons and has found her strength as the team’s goalkeeper. Enjoying her spring break with her family in her hometown of Port Orchard, Washington, Nail heard the news and was overwhelmed with uncertainty. “I was not quite sure what was going on. At that point, we had a lot of team meetings on Zoom, we were all trying to get information, but no one really knew anything,” Nail said. “It was the middle of spring, so we were having two to three practices a day, and participating in our required athletic activities, and when the news came no one knew what was going on.”

Aside from Nail’s concerns regarding soccer and the upcoming season, she had issues of greater importance on her mind. “My mom was in Dubai at the time, and we did not know if she was going to get back to the country. Fortunately, she was able to get back into the country, but it was just a scary time for everyone,” she said. “There were so many unknowns, and no one of our generation has had to deal with something like this.”

Despite the uncertainty Nail faced, she was able to redirect her energy into preparing for the moment she would be able to play soccer for USF again. “Since everyone was sent back home, I had a small group that was playing collegiate soccer that lived in my area, and I had grown up playing with them,” Nail explained. “We would hop the fence of the high school field, and we would go out there and train until the old security guard would kick us out, and that would soon become every other day activity.”

Along with her impromptu team activities, there was a lot of time that Nail spent alone, trying to stay on top of her game. “There was a lot of passing off the wall, kicking off the walls, running up and down my driveway and things like that…just trying to make it work,” she said. “I did a lot of mountain biking to stay cardio fit, and mentally healthy as well. It involved a lot of creativity, and we would also set challenges among the team, [such as] try and learn a new skill every three weeks, things that would keep people motivated.”

Both Hawthorne and Nail prepared vigorously for the moment that they would get the call to return to campus and resume team activities. When they finally received the call, it was not under the circumstances they had expected. For Hawthorne and the men’s basketball team, they were tasked with preparing for the season while staying healthy during COVID-19, which was still spreading rapidly through San Francisco.

“We had to quarantine on campus before we could do any basketball activities, and the school and the city were very strict on that,” Hawthorne said. “We had to be tested every day until our quarantine period was over. When we got back in the gym, we would only have one player on each side of the court, so two people in the gym at one time. We would shoot by ourselves for 45 minutes, with no rebounder. We would then head to the soccer field for strength and conditioning, with a six-foot distance between all of us. We then slowly would get back into groups of five and team practices,” he said.

The same protocol was implemented for Nail and the women’s soccer team. “It was frustrating for the first couple of weeks. You could only pass the ball with people you lived with and fortunately, I lived with two of my teammates,” she said, “Otherwise, you would just have to dribble through cones. I also was not allowed to touch the same soccer balls as the other goalkeeper, and that was difficult.”

During this time, fans were not allowed to attend any collegiate games, so many teams were introduced to the “bubble” guidelines, in which teams would play with no fans in attendance and could only have contact with opposing teams and their teammates.

The 2021-22 school year marked the resumption of fans being allowed to be in the stands for all of USF’s collegiate games. The absence of fans had taken a toll on athletics, especially the players.

Hawthorne spoke on the fans’ influence on men’s basketball this season. “Coming into the season there was different energy with the fans and students being back,” he said.“We had never had the pre-season dunk contest and three-point contest since I had been with the team and seeing all the students and the support gave us a lot of energy before the season started. Our team got closer because of that, and seeing all the students and fans cheering again showed that they had our backs, and that helped us in our tournament run this year for sure.”

Nail also said she found inspiration within the students’ and fans’ return to the Hilltop. “Being able to have your parents come and watch you again makes you want to put in that little bit of extra work. I remember our Santa Clara game this year and the stadium was electric. It was a sold-out match, and the fans were cheering just as hard as the girls on the field were working. It was an amazing atmosphere that rarely happens in that stadium on the Hilltop,” Nail said.

“Without the fans, the energy was always off, and it was not as fun to hear nothing except the coaches and players talking to each other,” Hawthorne explained. “But this year at the game against Gonzaga, there were fans sitting on the floor and at the top of the gym. I thought it was so crazy and there had never been that type of atmosphere at USF, and I look forward to being able to bring that back for every game next year. Coming back everyone was thankful for the game and for the fans, and we realized how we took that all for granted.”

In a time riddled by uncertainty and readjustments, the return of students and fans on the Hilltop proved to us all how much we take sports and comradery for granted. Both the teams and the fans were excited to have sports back on the Hilltop and be able to enter a new age of school spirit at the University of San Francisco.

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