Stamford girls basketball coach Diane Burns was as happy as she remembers being in some time.
Burns has been spending weeks searching for ways to break through to her players without the benefit of being able to see them in person.
Video calls with the team were mostly her voice talking to the blank expressions of her players situated on the screen like an unamused Brady Bunch.
That changed Thursday when the team call was something a little different.
Burns and her coaches decided to not talk about basketball and instead set up a series of games the players could take part in on the call.
Games that would force them to talk and induce them to having fun.
Players were split into teams and sent into virtual rooms where a coach was waiting to run games like “Outburst” or “Family Feud.”
What Burns noticed right away was the kids were engaging with each other and the coaches, they were talking and in no time even laughing.
“The kids just don’t feel connected with each other anymore. High school is hard enough but these kids are only in class every other day and they are so down in the dumps and it seems like they don’t talk anymore. High school kids are supposed to be goofy and annoying but right now they aren’t,” Burns said. “Today was fun. By the end, the kids were all smiles and couldn’t stop laughing. It was almost weird how much fun it was. I haven’t been this happy in a while.”
Burns and Stamford are not alone.
With winter sports on hold until Jan. 19, gymnasiums closed, weight rooms locked and in many cases students home learning remotely, girls basketball coaches around the state are getting creative finding ways for players to train and bond.
The first time was such a success, Stamford is going to continue this new approach every Thursday afternoon.
What made the games even more fun was they were based on a drill the team runs in practices called the “Superman Drill.” In Superman, players fight for rebounds and can tag in friends to help.
When a player answered a question right Thursday, they could go to the vrtual waiting room and tag in a teammate to join them.
Stamford junior guard Charlie Karukas said she and her teammates are already looking forward to the next call.
“After a few more of these I think we will only get closer and be a better team overall,” Karukas said. “This is the closest we have been to feeling normal. We were talking and laughing with each other. This was great for all of us. This will help us on the court, but it’s not even about that. This is about being friends with your teammates.”
Karukas said the only basketball she is playing is alone in her driveway and that she cannot wait to get back in the gym with the Black Knights.
December practices are often as much about team camaraderie as they are about basketball and coaches around the state are attempting to recreate that.
Simsbury coach Sam Zullo is giving his players ownership of how they spend their time with the season on hold.
He put it on his upperclassmen and three seniors in particular to develop training methods and schedules for his team.
“I wanted to put the accountability on the kids. I just thought it would be a better way to do it because they would have gotten sick of me telling them what to do for the next month and a half,” Zullo said. “I asked them to try and find something to do for 90 minutes a day, which is how long we normally practice. They can do whatever they want in that 90 minutes. They can run, lift, play or anything else they can think of. I wanted to see what would happen and it has been really neat.”
Led by four-year starters Katie Sullivan and twin sisters Mary and Ellie McElroy, Zullo split the team into groups of four players and asked them to create a regiment to follow.
“Fortunately, they all took it seriously. This is the most leadership I have ever asked kids to do and I don’t think we could have done it without those three seniors,” Zullo said. “They wrote up workouts, created full weeks of training and set the gauntlet for the other players to go through. I wanted it to be all player input. I know each kid has a different situation. Some kids can’t even get to a basket right now, some families aren’t letting their kids out for anything. Wanted to have something that worked for all the kids in some way.”
Though he had no idea what would come back, Zullo was pleasantly surprised to see very detailed plans and several creative ways of training.
“They were all doing different things. Running the mile or dribbling drills or shooting drills and even getting to play in their groups of four at Simsbury Farms (outdoor courts),” Zullo said. “We have only been doing it a week but the groups are now starting to compete with each other.”
Next week, Zullo is letting one player a day take over his Instagram account to post what they are doing in their training.
He also created 23 YouTube skills training videos over the spring and summer which the players can watch any time for a quick workout.
Members of the Notre Dame-Fairfield team come from towns all over the western part of the state, making getting together even more difficult.
The team has benefited from coach Maria Conlon being the founder and owner of S.W.A.G.G. CrossFit Training in Shelton.
There, the Notre Dame players have been able to work out together twice a week, following state guidelines for gyms which allow them to be open as long as they are under 50% capacity.
The players began using the gym in June and have been there every week since.
“We are trying to find more time for them to be here, but it’s tough with kids all over the place,” Conlon said. “Now the kids are working out in masks and we hope that will help because if we can condition in masks, we will be in better shape playing in masks once the season starts.”
Conlon lost a couple players to graduation and transfer, but was set to return one of the better lineups in the state, mainly comprised of juniors.
Mac Stone, who was a captain last season as a junior, is the lone senior who will see a lot of minutes should the season begin and has been instrumental to helping the team come together in the training, according to Conlon.
“It is night and day from last year in terms of how the team is bonding and we haven’t even started playing,” Conlon said. “This group that we have now are perfect teammates, all cheering for each other and all happy to be around each other. This is what I envisioned when I took over here.”
Conlon has even been able to get a couple of students who transferred in to Notre Dame involved in the training.
What is still unknown to her are any other transfers and freshmen who may push for playing time.
“The ones working out now are just the returning players and two girls who transferred here who reached out to me,” Conlon said. “We have 35 kids signed up to play and 13 of those are freshmen. Who knows how good some of those players will be? We won’t know until we can get in and play basketball. For now, we have this and the kids have really embraced it.”