Back to basketball: Chippewas hold high aspirations while preparing for unpredictable season
Walking out of a nearly-empty Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, CMU's women's basketball team was disappointed after losing to Toledo in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
But, the team knew they had a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
After all, CMU had just put together one of its best regular seasons under first-year coach Heather Oesterle, who lead the Chippewas to a fourth straight MAC regular season title.
The Chippewas did not get the chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament. No one did.
While the sports world was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, Grand Rapids senior forward Kyra Bussell and her teammates returned to their hometowns and waited for what was going to happen next.
"It was such a weird time of uncertainty for everyone, we all pretty much got sent home for the rest of the semester," Bussell said. "I packed up all of my stuff in a day, turned around and stayed in Grand Rapids for a while."
Bussell said she enjoyed the time with her family but missed being with her teammates. With the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season, Bussell looked at applying to graduate school.
"It was a super uncertain time, and I just ended up going with the flow and tried to figure out my own thing," Bussell said. "It was nice to know that pretty much everyone was in the same boat."
One of those people in the same boat, was teammate Detroit senior guard Micaela Kelly .
"At the end of the day, it was a blessing in disguise. I was able to go home and spend time that I've never spent with my family," Kelly said. "There were times it got annoying, but I still got to know them more and they got to know me."
Back to work
After five months off, Oesterle and her coaching staff brought the players back to Mount Pleasant to start workouts.
While gyms and indoor facilities were closed until mid-September, Oesterle found a way to get her players working while keeping each other safe -- practice outside.
In August, four Gus Macker basketball hoops were placed on the South end of the Bennett Track Field. The Chippewas practiced there until indoor facilities were reopened on Sept. 14.
Bussell said when the Chippewas were able to move practice inside, it was business as usual — for the most part.
"It's been an adjustment with masks on, dealing with preseason injuries and getting the kinks out" Bussell said. "It's been tougher, because we're doing the strength and conditioning aspect that would already be done in the summer."
Oesterle said balancing conditioning with pre-season preparation has been tough for the team, especially with missed practices due to contact tracing.
"We've been hit hard, but we're preparing like normal," Oesterle said. "It's been a bit of a challenge with people in and out, but we're excited. I'm hoping we can keep everybody healthy and have a great season."
With people missing from practice, Kelly only has a handful of substitutes to give her a breather. She said she has "tunnel vision" when she's on the floor in those circumstances.
Kelly is used to it though. She averaged more than 36 minutes a game last season on her way to becoming MAC Player of the Year. She knows she just has to keep pushing.
"I just have to tell myself to push through because, like this pandemic, it'll all be over soon," Kelly said. "I keep fighting, I keep pushing. I've got more in me and just go hard each and every play."
Oesterle said everyone in the program has done what they need to do in order to get out on the floor and play basketball.
"I've been really proud of our team, they've been really, really good," Oesterle said. "They want to play, they're willing to do whatever it takes."
One of the sacrifices people within the program have made is limiting social interactions outside of practice.
Oesterle said she wants to help her players avoid negative mental health affects with the repetitive day-to-day life the players, coaches and staffers go through each day.
"We call it the 'Groundhog Day. You go to practice, go to your dorm room or apartment and you're there all day. ,'" Oesterle said. "You're not interacting with anybody. We're doing it to be safe, but I worry about them mentally. It's tough on everybody."
Watching for progress
Oesterle — who played at Michigan under Sue Guevara — said the opener against Michigan will be fun for the team, but her allegiance is to CMU.
"My heart is here," Oesterle said. "I'm a Chippewa."
When workouts began, the players came up with goals they had for the season.
Winning a fifth-straight regular season conference title was on the list, of course. Winning the MAC Tournament was there, too. But what the players want to do beyond winning in the conference, is make noise nationally.
Oesterle thinks this year's team can cause problems for teams in the NCAA Tournament — if given the opportunity — similar to the Sweet 16 appearance in 2018.
"I think this team could be really special," Oesterle said. "We have five starters back, we have Anika Weekes, who was injured all of last year, it's set up to be a really good year."
Players hold the same aspirations.
"In general, I have high expectations because I know everyone has come back a lot better," Bussell said. "We're going to get contributions from everyone on our team."
Kelly said she is excited to watch her teammates grow with each game this season.
"I'm expecting to watch the progress," Kelly said. "Each game is going to be different, each game will be a way we've gotten better. ... Each game will be a way to know what pieces we have, the weapons and things we have that I see now will be deadly."