After years of a struggling women’s basketball program, in 2019 Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey tapped Angelika Szumilo to be the new head coach. In Szumilo’s first season, the Knights went 9–9 in Northeast Conference play and won their opening game at the conference tournament. In the middle of shoot-around prior to the semifinal game versus Mount St. Mary’s March 12, the tournament was abruptly cancelled due to COVID-19.
“We went back to the hotel and our pregame meal essentially became the last supper,” said Szumilo. “We had five seniors, so everybody had an opportunity to speak. A lot of emotions. The seniors did a great job telling our younger players you truly never know when it’s going to be your last day to play the sport you love.
“Every day when you step on the court—game or practice—give it your best,” she added. “One of those seniors was just 12 points shy of 1,000 points. The next day they went home. We didn’t see them again in person until early September.”
With the 2020-’21 season scheduled to begin in late November, Szumilo is happy to be back on the court with her players. As the student-athletes studied virtually from home, the coaching staff kept the team connected with weekly Zoom calls.
“Since they got back, it’s a process,” said Szumilo, who prior to her position at FDU was a long-time assistant coach to Stephanie Gaitley, now in her 10th season as the head coach at Fordham University. “It’s not like typical preseason.”
Part of the process is dealing with the health and safety regulations due to COVID-19. The coaching staff wears masks and gloves. It’s challenging to do something unprecedented, but still a pleasure to see a new team take shape. Szumilo said the players have accepted the new normal and set their sights on a great season.
“We talk a lot about we don’t know if we’ll be able to practice or play the next day,” said Szumilo. “We approach one day at a time. We push each other and we get better.”
There are five freshmen on the team. For veteran presence, there is one senior and one graduate student. Szumilo is working with the players to be strong competitors and instilling the “hate to lose” mentality.
“It’s a little bit different this year because of the limitations we’ve had coming back, but last year all of our practices were very competitive,” said Szumilo. “Our practices are high energy…and we work hard. You have to be on your A game non-stop and compete.”