Iona College’s women’s basketball team headed into Christmas week on a decidedly upbeat note after scoring two wins over Rider University. The Gaels had a rough start to the season after having practice curtailed due to positive COVID-19 tests.

“It’s been such a challenge, but we’re working through it,” said head coach Billi Chambers, now in her eighth season with the Gaels. “It was a whirlwind of a process.”

With six international players, getting everyone back to campus was not easy. Chambers praises the Iona administration for laying the foundation and enabling the coaching staff to communicate to the student-athletes and their parents what would happen. Obviously, quarantine was mandatory as in addition to the international student-athletes, players also came from Florida, Georgia and California.

“We had to wait for clearances to start workouts and actually get people in the gym together,” said Chambers. “It had to be really slow because they hadn’t done anything for so long…You wanted to be careful…returning them slowly. It was definitely a slow start.”

When the team was finally practicing consistently, the Gaels were hit with three shutdowns after individual players had positive COVID tests (one each time). “That was obviously reflected in our first four games [losses],” said Chambers. The last shutdown ended about four days before the season-opener against Army.

“For our young woman, it is the realization that if they were at home, they would not be playing the sport,” said Chambers. “They’re motivated to still have the opportunity to do something they love.”

Navigating the pandemic isn’t easy. Masks are standard during practice and some of the Iona players are even wearing masks in games.

“They have the opportunity to go to class, to get a degree and to honestly, at the end of the story say, ‘I made it through. I was resilient with this group of people,’” said Chambers. “That’s something that pushes me. They are so resilient and have great personalities.”

Mental health is prioritized. Chambers had a sports psychologist show her how to meditate. The players are staying on campus this week to reduce exposure. The coaches arranged for the players’ families to send their gifts to campus. The coaches got the players Christmas trees, wrapped the gifts and are spending time with them on Christmas.

“We do a gift exchange with the team every year,” said Chambers. “We’re going to try to make it as festive and normal as possible even though we know this is not even close to a normal time.”

The team resumes play Jan. 1 with MAAC action against Niagara University.