February 8, 2021 

New coach, no season: How Monique LeBlanc is leading Brown women’s basketball through COVID-19

A 'bittersweet' year, but LeBlanc is making the best of it

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Then-Merrimack head coach Monique LeBlanc encourages her team on the sidelines during a game. Photo credit: Merrimack Athletics

When Monique LeBlanc was hired as the head coach of Brown women’s basketball in April 2020, guard Myla Cox was finishing her freshman year remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cox eventually decided to stay remote for her sophomore year, and the Ivy League later canceled all winter sports in 2020-21.

Put all of those developments together, and LeBlanc still hasn’t met Cox in person, 10 months into the job. “By the time we meet in person, you’ll be a junior,” LeBlanc told Cox on a recent video call. “How crazy is that?”

Indeed, it has been an uphill battle for the conference’s newest head coach and her team, starting with how LeBlanc got the job. In place of the typical on-campus interviews, she endured seven straight hours of interviews over Zoom — a long enough day that she joked that some Gatorade goos or gels would have been helpful to keep her fueled between calls.

The gels could have come in handy once she accepted the job, too, as a hiring freeze at Brown kept LeBlanc from hiring any staff for five months. (She has since been able to hire one assistant, Tyler Patch, who was on her staff at Merrimack College the previous two seasons.) So she built relationships with current players, alumni, and recruits all on her own, pitching recruits on Brown and her program while she was still learning the campus layout herself. 

LeBlanc relied heavily on Zoom and FaceTime to connect with her players, as just six of the 15 players on the roster were on campus this fall and Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions meant the team could not do any on-court workouts. In fact, the only way LeBlanc could meet those six players in person was if she put them through their conditioning workouts, a situation that she acknowledged was “totally suboptimal” for making a first impression.

“We’ve got really talented strength and conditioning coaches on staff at Brown, and those are the people that I want [the players] to think of when they think conditioning, not me,” LeBlanc told The Next. “I want them to think of me when it comes to basketball and getting on the court and having a blast playing the game.”

LeBlanc and her team made do with strength and conditioning workouts as they waited for updates from the Ivy League about the 2020-21 season, which had already been delayed over the summer to January 1. But the uncertainty took a toll on everyone. “It was really dominating everything: our emotions, our discussions,” LeBlanc said. Worst of all, she had few answers.

“As the head coach, I want to be that person for the team that they can come to with their needs and be trusted that I will have an answer or find an answer,” she said. “So not being able to do that in the fall was tough at times. And being the leader that’s delivering what felt like just continued bad news, that was tough.”

When the announcement that the season was canceled finally came on November 12, it was painful, but it was also a weight lifted off their shoulders, allowing everyone to plan for 2021-22 and stop mulling over what-if scenarios for 2020-21. And now, midway through most other teams’ seasons, LeBlanc feels enthusiastic and purposeful, even though her team won’t play a single game.

LeBlanc has 10 players on campus for the spring semester, including five freshmen whom she is meeting for the first time. (Four other players are learning remotely, and one decided to take the year off from school to preserve her Ivy League eligibility.) Even better, Brown and the Ivy League have loosened their COVID-19 restrictions enough to allow the team to practice.

Ahead of LeBlanc’s first-ever practice with her team, senior Dominique Leonidas told the Brown Sports Report that the limited face-to-face interaction hadn’t hindered the team’s ability to build rapport with LeBlanc.

“We were all excited from the jump, and we wanted her to be here,” Leonidas said. “… So I think immediately we wanted to buy in … and Coach Mo makes it easy. It’s not hard working with her. She makes it exciting.”

LeBlanc is constantly thinking about what her players’ needs are and how they are changing during this unprecedented offseason. For instance, rather than defaulting to discussing basketball on team Zoom calls this summer, she asked herself, “What can we learn about really well over Zoom in July?” Not basketball concepts, she decided, so instead the team used those calls to establish its culture and standards and held separate weekly calls on racial justice.

LeBlanc’s plan for the spring involves building on what worked well in the fall and adjusting what didn’t. She enjoyed using FaceTime a lot more with current players and recruits, describing it as a way to compensate for not being able to pull a player aside at practice for a quick conversation or host a recruit on a campus visit. And she worked with the players to move their regular Zoom calls from the evening—when players were readily available but tired—to mid-afternoon, finding a short window in which everyone has a break in their class schedule.

The team is now holding film sessions over Zoom three times per week to review fundamentals that LeBlanc wants to implement. She and Patch use video clips from other college games this season to show the players things such as how Oregon gets so many 3-point attempts off of offensive rebounds. The sessions are just 30 minutes long, as LeBlanc is wary of turning basketball into one of a litany of Zooms players have to attend.

The team’s first practice was on February 4, and LeBlanc tweeted that it “Felt incredible to get to work on the court together.” The practices are not focused on installing LeBlanc’s motion offense or 2-3 zone defense just yet; instead, LeBlanc and Patch are teaching the skills that they have emphasized in film sessions. They are also filming practice for the players who are not on campus so that, if those players want and are able to, they can do the same drills from home and hopefully feel more connected to what the team is doing.

https://twitter.com/CoachTPatch/status/1357804845579841537

LeBlanc’s main priorities this semester are helping her players develop on the basketball court and get stronger. “This is our roster, and we want to make sure we’re wringing it out and getting everything we [can out of] the talents that we’ve got right here on our roster, and … just continuing to grow and improve,” she told the Brown Sports Report. She has gladly relinquished her role as conditioning coach; in the fall, players were doing conditioning to prepare for a possible season, but with no games until November at the earliest, LeBlanc isn’t concerned about conditioning right now. Instead, she wants to take advantage of having a longer runway than usual for her players to “attack the weight room” and get stronger before next season.

Still, it’s hard to ignore that a season is taking place without the Ivy League, and LeBlanc called it “bittersweet” to see other teams in action. She enjoys watching games that involve coaches and programs that she doesn’t know well, equating it to watching a WNBA game and being able to appreciate good basketball. She was also thrilled to see Merrimack take the court and see some of her former players return from injury or take on larger roles. But in other games, when her friends or former conference foes are on the sidelines, her emotions are more mixed.

“I’m watching them and I’m like, ‘Man, I miss this,’” LeBlanc said. “And hearing postgame thoughts… just that process that they’re going through and they’re evaluating their team and they’re planning for their next game… I’m a little jealous that they’re able to be doing that right now. But… I don’t want it to be, if we have to miss it, everybody has to miss it. I’m glad that everybody who is playing is playing.”

LeBlanc sometimes finds herself hoping that her friends in coaching will ask her opinion, just for another opportunity to put on her coaching hat. But she is also “getting the juices flowing” on her own, taking notes on her phone as she watches games and direct messaging Patch on Twitter about plays she sees that could be a good fit for Brown.

Then-Merrimack head coach Monique LeBlanc (right) confers with assistant coaches Tyler Patch (center) and Brianna Thomas (left). Photo credit: Merrimack Athletics

Hiring Patch helped LeBlanc not only reduce her workload, but also fill a void during the pandemic: relationship-building and planning with her staff.

“I love seeing people,” LeBlanc explained, “and I love having relationships and bonds with colleagues.” One way she dealt with not having that in her first months at Brown was to connect with the men’s basketball staff, especially head coach Mike Martin, whom she sometimes calls or texts for advice.

One day, after Martin referenced a meeting he had scheduled with his staff, LeBlanc joked, “That must be fun to talk to your staff!” Martin responded by telling her she was welcome to join his staff meetings any time. “I might just have to fill that void. I might have to come,” LeBlanc said. Martin also volunteered his operations coordinator, Sam Hershberger, to help with both programs while LeBlanc is short-staffed.

The two head coaches are now working together to space out the basketball hoops on the practice court and share the facility—not only between them, but also with Brown’s wrestling, volleyball, and gymnastics teams. Martin got to go in the gym for that reason in late January, before LeBlanc had been inside, so he was able to help her with one other thing.

“I was like, ‘You were at the gym today? Oh my god,’” LeBlanc recalled. “I said to him, ‘How did it smell?’”

“Amazing,” he replied.

“Ugh, can’t wait,” she said.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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