August 28, 2021 

Fordham women’s basketball’s tragic year has made the team closer than ever

Leaning on each other has helped the Fordham women's basketball team not only get through the solitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also cope with physical losses.

The 2020-2021 basketball season was challenging for every school across the country, but Fordham faced numerous unique obstacles over the last year. The team never wavered in its togetherness, using everything thrown its way as a reason to get better and grow closer together. Leaning on each other has helped the team not only get through the solitude the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, but also cope with the physical losses they have suffered as well. 

While the team was working to figure out how, if at all, the 2020-2021 season would happen, the team’s video coordinator, Kerri McMahan, returned to Saint Louis to become the director of basketball operations. In addition, a key player left the team a few weeks before the season was set to begin. 

“The fact that we were able to even have a basketball season, forgetting about how many games that happened or whatever, that was pretty unbelievable [that] our administration and medical staff, everybody was able to put it on. I mean, there were some times where we felt like it was the blind leading the blind a little, but as a staff we just tried to make sure that our girls knew everything that we could give them, all the information, and make them feel as comfortable as possible, because at the end of the day, we can’t have a season if they don’t feel comfortable,” director of basketball operations Allie Keller told The Next

Due to the fact the team had to remain on campus to comply with COVID-19 protocols, many student-athletes who lived nearby weren’t able to go home and see their families. Fordham also did not allow fans last season, limiting the team’s circle even further. 

Keller could relate—not being able to see her parents, who live on Long Island, was challenging for her.  

“Some people at home, their families were testing positive or going through family emergencies and things like that. And there were situations where our team couldn’t be there. So, again, we just really needed to lean on each other and rely on each other. Because that was all you could do,” she said. 

The Rams were able to play two of their first three games before it was announced that head coach Stephanie Gaitley had to quarantine for 14 days after coming into contact with someone outside the program who had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Overall, Fordham had three games canceled in the first three weeks of the season and five games canceled in the first two months. 

One more unexpected event would rock the program before the end of 2020. In late December, assistant coach Sonia Burke was diagnosed with stomach cancer. 

Burke had joined the program in 2017 after 13 seasons at Manhattan in a variety of roles, including associate head coach and interim head coach. 

Despite the concern for Burke, the team was able to find success. 

“We were playing with a purpose because we all had Sonia in our hearts, and everybody was going through COVID. And our kids had made so many sacrifices just to play, and we basically told them every day like, ‘Guys, every time we play a game, we start off the game with a victory,’” Gaitley said. 

Fordham started conference play with a 7-2 record, good enough for second in the conference with a shot at first place being decided by a Feb. 26 matchup against Dayton. 

The call Gaitley received on Feb. 13 would change that. With Senior Night just 14 hours away, she received a phone call that the university would pause all on-campus classes and activities for 14 days. Keller recalled that the student-athletes were more concerned that something had happened to Burke. 

“Once it was like, ‘Oh, the season’s gonna be on pause,’ obviously, our seniors were upset that we were to recognize them the next day, but they were just so relieved that Sonia was okay,” Keller said. 

The team had won five straight games and was the only varsity team at Fordham to not have a positive test last academic year. Though the team never regained its momentum, it tried to remain positive. 

“It was an opportunity to have the kids grow through adversity. And that’s how life is; life’s going to throw some curveballs. So it’s not what happens to you, right? It’s how you deal with it. [I knew they were] going to take my lead. So I said, ‘Hey, guys, we’re just gonna focus on what we can do,’” Gaitley said.

After the university-wide pause was announced, the student-athletes wrote a letter to Fordham’s president and created a change.org petition that received more than 3,700 signatures. Though this did not change the outcome, three quarters of the team said their most memorable moment was standing up for themselves after the shutdown. 

The players were in denial that their season could end so quickly, so they did everything they were capable of doing and everything in their power to try to finish the season, senior Megan Jonassen said. 

“That was a powerful moment because it was a difficult situation for the university. And we certainly understood that. But I also felt with our kids, they wanted to be heard, just saying, ‘Hey, listen, we’ve been on campus all year long and done everything you’ve asked. We’ve had no positive tests. We’re being penalized for other kids on campus. We should be able to continue what we started at the most critical time of our season,’” Gaitley said proudly.  

The team was unable to practice for three weeks due to the pause and the fact that two players had to quarantine during that time period. Though the Rams won a rescheduled regular-season matchup against George Washington, they lost in the opening round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament and fell to Delaware and Ohio in their WNIT games. 

Fordham did not succeed on the court after the shutdown, but it used the three-week road trip to grow as a team. 

“We said there was an environment where we either could have loved each other or killed each other, and there were no chemistry issues whatsoever,” Keller said. 

Aside from living out of a suitcase for three weeks, the team didn’t find their very extended road trip challenging at all. “Our team is so incredibly close and all the girls are amazing and we’re all best friends, so that just makes it so much easier. And honestly, I don’t really think we ever got tired of each other,” Jonassen said. 

While they couldn’t hang out in each other’s rooms, they made the most of the time together when they ate meals, got coffee or were at film or practice.  

“I think that it made us so much closer just because not only were we together, but we were facing this adversity that nobody has ever faced before. So to be able to overcome that and stay together was incredible,” said Jonassen.

For Keller, basketball has provided a sense of normalcy in a year that has been unpredictable. 

“The basketball season was unpredictable and wasn’t always easy, but it just kind of made things feel a little bit normal and was able to let us all be together when sometimes it wasn’t safe. Socially, I didn’t see family or friends; it was only the team. So the team always feels like family. And this year really emphasized that,” she said. 

Throughout the season, the team was understaffed. The team wasn’t able to hire a new video coordinator until shortly before the season started in November due to a university-wide hiring freeze, director of basketball operations Abigail Corning left in December 2020 and Burke had to step away shortly after her diagnosis. 

Keller, who served as the team’s director of administration from 2019-2021 before becoming the director of basketball operations, said that the rest of the staff got her through the difficult year by utilizing the mindset “get the shit done.”

“There were a lot of moving pieces and a lot of reabsorbing or learning or figuring out roles. But we just all kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘Let’s do it, and let’s tackle this head-on.’ And, having that support, knowing that they were there for me if I needed help and dropping whatever I needed to do to help them to finish something, whatever is best for our team,” Keller said. 

During the team’s spring practices, Burke was able to return, continuing to provide insight to the team as she did throughout the season. Jonassen was grateful to be able to see her in person. 

“Even with everything she was going through, you would have never known she was battling cancer. She always came in with such a positive energy and aura about her and a smile on her face. And when she was there, she was all there. It meant so much to the team to see her want to be there with us,” she said. 

Though she could not be with the team in person during the season, Burke would send the team a good luck text before every game. 

“The days that she was feeling well, you could tell because my phone would be blowing up with ‘Get the ball inside’ or ‘Tell So-and-so to stop dribbling so much, ‘We got to maximize this,’ ‘Attack this person.’ Just totally as engaged as she would be [in person], and I would read those off during a timeout or halftime or postgame,” Keller said. 

Burke would also text the forwards individually to say good luck or give each one something to focus on. “That just gave us so much more confidence and almost a sense of relief being like, okay, although she wasn’t able to be with us at the games, she was still there. We knew that she was supporting us and coaching us from a distance, so it meant a lot to the team to still have her so incredibly involved, especially with everything she was going through,” Jonassen said. 

Though spring was successful, summer would bring dark clouds to the team. On July 12, Gaitley announced that her mother, Martha Vanderslice, had passed away. 

On July 18, the team announced that Burke had lost her battle with cancer on July 16. 

During this devastating period for the program, one of Gaitley’s sisters was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. 

“Let’s just say it was a year I don’t want to go through again … It just felt like every time you turned a corner or something, [there was a] new curveball being thrown your way,” Gaitley said. 

Over the last several months, Gaitley has had to compartmentalize in order to keep her personal and work life separate. She would tell herself, “I’ve got to be the leader of this group. And I’ve got to separate my personal battles [from] the team battles.” She added, “And it wasn’t always easy, because there’s times you’ve got to take a deep breath when you[‘ve] got[ten] some news about your mom.”

Despite everything thrown her way, Gaitley has been able to find the strength to continue from her faith, family, friends and being with the team, something her players emulated. 

“You can do one of two things: You can either make it or it breaks you. And what this team decided to do was show unbelievable strength and resolve and [they] finished second in the conference and went to the [W]NIT and had a [team] GPA of 3.5,” Gaitley said. 

After Burke’s death, the Rams took a week off, the coaching staff did not go on the road recruiting, Gaitley decided not to go out recruiting at all this summer and the team went down to the beach. There, they did bonding activities and were able to grow as a team. 

“I couldn’t have been prouder of them, how they stuck together. And we’ve gotten so much closer this year due to all the—I guess—the challenges we faced that, I think, what it did was it was able to give me confidence to springboard into probably our most challenging schedule in history this coming year. So there were a lot of positives that came out of a lot of very difficult times,” Gaitley said. 

In the 2021-2022 season, Gaitley is looking forward to continued growth on and off the court. 

“I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about the kids through this past year because last summer through the pandemic, I think I got closer to the kids than I ever had and got to know them better. So I really was able to build on some personal relationships. And that really gave me great peace. The thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older as a coach is that my favorite part has always been the relationships with the kids and seeing them grow. And the victories are a byproduct of what you do,” she said. 

As of Aug. 19, Fordham is allowing fans at indoor sporting events if the fans provide proof of vaccination when they enter campus and wear masks indoors. 

Jonassen is looking forward to playing in front of her parents, friends and other sports teams.  

“Being able to play in front of a crowd is going to be so crazy, especially the first time we run out into Rose Hill [Gym] and the adrenaline that we’re gonna feel. Coach Gaitley always says that the first win is being able to have fans, just showing that, although this past year, year and a half was so unprecedented and not normal at all, we’re finally regaining that normalcy. So that’s just something to be grateful for in itself,” she said.

If fans are allowed in Rose Hill Gym on Nov. 9, it will mark the first time in 616 days that friends, family, alumni and supporters will be allowed to cheer on the Rams, though Gaitley’s mother and Burke will be missed. 

Not having Burke’s wisdom and words of advice, whether in person or over text, will be the hardest part of next season for Keller, but she believes that the postseason trip that ended the team’s season last year as well as the recent tragic events that have shaken the team will carry them next season. 

Jonassen believes that Burke’s absence will encourage the Rams to give 110 percent effort every time they step onto the court. 

“Whenever she stepped on the court, she always had a smile on her face, and she really did push us so hard because she knew when we were capable of doing so much more. And I think that’s something we respected so much about Coach Sonia was she didn’t always give it to us easy, but that’s because she cared and she knew that you were capable of doing so much more. So just pushing yourself each and every day to be the best version you can be because that’s obviously what she would have wanted. And that’s what she wants,” she said. 

Playing for Burke will be a consistent theme for the team next season. “That’s something [that], over the summer, we’ve emphasized already, and it will definitely hold true throughout the year, playing for Sonia. And Sonia would want you to do this. So those two things I think definitely will be huge for our team and motivating and setting the standard for what we want,” Keller said. 

The program has already begun planning how to honor Burke this season. Gaitley said plans are in motion to honor Burke at the game against Manhattan and the Play4Kay game. There are also plans to name one of the program’s awards after her. “She was somebody that always gave back so much to other people that I’m thinking the community service will be the most appropriate one,” Gaitley said. 

Keller also indicated the team looks forward to having Burke’s family, nurses and support staff back when the family feels up to it. 

Jonassen will not soon forget the impact Burke had on her: “I’m so thankful to be able to have had a coach like her in my life where she put what she was dealing with aside for the better of the team, which is just crazy to even think about.”

In the last 18 months, Fordham has overcome more challenges and dealt with more losses than anyone could have imagined, but instead of letting it tear them apart, the team grew closer together. 

“Through it all, we just stayed together and we worked hard together, and we knew that everything kind of happens for a reason and this is like God’s plan in a way, so just to stick together and lean on each other when, if you were individually struggling, was really important. And everyone did that and everyone was always there for each other,” Jonassen said. 

The togetherness and growth that her team showed during its extremely difficult year gave Gaitley the confidence to create a challenging nonconference schedule—perhaps the most challenging of her career. Most notably, it includes Cancun Challenge matchups against Baylor, Houston and Arizona State. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing those relationships continue to grow,” Gaitley said, “and seeing the kids be able to find the joy of playing, with people in the stands and being able to celebrate after a really difficult year.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren covers the Atlantic 10 and the WNBA.

2 Comments

  1. Lauren Keller on August 28, 2021 at 11:26 am

    Wonderful article

  2. Courtney Vanderslice-Law on August 28, 2021 at 9:37 pm

    Absolutely brilliant article. It brings to mind the quote:

    The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

    Martin Luther King, Jr.

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