September 23, 2021 

Inside George Mason’s first open practice

Under new leadership, program will 'Believe Big' this season

FAIRFAX, VA — “Believe Big” can be found across the George Mason women’s basketball team’s social media platforms and was seen across the back of the shirts donned by the coaching staff at the team’s open practice on Sept. 18. Fans were not only able to see the new team but the new coaching staff as well. 

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Vanessa Blair-Lewis was named the program’s ninth head coach on April 6, 2021, and brought her entire coaching staff from Bethune-Cookman with her. She also brought in Andre Bolton, who served as an assistant coach at Bethune-Cookman from 2012-2017, as the special assistant to the head coach for this season. In addition, both senior Amaya Scott and redshirt sophomore Jayla Adams followed their coaching staff from Daytona Beach, FL to Fairfax, VA. 

Mason is coming off of a 3-19 season in which they went 0-14 in conference play and finished last in the Atlantic 10 under former head coach Nyla Milleson.

In the team’s first public appearance on the court since Blair-Lewis was hired the team showed improved communication. 

Before the organized drills started the coaching staff made sure to remind the team “everybody’s talking.” 

And talk they did. From players saying “Let’s go, let’s go” and “good passing, good passing” to general hype such as “here we go, here we go” to cheering for specific teammates, the court never fell silent during the two-hour practice. 

Communication on the court will be key for the team that struggled to consistently create offense, averaging just 50.7 points per game, with no individual averaging more than 9.3 points per game. 

When the team was running through plays, it was evident Mason would be operating at a faster pace than last season. Graduate student Marika Korpinen noted the increased pace would be the largest difference between last season’s team and the current team. 

“We’re going to be a lot more aggressive defensively. And that way we’re going to be able to push the ball and just run, play faster basketball. And that’s how you get easy baskets and score,” she said. 

Blair-Lewis expanded on the plan, saying, “We are a pace and space type of a team, we want to run the floor. We want to create gaps for our players to be able to attack the rim and do a lot of one-on-ones.”

Blair-Lewis made sure to make her way around the arena while overseeing practice, saying hi to Mason staff, fans and media alike, thanking them for coming out. Her enthusiasm for the season was clear before, during and after the practice, having not coached a game since March 11, 2020. 

“I’ll tell you the truth, waking up this morning just for an open practice almost felt game-like. I mean the girls were on the floor like two hours before,” Blair-Lewis said. “They were just so excited and my staff hasn’t coached in a year and a half. We are so excited to be back on the floor.”

The open practice was not just an exhibition — numerous times over the course of the two hours, coaches pulled players aside to demonstrate what they could do better individually. 

During the practice, Korpinen sometimes struggled to hear her coaching staff due to the noise. She described the noise as “a little weird” because with a capacity of just 250 people at games last season, games felt like a practice or a scrimmage. 

Despite this, she could not have been happier to be back for a fifth year in a Mason uniform. 

“That’s a big part of why we play, the fans. And they bring the environment that we want to compete in. So definitely, it feels so good to see everybody here,” she said. 

Korpinen came back to Mason for her final year of eligibility to try to reach her goal of winning an A-10 Championship and to continue to work to leave a legacy on the program.

“[I want to] set the example of what hard work should be, or the level or quality of work that we should be doing every single day,” Korpinen said. “The consistency, giving it your all, I want to be able to show the younger players how I’m used to working and show them the results. I was never supposed to be a big name or anything, but I worked my way to be here and I want to show them that that’s the level that we should be at.” 

Both Korpinen and redshirt sophomore Rachel Balzer agree that the transition under the new coaching staff has been a smooth one. 

“It’s been actually really an easy transition,” Korpinen said. “Just because of how welcoming, how loving the coaching staff is. But at the same time I was brought here with the old coaching staff so of course, after four years that is a big change. But I love the new coaching staff. I absolutely love them. They are so good off the court, where they are just taking care of us. But the biggest thing is on the court. I love what they’re teaching us on the basketball court and after four years, I feel like I’m still getting better.”

For Balzer, the best part has been how genuine the coaching staff has been.

“They’re going to push you on the court and as soon as practice is over, I’m sure [as soon as] a game is over, they’re going to put their arm around you and they genuinely care about us as human beings and as people. And nowadays in college basketball, you get that very rarely,” she said. 

While Balzer and Korpinen had to adjust to a new coaching staff, Scott was able to follow her coaches. Her challenge is adjusting to a new environment and teammates. 

Scott came with Blair-Lewis and the rest of the coaching staff to Mason with the goal of winning another ring with them after winning a MEAC Tournament Championship and two regular-season MEAC championships during her three seasons at Bethune-Cookman. 

For her, the transition has been more about adjusting to a new campus, coming from a university of fewer than 4,000 students to one nearly 10 times that. 

“I came from a small university to a gigantic university, like the arena,” she said gesturing to the size of EagleBank Arena that has a capacity of 10,000 people. “The new teammates, the fans and staff around [me], just not the coaching staff so everything is just new.”

Blair-Lewis credits her student-athletes with the success of the transition. While introducing the team to the fans after the practice she said, “These young ladies behind me, they have been totally on board, totally bought in, totally believing big for this year and for years to come for our program.”

So far, the process to create chemistry on the court between the new and old players has been a work in progress according to Balzer, but she is confident the team’s hard work will pay off in the months to come.

“It has bumps in the road,” she said. “You have very good days, you have some bad days, but each day we leave knowing that we worked as hard as we could and we know that whatever we did today is going to help us for tomorrow. And what we did in the summer is going to help us as soon as we step on the court for our first game. And what we’re doing now it’s going to help us out, hopefully in March.”

For Blair-Lewis though, success this season will mean more than just winning games. 

“I think there’s a picture behind the scenes as well, it’s that they believe that they can win any game, not just some games, but any game. And as a coach, you’ll start to see that happen as the season starts, the confidence,” she said. “And it’s tough to have had the season that they had last year, and a lot of teams had a season that wasn’t truly indicative of who they were just because of COVID[-19]. So for us, it’s the belief that we can win, and believing that we can win big.” 

Mason is scheduled to begin its on-court quest to “Believe Big” on Nov. 9 at Florida International.

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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