The smiles may have been hidden behind masks, but it was easy to know they were there when three of the local players on the Augustana College women’s basketball team talked about being back on the court this week.
Forced into an unusual hiatus that dissected their season, former Rock Island preps Lauren Hall and Justice Edell and teammate Macy Beinborn, a former Pleasant Valley standout, were happy to be reunited with their teammates on the Carver Center Court.
“It’s just good to be back, and we actually feel like a team more since we are all together,” said Hall, a junior. “It’s more realistic that we are out here practicing and can get back to normal.”
She quickly amended that with the comment “as close to normal as things can be.”
While the Vikings and other teams in the CCIW returned to practices on Jan. 2 after over a month off, it's still not normal compared to pre-pandemic times. Because of continuing COVID-19 issues, masks are still worn in practices. When games begin in two weeks, there will be no fans in the stands. And the season will be only 12 conference games ahead of the CCIW Tournament.
But it's basketball.
It's a return to something familiar.
And it was needed for everyone.
“It's been nothing short of life-changing just to be back in there with them and working, and teaching, and disciplining — all the things that come along with it,” said eighth-year head coach Mark Beinborn. “It's been so fun. I can't even express fully how happy I am, and all of us are, to be living a little bit.”
The return to the court is just one aspect of the pandemic that has turned life into a big jigsaw puzzle that is still being put together. Classes have changed with virtual learning. The social aspect of college has been all but lost.
Coach Beinborn credited his players for coming back in great shape and ready to return to action.
“A lot of them you can tell did everything they could to stay as ready as possible,” he said. “We have people coming back looking better than they did last year and the newcomers coming in ready to play. It's exciting.”
They came back pumped, he said, actually looking forward to being worked hard. All three of the young ladies noted that they were glad to return to a full practice regimen that included scrimmaging.
“The first day back to practice, we all forgot what it feels like to play basketball,” joked Edell.
It was a relief to be back and be able to put aside the stresses and pitfalls that came with not having the game they love.
“At first, it was really disappointing,” said Hall of being out of the gym between Thanksgiving and New Year's. “We worked so hard during October and November. When they shut us down, we were all really disappointed; they shut us down the day before we were going to get go up-and-down the court.”
However, the physical side was just one aspect. Being away from friends and teammates took a toll, they said.
“Not being in rhythm of basketball, and seeing basketball on TV still and sitting at home watching it, was really hard,” said Macy Beinborn. “There were just a few breakdowns this winter about it.”
She was serious.
Being away was bitter.
“It’s draining being in the house all day,” said Macy Beinborn. “You get to the gym and do an hour or two and then go home and sit all day. You don’t get to connect with your teammates and you don’t get to come in and get your shots in. Like I said, sitting there and watching others get to play is a huge drain mentally.”
Being back for whatever type of season might unfold is surely sweet.
“Having this time in the gym and being able to come together as a team is really helping everyone, especially with COVID,” said Edell. “Being around our teammates and friends is making these times easier for us both mentally and physically. You finally get to get out of the house.”
The Vikings did their best to stay engaged as a team, they said. They were broken into small groups for daily texts and calls to check in on one another and keep each other accountable for work. There were Zoom calls that featured speakers and others there to help with issues.
“I had to really stress, not just how they were doing with basketball, but mentally, too,” said Macy Beinborn, who served as a leader of one of those small pods. “I know several girls had difficulty with the mental aspect of being away.”
Still, they did their best to make sure a tough situation wasn't any worse.
“With this team, we all really kept each other on our toes for that month we were off,” said Hall.
But being back together as a team is nice. Almost normal.
“With basketball comes that social dynamic that you really miss out on,” said Macy Beinborn. “When we weren’t together, it was hard, especially for our incoming freshmen and our senior, Justice.
“Definitely that social aspect of our team was what I missed the most. I love playing and I missed playing so much, but playing is not fun unless you’re with your team. So, now that we’re back it feels really good to be together.”