Lady Flames Basketball Team Prepares to Return to Court for First Time Since Missed ASUN Championship

With the tragic memory of last season’s ASUN championship cancellation in its rear-view mirror, Liberty’s women’s basketball team will rely on its defensive presence to regain the momentum moving into the 2020-21 season.

Only days away from a chance to claim the ASUN title back in March, the team ended play because of COVID-19.

“(We were) disappointed,” Head Coach Carey Green said. “We were playing very well at the end of the year and offense was clicking pretty well. I think we averaged 94 to 95 points a game the last two games.”

The players felt the same way. 

“It was really hard,” senior Emily Lytle said. “I feel like I worked so hard, the team worked so hard, from where we started to where we finished. It took a lot to get there and (when) it was finally cut off, it was devastating.”

With the Lady Flames on an eight-game win streak on their way to face an opponent they had suffered a hard loss to in the regular season, senior Ashtyn Baker was thrilled heading into the championship game. 

“We were excited for that chance to prove ourselves, and then just getting that news one day after practice … we were sad to say the least,” Baker said. 

COVID-19 affected more than just last season, however. Uncertainty abounds as the team practices while waiting for news on season updates. While the ASUN currently plans for a season this year, the past few months have proven that nothing is guaranteed. 

“There’s always that little (doubt), in the back of your head like, what if it happens again,” Baker said. “What if we get halfway through and things kick back up and COVID gets worse and so it’s like ‘OK, well are we doing this for nothing?”

Even if the season continues as planned, it will differ from previous years. All ASUN conference games will be played in weekend series on back-to-back days against the same opponent.

The new format differs from the traditional game schedule and will require new strategizing from Green and his squad. 

“The depth on this team will have a major impact,” Green said. “What are you going to do? How much strategy are you going to have in 24 hours? I think the key is going to be (playing) more physical. Are you going to be able to play more people? With our depth, it’s going to help us. You could have a big win and the next day have a disappointing loss.”

In addition, fan attendance will have a strict limit depending on state regulations, and teams will not be able to high five each other after the game. All the precautions serve to ensure that the season has the best chance of finishing safely.

Green said the team must be flexible with everything this season because of the uncertainty. 

“There’s so many protocols that we have to follow, and we’ve just got to be liquid with our movements, with our daily activities,” Green said. “One of the things I’ve been sharing with the team is what George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Progress is impossible without change and if you can’t change your mind, you can’t change anything.’” 

Green said the team plans on isolating from outside contact as much as possible to limit contact with anyone infected with the virus.

Ashtyn Baker drives to the hoop against North Florida on February 24, 2019. The Lady Flames will look to her for leadership in 2020 (Photo by Jenna McKenney).

“We haven’t let it stop us,” freshman Bella Smuda said. “We’re still able to practice I think the way that we should for the most part.”

The team will also play this season in a new arena, another major change for the team. Liberty plans on opening the Liberty Arena for use by its volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball teams. Despite having a smaller capacity than the Vines Center, Baker said the arena provides a better atmosphere for basketball.

“It’s so exciting, just kind of a new atmosphere,” Baker said. “The crowd is involved and obviously we don’t always have the most fans at our games, so I think that will actually bring us even more home court advantage in the new arena.”

Heading into the season, Green said he trusts the leadership on the team, as the Lady Flames head into the uncertain season.

He specifically pinpointed Baker, Lytle and senior Bridgette Rettstatt. In addition, he believed that Mya Berkman, a junior, will play a critical role on the team this year. 

“Some people on the team have developed that skill of leadership and it’s something that we really needed this year,” Lytle said. “I feel like some people have really grown up this year and have taken that role.”

In order to reach the maximum amount of success possible, the team dedicates time to intense practices. They primarily focus on defense and rebounds. 

“He’s definitely been harping on (defense) for the past few months now and even when we scrimmage, we don’t play with scoring, we score by defensive stops,” Baker said. “If you can get a defensive stop, you get a score.”

Despite all the changes and potential problems, Green and the team have a positive outlook on this season. 

“I feel really good about it,” Lytle said. “If it doesn’t get cancelled, I feel really good about it.”

 “I think we have a lot of potential to make some noise this year,” Baker said. “I think we’re the most talented since I’ve been here. The type of players we have, and I think if we tap into that potential that we have, we’ll be very successful.”

Christian Shields is a Sports Reporter.

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