My jaw hurts. I'm not a regular gum chewer, but I also don't usually sit on the bench with a Division I women's basketball team during its conference home opener. Before my stint as AU's honorary guest coach for its January 7 tussle with Loyola, I had popped a piece of Orbit, and as the game gets more and more intense, so does my chomping.
The action is fast and free-flowing from floor level. My chair sits between the relentlessly upbeat players to my right ("Let's go, white!" they scream) and the always-coaching coaches to my left ("Call out screens!" they shout nonstop).
My role is ceremonial—the only assignment is handing Coach Megan Gebbia her clipboard during timeouts—but the experience offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a college basketball team.
"It's important that the faculty, staff, and alumni feel like they're a part of our program," Gebbia says. "They get to see what the girls go through on the court and before the game. Our players study basketball."
In the locker room prior to opening tip, the second-year head coach lists five keys for beating the Greyhounds. The first four are technical (example: contain dribble penetration), but the fifth is psychological.
"Control the game," she says to her attentive team. "In the Patriot League, we should be able to go into most games and feel like we're in control. Where have we struggled? In the first half. We've got to find a way to keep them at bay. That's part of you guys growing and maturing as a group."
Her words resonate. AU jumps out to a 30–13 lead and takes a 16-point lead at halftime. Gebbia's pleased, but she makes a point to stress to her players the importance of minimizing turnovers. Loyola outscores AU by four in the second half, but the Eagles still cruise to a 62–50 victory, which puts them on top of the Patriot League with a 3–0 record.
In the postgame locker room, you would think AU had lost.
"Fifteen assists to 15 turnovers against this team is not good," Gebbia says. Her voice never rises. She's teaching, not scolding. "This should be a 20–25 point win for us. That really bothers me, because I want to win and I want to win big. You guys are so much better than you've shown."
She then surprises me by asking if I'd like to say a few words.
"I'll be a little more positive," I say while clapping my hands, drawing a smile from the coach and laughter from the players. "Great win!"
As the guest coach, my night is over, but for the real coaches and players, the season is one long blur of seemingly never-ending work.
"Tomorrow morning, you have lifting at nine," Gebbia tells the team, which might have to leave for its upcoming road trip early to avoid a predicted snowstorm.
"We've got Colgate on Saturday."