Freshman Shannen Atkinson will watch “Empire” with her teammates, but if the squad decides to watch “American Horror Story,” she’ll probably opt out. She’s not a fan of the show, as horror is not her favorite genre.
When they’re not in practice or at a basketball function, members of the team will often hang out in each other’s rooms and watch TV or chat over a meal in a dining hall to solidify their relationship as a cohesive squad.
This season, the Owls are returning four of their five starters after graduating only Erica Covile last year. With such a large proportion of athletes returning, the team is finding its groove.
“All teams aren’t perfect throughout the year,” said junior guard Tanaya Atkinson, who isn’t related to Shannen. “We’re going to have that breaking point, and I think when you have the team chemistry off the court, you know how to approach one another to the point where you won’t take anything too personal, but you know it’s for the right of the team and what you need to say to help them instead of break them.”
There are five seniors on the team, including guard Feyonda Fitzgerald, who earned first team preseason all-conference honors. Fitzgerald started all 35 games last season and averaged 13.6 points per game, second to junior guard Alliya Butts.
Coach Tonya Cardoza will look for Fitzgerald, the only senior starter, to help lead the team and aid the transition of the three freshmen.
So far, Fitzgerald and the other upperclassmen have done a good job incorporating the freshmen onto the team.
“I mean we’re really close, like there’s a lot of laughs,” said freshman forward Shantay Taylor. “It’s like when we get on the floor, we’re hard on each other and we push each other, but once we’re off, we’re all close. Everything is not personal, we’re just trying to help each other out and make sure we make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Taylor was initially worried about how the transition would go from high school to college, especially because she is shy.
“I feel like I’m a part of the team now,” Taylor said. “At first, I was kind of distant, but they did a great job of welcoming me in and making me feel at home, so it’s good.”
As the Owls began their warm-ups at practice this week, laughter echoed through the gym. Cardoza hadn’t even arrived to practice yet and the team was already stretching out and getting loose.
Tanaya Atkinson acts as almost another coach for her teammates. She and Fitzgerald both see value in leading by example and being strong role models for other members of the team.
“Making sure we’re setting examples on and off the court as well,” Fitzgerald said. “Trying to tell them what to do, we have to do it before we can tell anybody what to do.”
The upperclassmen on the team also check in with the new players when it comes to managing the workload of new classes and college life in general. For Shannen Atkinson, the extra guidance made her feel more comfortable in her new environment six hours away from home.
“It makes me feel good just knowing that somebody’s looking out for me and making sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said. “I feel like I fit in well with the team.”
Maura Razanauskas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @CaptainAMAURAca.