The Mules wrapped up the 2019-2020 regular season with an impressive 19-8 record overall while posting a third-place finishing 11-7 conference record.
While their dreams of capturing a Centennial Conference Championship were dashed with a devastating 3-point loss to Swarthmore on Feb. 28, hopes were high for redemption in 2021.
With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic yet to come, Muhlenberg’s Athletic Department decided to cancel the remainder of spring athletic activities with an official announcement on Mar 19. Immediately, the future of the upcoming fall season was called into question.
However, with President Kathleen Harring’s Jul. 30 message to the entire Muhlenberg community stating that the number of students on campus was to be reduced to freshmen and a certain amount of upperclassmen, their fate was all but sealed.
Men’s basketball’s shot at redeeming themselves and conquering the Centennial Conference had airballed.
And even though home is certainly not the same as the famous Memorial Hall, practicing, joking around or huddling prior to tip-off, it has been quite an experience, providing some valuable learning opportunities.
Guard Noah Watson ‘22 said, “The experience has been like nothing I’ve encountered before.”
Watson acknowledges the hardships he has faced early on, but he is also equally as aware of the positives that have come from them.
“It’s strange going from seeing your closest friends and teammates everyday on campus to only being able to see them online. At first I really struggled with it, especially when my brothers left for school, but it has definitely helped me more than I would have ever imagined,” he said.
Even though his brothers have left the house, still, a day has not passed “without facetiming or texting a teammate or friend, on top of the constant group DM’s we have,” Watson said.
Social media and technology has been important in keeping morale high and communication stable for the entire squad throughout the semester and season at home.
Even though they have yet to meet Muhlenberg men’s basketball team’s newest members, Watson, and the others, have still been able to connect. “We all follow each other’s social media accounts and see what we are doing on the day-to-day,” Watson said.
Similarly, reflecting on what it has been like to forge relationships with the team’s veteran members, Oscar Percy ‘24 acknowledges the struggles. “For the most part, it has been challenging to catch up and meet my new teammates, especially being freshmen, forming those connections early has been difficult,” Percy said.
To say the least, the entire process and experience thus far has been challenging and most certainly a team effort. The group of young ball players have demonstrated that same cohesive team effort they display on the court, especially when it has come to integrating and truly getting to know Percy and the rest of the 3-man freshmen class as best they can.
Social media may prove to be a vital tool in bonding every member of the team, but it in no way compares to in-person bonding through practice, film sessions, meals, or lift workouts.
While social media has helped Watson and the rest of the team overcome the many challenges that have arisen, head coach Kevin Hopkins has played an even more integral role in guiding his team in their most challenging test to date.
“As the head coach, my main focus has been on trying to support the guys on the team and to help them navigate through these unprecedented times as we continue to work towards making progress and improving both on and off the court as individuals and as a team,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins has his team engaging in various shooting competitions and Zoom calls dedicated to race and injustice, and has more in store for his group.
“We are looking to bring in a team of sports performance psychologists to work with our team on the mental side of sports performance, said Coach Hopkins.
Hopkins, the staff, and their tight-knit group of players have shown no sign of slowing down, continuing to stay active and in game-mode.
Typically, at this point in the semester, the entire squad would find themselves working hard on their craft in the lead up to opening day. Even with no formal practices being held, no impending games, the Mules are still preparing as if there is.
“I’m lucky enough to live near a park with three basketball courts, so there is almost always a hoop for me to get shots up on,” said Watson. While continuing to prepare physically and utilize Coach Hopkins’ video workouts, he has already started making progress on one of Hopkins’ priorities: mental growth.
“On the mental side, I watch as much basketball as possible. The NBA bubble was one of the most exciting NBA seasons to date and I watched almost every game. My brother and I also would watch some of our old film together and pick apart what we could be doing better,” Watson said.
Hopkins and the staff have also taken to finding ways to stay focused and attuned. Over the course of the shortened spring semester and the summer, they engaged in an array of professional development activities. Such activities included starting a book club featuring “Practice Perfect” by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi, and participating in several Zoom meetings with sports coaches and experts from all across the sports world.
All of this knowledge that Hopkins has acquired in the past several months is without question being forwarded to the freshmen during their personal and exclusive sessions.
Since October 1, Hopkins has been able to work with two of the three youngest members of his group, Brandon Goldberg ‘24 and Percy. While the third, Giovanni Rubino ‘24 and the rest of the upperclassmen are studying remotely from home, the coaching staff has been able to conduct much more intimate workouts.
“Although practice and preparation has been much different this year, with no games on the immediate horizon to prepare for, it has provided our coaching staff with a great opportunity to spend more individual time teaching and working with Brandon and Oscar,” Coach Hopkins said.
“The workouts with the coaches have been excellent so far. Although I wish the rest of the guys were here to practice, it has been really beneficial having more time to work with Coach Hopkins and the others,” Percy commented.
While having the opportunity to develop personal relationships with the two young men, strengthening skills and basketball sense is the most critical.
“We have focused on improving our fundamentals and have worked on a variety of individual basketball skills including ball-handling, passing, pivoting, shooting, changing pace and changing direction with the ball, and starting to implement some of the concepts that we will use within our offense once we are able to get back onto the court and compete,” said Hopkins.
With that strong foundation of fundamentals, then “we will start teaching them some of the concepts and systems that we would be putting in place if we had our entire team on campus and were preparing for games,” he continued.
These intimate practice sessions and intense focus on fundamentals seems to be having an impact on both Percy and Goldberg. “The workouts with the coaches have been excellent so far. Considering it’s only Brandon [Goldberg] and I there, we have been seeing our skillsets progress faster because they can pay closer attention to us, said Percy.
It is clear that the present situation of a semester at home has come with it a slew of challenges and uphill battles. At the same time, especially for Watson, it has served as a moment of reflection. In the collective effort and his personal one, he has learned a great deal about his teammates as well as himself.
“I’ve learned that my teammates are always going to be there for me if I need them, just like I’m there when they need me. I’ve also learned that I really do enjoy being alone sometimes. Now that I’ve spent extended periods of time isolated I’ve found new hobbies that I would never have if I didn’t have that alone time, as well as learning to focus internally and not worry about others so much,” Watson explained.
It is only a matter of time before the entire unit returns to campus, gets back in the gym, and takes what they have learned throughout these several months at home, never having taken their eyes off the prize, the Centennial Conference Championship.