On March 18, the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) made one of the toughest decisions in its history. All athletic competitions for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year would be canceled due to the rising coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
This did not stop Montclair State University men’s basketball head coach Justin Potts and his squad from getting work in and learning new strategies in preparation for a season unlike any other. Led by Potts, along with assistant coaches Sean Rossi, O’Neil Holder and Will Bishop, the team took it as an advantage.
Even with being stuck at home and with a majority of things being done virtually, junior forward Steve Breeman, mentioned that they made a group chat with the other players to show off what individual workouts they were doing to stay fit.
“We had a point system, where you post a video, you get ‘x’ amount of points,” Breeman said. “At the end of each week, we had a winner, and throughout the quarantine, one person would win a prize.”
A little prize every week is not the main message of these “quarantine workouts” though. Devin Cooper, a junior guard who was unfortunately injured last season, said these workouts accomplished a lot more in terms of themes and team chemistry.
“One of the big things that came out of this was holding everyone accountable during the quarantine,” Cooper said. “It was really difficult to get into the gym to workout, but with the group chat, we were helping to reflect on the younger upperclassmen who are not as experienced with the process.”
Not only has doing physical workouts enlightened the team during the peak of the pandemic, but other types of engagement were also part of the main gist that the coaching staff wanted to work on with the players via weekly meetings on Zoom.
“We tried to divvy it up with the coaching staff and filter it through the players, and we did things like asking them one thing they liked during the quarantine or something they learned,” Potts said. “We also did some stuff on social justice and the current climate of the world that these young men are growing up in, and we had some enlightening conversations about certain things that we can do to make the world a little bit of a better place.”
Through these important discussions is where the players really opened up and showed their vulnerability, as well as giving each other support, which is key in developing relationships with all of the players. Something that Potts emphasizes about his team is building that chemistry and developing a team culture. His hopes with this are that on the court the squad plays like a well-oiled machine, and off the court they can create connections that last a lifetime.
“I give credit to the players because they handled things well and they were responsible, and I think we grew and we bonded as a team and we are continuing to grow the culture that I think is important to us,” Potts said.
Another thing that helps with getting back to work is the recent restart of in-person practices at Panzer Athletic Center. Cooper could not wait to get back onto the court with his friends and his teammates, especially after being on the sideline last season.
“Personally, I was really excited because of the new gym and the guys wanted to see what it looked like, but just being on a basketball court again and being around the guys again [is exciting],” Cooper said. “The energy that we give off to each other is simply unmatchable, and that’s one of my favorite things about being on this team.”
The team did not have the best of runs last season, even though they poured their hearts out on the court every game. They did have a better first half than second half though. Ending on an 11-14 record, a straight .500 winning percentage in the NJAC and a positive record at home, the team along with Potts learned a lot about how they can improve going into more of these practices in the midst of the pandemic.
“What we wanted as coaches was to lay a foundation, and when you take over a program and implement your culture, sometimes there will be bumps in the road,” Potts said. “I think the thing we did really well was that we stayed the course; we got tough and we stayed positive, we just did not get the result we wanted.”
Breeman looks to the bright side of the world and offers what he thinks can help with next season looming around.
“Our philosophy is that we want to get better every single day,” Breeman said. “Looking at the second half of the Rutgers Camden game last season, that was the best basketball that we played all season. Sometimes we took some steps back, but we were able to regain that ground and make up for the previous mistakes.”
Looking ahead to next season, Cooper says this will be a time to hone in on the skills learned last season and a chance to take their playing style to the next level.
“That gap of where we really had to learn and pick up our new press and play-style will not be a factor this year,” Cooper said. “We want to run right into our defense and not have a hiccup during those plays, along with the upperclassmen helping the underclassmen get into a smoother process of running the plays coach calls out.”
Potts wanted to make it clear that even though he has not been with this team for that long, he wants to implement his character and his personality into this bright squad of guys, who are anxious and ready to get back into play and shoot the ball into the hoop once again. They seem ready to face an opportunity that is unlike anything seen in Division III college basketball; all they have to do is run and get into position.