New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Geno, Huskies excited to see fans at Gampel again
STORRS — It’s a rite of passage for UConn players, the run from the tunnel to the Gampel Pavilion court in front of 10,000 screaming fans.
Paige Bueckers, the latest generational player for the 11-time national champion, has yet to experience that run. Bueckers’ freshman season unfolded amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant empty arenas sans a smattering of family members sitting amid cardboard cutouts.
This season, fans will be back at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs and the XL Center in Hartford. Masked fans, but fans nonetheless.
For Geno Auriemma and his players, it’s a welcome return to normalcy.
“I felt so bad for our freshmen last year,” Auriemma said last week at the team’s on-campus practice facility. “Running out the tunnel at Gampel, coming out and going, ‘Huh?’ It was just like coming out here. So they’re in for a treat, the freshmen.”
The players will get their first taste of performing in front of a crowd Friday night at the annual First Night celebration, a student-only event this year.
But after a year of simulated noise, the players can’t wait to hear real voices. In fact, members of the women’s basketball team have been attending UConn sporting events — volleyball, soccer, football, softball in the spring — to feel the energy of live sports.
“I think people just wanted to get out, just being in that college-like environment again,” senior Evina Westbrook said.
“The excitement, the smell
of popcorn, everything that goes into that. Just go to the games ... we go to softball games, we go to soccer games, just to like show support to other teams for one, but just to kind of be back into that atmosphere.
“So I know when we start having games and the men start having games, it’s going to be totally different.”
Westbrook said she appreciates the energy of the crowd after playing in a hollow atmosphere last year. “We had to make do with what we had, we kind of just had to spark our own energy from the bench and within each other … But I’m definitely going to be super excited for the crowd to give us energy,” Westbrook said.
There was no student section or pep band. Music played over the speakers and there was some chatter from the stands, but it mostly sounded like practice.
“It was weird.” Westbrook said. “But we kind of just had to go with the flow, you know COVID was just a lot of ups and downs. We need to know if we’re playing. So the crowd noise was just kind of, you know, one of the 10 problems that was going on.”
Westbrook, a Tennessee transfer who played her first season at UConn last year, is one of three returning seniors. Christyn Williams and Olivia NelsonOdoda are the others, embarking on their fourth season in Storrs.
Auriemma thought of them last year, too.
“I’m happy for our seniors because I didn’t want them to go out, senior year, and that’s the way it ends at Connecticut, you know, playing in front of nobody,” he said.
Besides the required masks — whether vaccinated or not — fans will experience a pre-COVID vibe at games in Storrs and Hartford. Amenities and concession stands will be the same.
Students, Westbrook said, seem excited to return. Auriemma figures fans have missed his team.
“I know the fans are going to be jacked up, because they haven’t been to a game forever,” he said.
“And the kids are going to be, as well. I am, too. I’m excited.”
Auriemma said last year’s freshman class has experienced UConn in a new way with the return to in-person learning and an open campus this fall. Players were isolated last season, living among themselves while taking classes remotely.
So the basketball experience was not only part of their lives disrupted.
“They never went to class,” Auriemma said as he stood on the court at the practice facility. “All they knew was their apartments, where they grabbed their food. Here, and at Gampel.
“So that’s been great for them to get out and about … we talked with them about how many friends they’ve made that aren’t on the basketball team, which they didn’t get a chance to do last year.”
The other component of returning to pre-COVID life? The energy at games won’t always be proUConn. On the road, UConn will feel unwelcome. That’s OK. That’s better than playing in front of cardboard cutouts.
“Having people boo against us and having to feel like the world is against us … that’s just another aspect of being at UConn,” Westbrook said. “I’m excited for us to experience that again, excited for the new guys to experience that for the first time.
“As soon as I see my first person walk in, I’m going to be super excited. It’s gong to be really fun this year.”