How Princeton head coach Carla Berube is approaching a season lost to COVID-19

Zooms, transfer news, and an endowment are some of what's taken place

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This year, Princeton women’s basketball coach Carla Berube has done several things that aren’t normally in her plans during the season. She has gotten to watch players she coached on USA Basketball youth teams, including Louisville freshman Hailey Van Lith, as well as a few men’s games on television. She’s had more time to pursue her own professional development, exercise, and listen to podcasts, and she has had more family time with her wife Meghan and their three young children.

Notably not on that list? Competing, or even practicing with her Tigers. On November 12, the Ivy League canceled winter sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that Berube and her team anticipated and respected but still found difficult. “We kind of saw it coming when no [students were] invited on campus for the fall semester,” Berube told The Next. “… We kept hope, but I think we also saw what very well could happen.”

For Berube, it’s the first winter she hasn’t been on the sidelines since she was hired as an assistant coach at Providence in 2000. Instead, she is connecting with her players from a home office set up in her bedroom.

Princeton’s players are scattered around the country, working or attending school online and trying to keep their basketball skills sharp. Half of the players are taking the year off to preserve their eligibility in the Ivy League, which only allows players to compete during their first four years of enrollment. The players taking leaves of absence include much of what would have been this year’s junior class and much of the team’s height; Berube admitted that, if her team had played this season, “we would have been really undersized.”

However, the team’s three seniors are all still enrolled, meaning that we have seen the last of Sydney Boyer, McKenna Haire, and Carlie Littlefield in Princeton uniforms. Berube indicated that Boyer and Haire’s basketball careers are likely finished, but Littlefield has entered the transfer portal to continue her career outside the Ivy League and will likely choose a school in January or February.

“She's got some really great opportunities out there,” Berube said of Littlefield, a two-time First Team All-Ivy point guard. “… She's the epitome of the player that I like to coach. She just has it all and she'll run through a wall and she's so smart and she keeps your team together. … [I’m] looking forward to seeing where she lands and what coach and coaching staff and team get this incredible player and leader and just a warrior.”

Berube credited her seniors with doing “an amazing job” of keeping the team united and focused this fall as everyone awaited the Ivy League’s announcement. All three seniors will be on campus for the spring semester, and Berube plans to involve them as much as they want in team activities.

“We haven't said goodbye to them,” she said. “…We're going to try to make it as special as we can this spring for them because this is the end of their Princeton careers. So… we'll have some closure at some point, but not yet.”

During the fall semester, the team’s check-ins mostly focused on off-the-court things rather than basketball or strength and conditioning. The team is currently reading a book called Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great, and they recently held a holiday party over Zoom.

Social justice is also a frequent topic of those check-ins, and the team is actively pushing for change within the Princeton community and beyond. More than half of the leadership of Princeton’s Black Student-Athlete Council is from the women’s basketball team, including president Grace Stone, and Stone and assistant coach Dalila Eshe are on the executive committee overseeing Princeton’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work. In addition, Berube and her fellow Ivy League head coaches committed to the Ivy Promise in June, which includes pledges to buy from Black and minority-owned businesses, volunteer in the community, and “be vocal advocates for equality for all.”

In January, the team will start watching film from their games last season as well as live games of other teams. “We don't want to lose our basketball minds,” Berube said. “…You’ve got to have both happening: not only [staying in shape] physically but keeping sharp mentally as basketball players because if you don't use it, you lose some of it.”

Along with check-ins with her current players, Berube has had lots of conversations with recruits, alumni, and athletic department staff over the past several months. The pandemic has not impacted Princeton’s 2021 recruiting class, which includes ESPN three-star forward Parker Hill and point guard Amelia Osgood. However, because many of Princeton’s would-be juniors are on leaves of absence, Berube’s high school class of 2023 has gotten larger and her class of 2022 has contracted. She also expects to be involved in the other side of recruiting for the next few years by helping players who are enrolled this year transfer after they exhaust their Ivy League eligibility. In addition to Littlefield, Berube anticipates that all six non-seniors who are currently enrolled will transfer after graduation.

The pandemic also hasn’t dampened Princeton’s alumnae support, even though alumnae can’t come to campus to talk with players or watch a game. Berube said that the alumnae have been “incredibly supportive” during this time, including by participating in career-focused Zoom calls with the players from all over the country. Those calls have been so effective that Berube plans to continue them even after the pandemic.

On December 17, Princeton Athletics announced a milestone for the women’s basketball program as an anonymous donor endowed the head coach position. It is just the second endowment of a Princeton women’s head coach position and one of very few endowed women’s basketball head coach positions nationally. As of February 2020, only seven other universities had such endowments, including Ivy rivals Cornell and Dartmouth.

Berube called the endowment “a game-changer” on Twitter and said that it “is a celebration of the women who wore the Princeton jersey and laid the groundwork of our program. … Princeton Athletics has an unparalleled alumni community, and I am so grateful for the unwavering support.”

The timing of the gift makes it feel even more momentous, giving the program guaranteed financial support at a time when many individuals, colleges, and athletic departments are struggling to stay afloat. Berube is proud of the measures that the Ivy League and Princeton University have taken during the pandemic to keep students, faculty, and staff safe, but she admits having mixed emotions when she watches other teams play on television.

“You're like, ‘Ahh, man, I miss this,’” she said. “… It's human nature. It's just 20 years—like, of course I want to be on that court. But I also know that it's really, really hard out there. It’s … taken a toll on the mental health of coaches and student-athletes.”

“[I] know that it's the right decision for us and for the Ivy League [not to play],” she added. “So I think we’re grateful. … We'll press forward and keep trying to put a great product with great people on the court any time we step on it, and we're looking forward to our future.”