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Geno's captains ready to face unique challenges ahead

All of this time in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led people all over the world to pick up new hobbies. For three of the UConn women’s basketball team’s most experienced players - Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and Evina Westbrook - that meant starting up a book club.

The topic? Leadership.

“We’ve had a lot of zoom calls over the quarantine. We’re actually reading a leadership book, me, Olivia and Evina,” Williams said. “We have a lot more responsibility than we’ve ever had these past two years.”

Williams is right. This trio has just a handful of NCAA tournament games under their belt and have never even appeared in an NCAA championship game, a rare occurrence for UConn captains this millennium. But with no seniors on the team this year, Williams, Nelson-Ododa, and Westbrook are the most experienced members on the team. Outside of Westbrook, that experience equates to being in Storrs longer than everyone else, not necessarily leading the team. Hence the quarantine book club.

“We’re going through different modules just to learn about this new world that we’re going to be taking on,” Nelson-Ododa said.

To make things even more interesting, these captains are young and the team itself is even younger, welcoming six freshmen this fall. Freshman year for UConn women’s basketball players is notoriously tough, so the captains will have their work cut out for them getting them up to speed to perform at the program’s usual standards.

“Over half the team has new things to learn. They have to learn an entirely new system as well as things we do outside the court, “Nelson-Ododa said. “We just have to get them acclimated as best as possible. These pods help us give more individual attention [to the freshmen] until we’re in team activities. They have a lot to learn, a lot of stuff is new for them.”

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As if that wasn’t a big enough mountain to climb, there’s a global pandemic going on that makes full team get-togethers nearly impossible. Right now, the team is divided into three pods, with a captain leading each group. It’s certainly different than in years past, but the captains are embracing the smaller groups and using it to their advantage.

“Being in our little pods, it’s helped a lot, especially with me, Evina, and Christyn just being the leaders of each of the pods,” Nelson-Ododa said. “It helps us work on that leadership until we move on to our bigger team activities and stuff.”

Westbrook in particular has taken her podmates, freshman Nika Muhl and walk-on Autumn Chassion, under her wing.

“Honestly, I didn't know what it was going to be like at first but it has been really, really, really great. Now, like I said before, I have a 12-year old brother at home, it’s like I have two little sisters to watch after,” Westbrook said of Muhl and Chassion. “If I go to the store, I come back and they’re both laying in my bed watching NBA games or WNBA games and they’re like ‘Hey!’ So little things like that, if there’s a problem it’s like ‘Oh, we’ll just call E,’ so it’s been really fun having them two around. They are so energetic, both of them, and I really love having them around.”

Westbrook may seem like the most surprising captain pick for the team since she has never set foot on the hardwood as a member of the Huskies, but she’s already left an impressive mark on her teammates and head coach Geno Auriemma.

In May of 2019, Westbrook became the first women’s basketball player ever to transfer from Tennessee to UConn, adding another wrinkle to the game’s most storied rivalry. Then, Westbrook’s waiver to play immediately was denied, largely due to a lack of participation on the Lady Vols’ side. As a result, she sat out what eventually became a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In between all of that, she went through and rehabilitated from not one, but two surgeries on her left knee.

“I felt bad for her that she had to sit out, but she handled it great. She worked her butt off when the surgery happened. I mean she took it all in stride,” head coach Geno Auriemma said of Westbrook. “She did her rehab, she stayed here. She was the only one on campus for the longest time. All her teammates were gone, all the other athletes were gone. There were long stretches, maybe a month or two, when her and [Akok] Akok were the only guys on campus. And that’s not easy. Never complained, never said a word, just worked and worked and worked.”

Between her work ethic, game experience at Tennessee, and age (Westbrook is the oldest player on the team at 22), Westbrook is as good as any choice to be the program’s first-ever transfer-turned-captain. But even after being around for a year, she still wants to earn her teammates’ respect with some strong performances on the court.

“You can call someone a captain but I think earning my teammates respect first is the most important part to me,” Westbrook said. “Being a really vocal leader, being a leader by example is something I really have to show, day in and day out and really be consistent with it for that to really have its name in general”

The captains know that it won’t always be easy being the leaders of one of the most historic programs in collegiate sports, but Westbrook, Williams, and Nelson-Ododa certainly seem up to the challenge.

Assuming she’s healthy (and that there’s a season), Westbrook should slide right into the starting lineup alongside her fellow captains. She’s the leader in the clubhouse to run the point with Williams off the ball, giving the Huskies a dangerous backcourt that can score from anywhere on the floor. Pair that with Nelson-Ododa, one of the best shot-blockers in the country and a growing threat on offense along with superstar freshman Paige Bueckers, and the Huskies are once again one of the nation’s best teams with a real chance at keeping their Final Four streak alive.

But for now, with so much uncertainty regarding the upcoming season, the captains are doing what they can to keep everyone locked in on improving every day.

“I think we’re really excited overall, especially them two, they haven’t really been in a leadership type role since they’ve been here so it’s exciting. We talked about it as us three, we have to be able to hold each other accountable as well as everyone else so that’s definitely going to start with us,” Westbrook said.