After feeling of 'helplessness' caused by COVID-19 pause, Iowa women's basketball ready to return
IOWA CITY — When recounting the positive COVID-19 tests rolling in and the games coming off the schedule, Lisa Bluder emphasized one unfortunate emotion.
"It was really just a feeling of helplessness," the Iowa women's basketball coach said Wednesday, speaking publicly for the first time since the Hawkeyes came off last week's COVID-19 pause.
"You can't do anything about it."
It's been nearly two weeks since several positive tests within the program were announced on Nov. 19, forcing Iowa to cancel the Nov. 21 home game versus Drake and its Thanksgiving trip to Cancun that featured matchups against USC (Nov. 25) and Seton Hall (Nov. 26). No. 12 Iowa (4-0) officially returned to practice with a full roster Tuesday and resumes action Thursday at Duke (6-0) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Despite college athletics being well into a second year of handling COVID-19 and all its concerns, Bluder's Hawkeyes hadn't yet dealt with the virus this up-close. Iowa had two postponements and one cancellation last year as a result of opponents' COVID-19 issues, but the Hawkeyes survived their entire slate without any extended pause. That made this last stretch all the more difficult to navigate.
"The hardest part was watching all the other games because there were so many good games," guard Caitlin Clark said. "A lot of top-10 matchups and knowing we were supposed to have some good games with some Power Five teams, it was definitely hard watching. But there's nothing you can really do about it.
"Glad it happened now, rather than in March or another time where we'd have to cancel games in the Big Ten season. We're happy to be back."
Bluder didn't reveal how many positive tests there were or what percentage of her team is vaccinated, only saying there were "a lot of staff and a lot of players who were affected." As a small consolation prize for the axed Cancun trip, the Hawkeyes got three days off for Thanksgiving before regrouping for the week ahead. Those affected stayed in contact through Zoom meetings. Everyone else tried to stay sharp as best as possible.
The energy and excitement were full throttle once the full team reunited Tuesday.
"It was so much fun," center Monika Czinano said. "I felt like I hadn't seen people in so long. It also felt really nice to have all our pieces back and everything flowing. You try to make it work (practicing) with a limited number — and it does — but you could just tell it's not what it needs to be. It was just great to have everything moving and flowing again like we know it will."
Iowa will need its strongest immediately. Despite the disruption, there's no easing back into things amid a tough December slate.
Beginning with Thursday's trip to historic Cameron Indoor Stadium, Iowa will face three Power Five foes in less than a week. Sunday's Big Ten opener against Michigan State (6-2) and next Wednesday's trip to No. 13 Iowa State (7-0) round out a daunting stretch that could carry weight all the way into March.
Even for a team high on experience and cohesion, going more than two weeks without a game could generate some issues that didn't previously exist. The Hawkeyes are more than happy, though, to have the chance to work anything out.
"We're all fresh and ready to go," Czinano said. "And I just think we're all really excited to get back to the flow of things."
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.