First, there’s the physical toll. Latrell Wrightsell chronicles the effects of that on the bodies of his Cal State Fullerton basketball teammates and him:
“Battling through the shutdowns while we’re in season and fighting for seeding in conference is pretty draining as well,” Wrightsell said. “We’d be so excited for a game and the coaches would walk in and tell everyone to stay six feet apart and go back to our rooms. We’d talk about it later.
“We’d go on a two-week quarantine that affected all the players. Three of our players were out for the season with injuries because they didn’t have time to prep for the season. There wasn’t enough stretching or weight-room time to prepare our bodies for a long season like this … There were some times we’d get out of quarantine, practice one time, then play back-to-back games. That was pretty challenging.”
Then, there’s the psychological toll. For that, we go to Wrightsell’s fellow freshman, Dante Maddox Jr.
“We prepare, prepare, prepare for every opponent. You put in all this work to play one team,” he said. “You go home, watch film, you go to the gym, then you go home and watch more film. Then, you find out your game is canceled. It hurts. It hurts real bad. It makes you feel like you’re going through all this hard labor for no reward.
“Psychologically, the first three times (games were canceled) was hard. Each time was harder and harder and harder to deal with. But our coaches were extremely motivating through this. Coach Taylor told us to ‘embrace the suck.’ This situation sucks. Unfortunately, there’s no other way to put it. Each day, we embrace it and take the challenge head-on. We’ve kind of embraced it.”
What Maddox and Wrightsell have embraced — albeit in fits and starts — is life as a college student-athlete in the age of COVID-19. What makes their situation unique for their sport is the fact both are first-year freshmen. So, to the challenges of acclimating to college life, college academics and college athletics, you can add the challenges to dealing with all of the above — with a pandemic chaser.
Through those fits and starts, both Maddox and Wrightsell managed to not only keep their heads above water, but they’ve made some waves along the way. Maddox, a 6-2 guard from Chicago, averages 11.3 points a game — third on the team. He’s averaging nearly 24 minutes a game, making the most of them by shooting 40.8% from beyond the 3-point arc and hitting nearly 91% of his free throws.
Wrightsell, a 6-3 forward from Omaha, Neb., averages 24.6 minutes a game. He’s started nine of his 11 games, averaging nine points, two assists and a team-high 1.4 steals a game. Along with that, Wrightsell hits 94.6% of his free throws.
“Their play spoke for itself. I didn’t have a conversation with them, but our staff has done an unbelievable job having conversations with them and showing them what they can do,” Cal State Fullerton head basketball coach Dedrique Taylor said. “At the end of it, when you look at it, their talent is hard to deny. They weren’t expected to come in here and start or be major contributors. We like to bring them along slowly and let them get their feet wet. But they charged through like gangbusters.
“Both are very skilled and they are two guys who are starting to understand and grow. I heard one of our veteran players say the other day they’re no longer freshmen. They’re guys who can contribute and help get us where we’re trying to go.”
Taylor said Maddox’s and Wrightsell’s biggest obstacle was one similar to many freshmen basketball players: the realization that you’re on the floor every night with players as talented and skilled as you are. And players a lot more physical.
But the obstacles go further. A self-described gym rat, Maddox found out early because of COVID-19 protocols, he couldn’t just walk into the gym at any hour and shoot. Of course, he and Wrightsell didn’t see their locker room until October.
Normally, players see a locker room on their recruiting visits. Neither Maddox, nor Wrightsell, had one of those. They were recruited remotely. Maddox committed in the fall of 2019, before the world shut down last March. Wrightsell committed via Zoom, after he did three Zoom calls and a virtual Zoom “visit.”
Once they got to Fullerton, the academic demands kicked in and replaced the physical work they couldn’t fully put in. They couldn’t visit their locker room, the gym was largely off-limits and whatever physical work they needed was on them.
But the academic demands kicked in from the beginning. And they kicked in virtually, not an ideal situation for college freshmen. Maddox described how you can’t easily call on your classmates to help you with a class. Because you don’t know your classmates. You haven’t met them outside of a computer screen.
“It’s unconventional, to say the least,” Maddox said. “Due to COVID-19, scheduling is not the same. It’s an adjustment that is still hard to deal with … It’s just really different and really more difficult. If you need tutoring from a class, you can’t get that easily. You don’t know the people who are around you. For me, it was a personal adjustment. It took me a good month to get settled in, both on the court and off the court.
“You can get a tutor, but a lot of times, students would have their actual classmates help. It’s a lot easier to go to someone you know, friends you met in class. That’s a resource you don’t have. Any type of interaction is hard because we don’t live on campus. We live in a different place. It’s an adjustment.”
Wrightsell endured this, along with physical issues. He suffers from migraines, which knocked him out for a week. Along with that, he lived with two teammates who tested positive for COVID-19. Wrightsell tested negative, but had all the symptoms. After six weeks of quarantines, Wrightsell’s body wasn’t ready for the physical demands.
“We got on the court and it was so tiring. We did a whole bunch of running and it felt so different. My legs were so sore afterward and it didn’t feel like the same,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I was in the basketball mode. It took an effect on me both physically and mentally. It was draining.
“Since I didn’t play in a month and a half and we had to quarantine without working out and getting into the gym, it was hard on my body and I got injured. Not playing that long took me out physically. Mentally, it was so draining because I was tired all the time and was trying to fight through sickness. I didn’t go to class for a week. I couldn’t focus or look at light.”
It’s a testament to both Maddox’s and Wrightsell’s ability and focus that they see the light through all this. Their commitment to the game has been an island of constant in a sea of inconsistency. Those moments on the court with their teammates provide the light necessary to get through the darkness.
“Thankfulness. That’s the only word I can use,” Maddox said. “When I think of this game of basketball, it brought me a long way. It gave me a free education. Then, to see some crazy pandemic come along and a crazy situation in life can prohibit that or slow that down, it makes me more appreciate the game.”
“I’m not going to lie. It’s pretty hard,” Wrightsell said. “Having to be online and prepare myself as a college student, learning online is hard to adapt to. Then, balancing basketball with classes and being healthy was pretty hard. But (assistant coach Brandon) Dunston, who recruited me, helped me out. He tells me what classes I have and he gave me a speech when I came here to be prepared. Be prepared was the biggest motto he had for me. I took that and made sure I was prepared for everything.”
Did you know…? Latrell Wrightsell Jr. and Dante Maddox Jr. give the Titans two of the nation’s top 10 free throw shooters? Wrightsell has missed only two free throws all season. He’s 35-for-37 overall and his 94.6% accuracy puts him third in the nation. Maddox (49-for-54/90.74%) is tied for 10th nationally.
He said it: Dante Maddox Jr. on using COVID-19 for perspective: “This year has given me a fresh, rejuvenating feeling of playing the game of basketball. You can’t say you didn’t take the game for granted now. In high school, I played every game that was on the schedule. Now, it’s just like an emotional roller coaster. You just don’t know. Tomorrow, something could happen and it may cause us not to be able to play. Just the thought we are going to have the game and that we’re going to be able to be on the court and play, it’s a beautiful thing. It puts me at peace.”
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