Winter Break: A couple of weeks when most college students get the opportunity to go home, relax, and spend some time with their family and friends without the stress of unending schoolwork looming over their heads.
For college basketball student-athletes, though, winter break means something entirely different. While school may stop temporarily, basketball does not and, for them, practices and games go on.
Without classes and schoolwork, there can be some extra down time. For the Notre Dame women's basketball team, this down time is an opportunity to give back to the community that limes-out Purcell Pavilion loud and proud for every home game.
After finishing their finals week responsibilities, members of the team spent time outside of Meijer volunteering as bell ringers for the Salvation Army
Director of Women's Basketball Operations Katie Capps is new to the position at Notre Dame this year but, she understands the importance of involving student-athletes with the outside community. In fact, she did exactly that during her 11 seasons on the women's basketball staff at the University of Kansas. One of their most successful events was a clinic they held every year for local Special Olympics athletes. Knowing that it was always a hit with the women's team at KU, Capps decided to give it a shot at Notre Dame, and winter break was the perfect opportunity.
The Notre Dame team invited members of the St. Joseph County Special Olympics to showcase their skills and learn even more from the number three team in the country. Just over 50 athletes of all ages showed up, a turnout that was larger than expected for Capps and the team.
"[I was] very pleased," said Capps. "With it being the first time we have done a clinic of this type, we weren't sure what to expect. [The Special Olympics] director mentioned that he was shocked at how many came out as well, with it being a first time event."
At the beginning of the clinic, the entire Notre Dame team went through introductions. As each player said their name, they received a respectable "two claps" in unison from the Special Olympics athletes. However, the last person to introduce themselves got a roaring round of applause. That person was Hall of Fame Coach Muffet McGraw. Clearly, the Special Olympics athletes know a great coach when they see one.
Next, the participants broke up into groups and rotated between four stations, each led by different members of the Notre Dame team.
"It was a nice change of pace to be able to coach them and teach them different skills like shooting, dribbling and passing," said senior guard Michaela Mabrey. "Watching them have the biggest smiles on their faces while doing it was an amazing feeling."
Junior Forward Kristina Nelson
Senior Guard Hannah Huffman
Sophomore Forward Kathryn Westbeld
Fifth-Year Guard Maddie Cable
After the drill work came the real competition.
Of course, the main event took place on the main floor - Purcell Pavilion. The Special Olympics athletes played against one another in an intense game of 5-on-5, coached by the Notre Dame players and reffed by none other than Muffet McGraw.
While the only fans in the stands were family and friends of the Special Olympics athletes, Purcell Pavilion was by no means quiet. From yelling words of encouragement at their players to yelling, even louder, complaints at the "inexperienced" ref, the Notre Dame players fully embraced their coaching roles.
At one point, Maddie Cable did her best Muffet McGraw impersonation; the thinking-woman squat, a position that's insanely impressive given that McGraw usually does it in heels and a skirt.
Overall, the event was a success for the participants, who got the chance to have some fun and meet their local idols, and the Notre Dame team, who relished the opportunity to step away from the intensity of practice and games and have some fun with other people who also enjoy the sport.
"I absolutely loved our first annual Special Olympics clinic," said Mabrey. "I really hope that it continues in the future because it was extremely special watching both kids and adults enjoy the game of basketball the way that our team does every day."
Senior Michaela Mabrey with her new friend, Tommy
Freshman Arike Ogunbowale gives a high-five to one of her Special Olympics players at the end of the game
Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new tradition in the program that will continue for years to come.
The Notre Dame legend, former WNBA player, and Olympic gold medalist testified before Congress on Tuesday morning to advocate against cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In her testimony, Riley recounts her family's hardships during her childhood and how they often relied on food stamps.
For the women's basketball team, the core of this preseason storyline is the same as always: a national championship is the ultimate goal.
Two veteran players leading the way towards that goal this season are Madison Cable, a graduate student, and Hannah Huffman, a senior finance major.
Cable and Huffman are not only two of the more experienced players on this basketball team but also two of the more interesting personalities as well (just check out this picture of the two wearing t-shirts with pictures of their pets on them.)
The two leaders are also no stranger to the preparation and hard work it takes to make it to a national championship, playing in the title game each of the past two years. In their time at Notre Dame, that preparation has always included summer school to help stay on track with classes during the season and be able to train and workout alongside their teammates.
This summer, however, was different for Cable and Huffman as they chose not to attend summer school but to return to their home states for a summer internship. While the internship experience is pretty standard for Notre Dame students, it is not as common for those on the basketball team.
Maddie Cable, a Pennsylvania native, took advantage of the opportunity to return home and work in the Pittsburgh Penguins front office. "It was a cool time to be there because the team was for sale this summer," said Cable. "I saw the logistics of what went into that and the preparation it takes for somebody to buy a team."
Also, being there in the summer meant Cable was able to experience the heart of the free agency period. "I was there on a big day when we got one of the best guys on the team, Phil Kessel," said Cable. "So, everyone was really excited that day."
For Cable, someone who has been an athlete for the majority of her life, getting a glimpse of the alternate, business side of a sports team was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. "It was just cool to be around and to see the logistics of a sports organization on the other side of not being a player," said Cable.
Leaving the world of sports, Hannah Huffman put her business major to work while employed within technology consulting at Deloitte back home in her native San Francisco. "I was put on the Hewlett-Packard project over the summer," said Huffman. "[HP] is currently splitting into two Fortune 500 companies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP Inc. So, deloitte was asked to go to HP and help separate the two companies and set up their IT infrastructure. The HP project was Deloitte's biggest project so I was actually really fortunate as an intern to be assigned to that project."
While at Deloitte, Hannah was also really fortunate to be able to meet the organization's CEO Cathy Engelbert, the first U.S. female CEO of a Big Four firm and a graduate of Lehigh University. Another cool fact? Engelbert played basketball under Coach McGraw while she was at Lehigh.
"We had a great conversation about Coach McGraw and her time at Lehigh and her love for sports - she's an absolute huge basketball fanatic," said Huffman. "As an intern, to be able to say I had a conversation with a CEO of the whole organization was just a huge highlight of the summer."
In addition to meeting the CEO, Huffman was also offered to return to the organization full-time once she graduates this coming May.
While going away for the summer is something that is not necessarily the norm for basketball players, that doesn't mean it's frowned upon, especially not for older players who have become accustomed to the routine of the program.
In fact, getting Coach McGraw's 'OK' to leave for the summer was not too challenging of a task.
"I think she definitely supports us in internships and she wants us to go out and get experience and make networks and connections," said Cable.
And for Huffman specifically, the opportunity to leave for an internship during the summer before her senior year was a large part of her decision to play at Notre Dame.
"When I was being recruited here that was one of the first questions I asked," said Huffman. "Especially in the business world, it's really crucial to have that work experience. [Coach McGraw] really wants us to not only be great basketball players but have a great professional life. Going away from the team for 3 months made it easier with her support behind us."
The transition back so far this fall has been, as you might expect, fairly easy for these veteran players who have been here before.
"We have such an intense schedule when we're here, which is good because it keeps us focused and everything," said Cable. "When we go home, we're on our own time. But, once we get here, it's not that hard. You just jump right back into it and it's nice to be around our teammates again."
For Huffman, a new experience in the workforce, a job offer, and a stronger appreciation for Notre Dame were all gained when she decided to step away from campus for the summer.
"[It was] the longest I've been away from Notre Dame and it kind of gave me a chance to really appreciate how much I love going here," said Huffman. "When you go and do things for the last time you appreciate them in a whole different light."
For now, it's back to the grind of balancing schoolwork and basketball and, as always, focusing on winning a national championship.
While our student-athletes have been working hard in preparation for the start of the fall season, we've also made a few improvements in anticipation of the new school year.
From this point forward, Irish UNDerground will be utilizing the Wordpress platform powered by NBC Sports.
Here's a look at our three new blog websites:
UNDerground: Notre Dame Athletics
Strong and True: Notre Dame Football
Irish United: Notre Dame Men's and Women's Soccer
Go ahead and bookmark these now. With features, videos, photos, commentaries and news from inside the athletic department, we are committed to bringing you coverage of Notre Dame athletics unlike any you can find elsewhere.
Get ready. 2012-13 is going to be an exciting year to be Irish.
Though it should probably come as no surprise, Irish women's hoops great Ruth Riley ('01) received another nice honor this week. The WNBA recognized the Chicago Sky center's commitment to the community with its WNBA Cares Community Assist Award for June.
Here's more from the press release on the WNBA website:
Since joining the Chicago Sky, Riley has assumed a leadership role off the court in the team's community outreach programs, while continuing to support health-related issues globally through her work with Nothing But Nets and Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. This marks Riley's third Community Assist Award, having previously been honored in 2006 and 2008.
Understanding the importance of being a positive role model for young girls, Riley visited two Chicago area high schools where she spent one-on-one time with students. During her visit with 9th through 11th grade girls at Chicago North High School, Riley shared personal life lessons with the group and emphasized the importance of setting goals and making positive choices. She also spoke with females students at Rowe-Clark High School and hosted a special clinic for the school's girls' basketball team.
Last month, Riley was inducted into the Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame. Fighting Irish Digital Media captured the moment, and you can watch more from that induction ceremony in the video below:
Check out this great feature on graduate student and two-sport star Brittany Mallory, courtesy of the Fighting Irish Digital Media student crew. Better known for her time on the basketball court, Mallory is also making a big impact on the field for the 13-4 Notre Dame women's lacrosse team.
After you watch the video, there's also a nice article from Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune as Mallory and her lacrosse teammates prepare to take on defending champion Northwestern in a first round NCAA matchup on Saturday at 4 pm ET.
Here's an excerpt from the story. Hersh writes,
The idea of trying lacrosse again developed out of a lighthearted exchange in August between Mallory and first-year Irish lacrosse coach Christine Halfpenny.
"She was joking around, saying when you get finished with basketball, come pick up a stick," Mallory said. "Then it happened, and it's pretty shocking."
Halfpenny asked her players to sign off on asking Mallory to join the team before the two met five days after the basketball title game. Six days later, Mallory made her first of five appearances in the team's last six games.