March 26, 2015
Brianna Turner unfolded her 6-foot-3 frame from her seat shortly after the University of Notre Dame women's basketball charter jet landed in Lawton, Oklahoma, on Wednesday, diverted from its destination of Oklahoma City by the severe weather.
Turner had just started to stretch out in the aisle, when Fighting Irish women's basketball director of operations Natalie Achonwa got on the microphone.
"Everybody needs to get off the plane," Achonwa announced. "They've spotted rotation nearby, and we need to get into the terminal as quickly as we can."
With the threat of a tornado looming, the Fighting Irish women's basketball party calmly departed the plane and walked across the tarmac as fierce 50 mile-an-hour winds bullied the coaches, athletes, support staff, cheerleaders and band members until they reached the terminal.
Once inside the terminal, Notre Dame police captain George Heeter updated the Fighting Irish group on the weather situation and told everyone where the airport storm shelter was located if it was necessary to go there.
Unfazed by the turbulence of the flight, the possibility of severe weather on the ground and what was turning into a lengthy detour on the Irish trip to their Sweet 16 match Friday against Stanford, the Irish settled in for a nearly three-hour delay.
Irish star Jewell Loyd broke out the cards for a round of spades with teammate Whitney Holloway, trainer Anne Marquez and assistant coach Carol Owens.
Irish freshman Kathryn Westbeld hooked up her laptop to catch up on the latest episode of Scandal.
Jaden Ivey, the son of assistant coach Niele Ivey, taught the Fighting Irish leprechaun some dance moves in the airport concourse.
"The players are unfazed by it all," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "They're used to it. They really travel well. We've had a couple of really bad trips this year. The staff really rises to the occasion. They're on top of everything. Everybody has a job, and they're always ready for it.
"We expect the unexpected, and however we take it that's how the girls are going to take it. They are actually much better travelers than I am. I get cranky a lot faster than they do."
When sudden change hits the Irish travel party, the Irish already have a plan in place.
"It helps that this isn't the middle of the night," said Notre Dame senior associate athletics director Jill Bodensteiner. "We got diverted to Indianapolis last year at 3 a.m. I would say spirits were a little lower while we waited three hours for buses and everything was closed.
"The key is the student-athletes take their cues from us and if we act panicked, whether it's turbulence or the plane being diverted, they're going to think something is up. We just stay calm and try to make it as much fun as possible."
Irish director of sports nutrition Kayla Matrunick knew the Irish game plan could be in for some rocky moments Wednesday when she touched base with the catering manager at Kevin Durant's Southern Cuisine Restaurant before the flight left South Bend.
"The first text my catering manager from Kevin Durant's restaurant sent me was the radar map," Matrunick said. "Before we even took off she sent me a picture of the radar with a red spot right in the middle of Oklahoma City, so I knew we were going to be in for something."
Matrunick's day started at 5:30 a.m. with football practice. Sixteen hours later, she's trying to find a restaurant that would deliver during a severe thunderstorm since the planned visit to Kevin Durant's restaurant had to be scrapped.
"In terms of the NCAA tournament, one of the challenges is that you don't get the information until the day before you come," Matrunick said. "Every single meal at the hotel has to be orchestrated with their event manager and catering manager, along with deliveries to the arena, different practice times and different media times. You have to contact local vendors to see if they are able to deliver, if they can deliver for the party that you have.
"You're trying to find a place at the last minute to see if they can host 40 people to eat on less than 24 hours notice, with a menu that I approve and agree to and that would make the team happy and make it a fun experience. But, I do bring the Vitamix to make smoothies with, so there were probably eight boxes of nutrition supplies. We always make sure we're prepared for situations like this. We do have back-ups if needed."
Wednesday was a literally last minute, and the Irish were stuck at the airport until the buses from Oklahoma City--100 miles away--made their way to Lawton.
Matrunick made about 25 calls--from the plane and from the Lawton airport--trying to arrange for the Irish players and travel party to eat.
"At this point, we just need to find food for the athletes to make sure they are in a good spot with their nutrition for Thursday," Matrunick said. "I've called quite a few places, about six. I've been on hold for quite a while."
Matrunick finally had to set aside her "eat to win" principles. She ordered pizza.
"That's not my first move," Matrunick said. "They will be surprised when they see that. This will be the first time in five years that I've ordered pizzas for teams.
"The athletes are disappointed we didn't get to Kevin Durant's restaurant, so I'm hoping things go well for us Friday, and I'm sure they will, because I would love to have the opportunity to go there and treat the girls."
Achonwa faced a full-court press on the basketball court as a post for the Fighting Irish the past four years. She took over the director of operations job on an interim basis this fall, and on Wednesday she faced a different kind of intensity and showed command and control in getting the Irish to their hotel in Oklahoma City around midnight, nearly six hours later than planned.
Luckily, we have so many people who are ready to help," Achonwa said. "It's been a group effort, trying to figure out what's next, Plan A, Plan B, and sometimes, have a Plan C necessary when circumstances are out of your hands. Weather is certainly one of those. We're just going with the flow.
"I've been dealing with weather warnings and heads-ups, and we need to make decisions because we have to change things," Achonwa said. "You just have to go with the punches. You can't really predict or expect extremes like this to happen. You just have to deal with it."
Bodensteiner said planning for the NCAA Championship trip is a challenge in itself.
"It's like planning a wedding for 92 people in three days ... meals, local buses, charter manifests, everybody's height and weight, date of birth, every piece of equipment ... it all has to be spelled out and it all happens in a very compressed time frame," Bodensteiner said. "Luckily, this is my sixth year, so I think we have this down to a science.
"We have a fantastic group here. We have assignments for what to do regarding sudden change. Everybody has a role, and they do it incredibly well."
Heeter handled contacting local police authorities for updates. Marquez is in charge of constantly monitoring the weather. Matrunick handles changes regarding food, while Achonwa and Bodensteiner deal with changes to bus and hotel plans.
"You just have to plan ahead and make sure you have contingency plans," Bodensteiner said. "We knew weather issues were a possibility when we were still at Notre Dame.
"We were calling the charter company. That allows us to make some contingency plans. We were told we were going to Dallas. That was plan B. Then, it got switched to Lawton. So then you have to come up with plan C. You just have to think straight and never panic. It's been really interesting to watch Natalie Achonwa work behind the scene. Natalie has been fantastic, and we have fantastic student managers."
By the time the empty pizza boxes were stacked up and towering over the 5-foot-3 Holloway, the buses pulled up to the Lawton airport. About two hours later, the Irish were hauling their gear into the team hotel.
The Notre Dame women's basketball team would be getting in a full day of practice, preparation and study halls the day before their NCAA Championship game against Stanford Friday night, and that's thanks to a championship effort by an Irish support team.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent