Women’s basketball leans on trio of captains to develop team culture

Media Credit: Courtesy of the GW Athletic Department

This year, owing to the pandemic, all of the women's basketball team's players are living together, which makes it easier for team captains to check in on player well-being, head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said.

Women’s basketball will rely on newcomers and veterans to lead the team into the 2020-21 season.

Over the summer, the program voted sophomore forward Faith Blethen, redshirt junior forward Neila Luma and graduate student guard Jasmine Whitney as this year’s captains. Head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said she challenged the trio to strengthen the team’s culture and shoulder the responsibility of helping the squad navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve challenged Neila, Faith and Jasmine to be vocal, to celebrate, to lead, to give direction, to encourage, to make sure they’re noticing when somebody doesn’t seem OK both on and off the floor,” Rizzotti said. “And then make sure they have each other’s back when it comes to enforcing the behaviors that are important to our team.”

Rizzotti said the players live together this season because of the pandemic, making it easier for the captains to check in on the team’s mental and emotional well-being, whether it take the form of making food runs for the team or informally chatting with teammates.

She added that the three have emphasized leadership over the summer and are trying to foster a sense of unity to help push through the health crisis.

“We talked a lot this summer about leadership and team culture,” Rizzotti said. “We felt like that was the one thing that we could control over a time where we weren’t getting together physically.”

Luma is approaching her fourth year in the program and has spent the most time on the team under Rizzotti. She forged a key role on the court her freshman and sophomore seasons, but she succumbed to a knee injury last year that sidelined her for all but five games.

During her year on the sidelines, Luma took on a mentor role with Blethen, encouraging the then-freshman to use her voice and grow as a leader on the team. Blethen said she used the virtual meetings with the team over the summer as an opportunity to develop as a leader and think about the kind of culture she wanted to build with the help of Luma.

“Over the summer when we were leading different discussions on what we wanted our culture to look like, I got pushed to be in a lot of different speaking roles and organization roles,” Blethen said. “I guess I was able to, with that distance, kind of experiment a little bit with my voice.”

Because of her online leadership, Blethen said it felt “really natural” to hop back into a leadership role when the squad returned to Foggy Bottom.

Despite only having one year of collegiate basketball under her belt, the team believed Blethen was the right one for the job when they voted her captain, Rizzotti said. Blethen has no shortage of experience and was one of four Colonials to appear in all 30 games last year.

Blethen is the first sophomore to captain the squad in Rizzotti’s five seasons with the program. She said her youth and energy will help the team bounce back after last season’s end.

“Coach Rizzotti was very confident in me, which gave me a lot of confidence,” Blethen said. “I’m very bought in. I’m very unapologetic about how much I love this team and how much I love GW athletics. Coach Rizzotti was very supportive of my teammates’ decision to put me in this position.”

Though a veteran of the sport, Whitney is a relative newcomer to the team after transferring to GW in the latter half of last season. Prior to her time at GW, Whitney played for Pittsburgh. She led the Panthers in assists for three straight years and was the only active player in the Atlantic Coast Conference to record 100+ assists in three straight seasons.

She is no stranger to the leadership position and was named a captain during her sophomore year as a Panther. Rizzotti said Whitney worked hard to build relationships and trust with her teammates during the spring semester and summer months and has helped cultivate a positive outlook on the upcoming season.

Whitney said she was thankful she arrived when she did because it allowed her to get acclimated to the program before the pandemic struck.

“We’ve been working really hard off the court to build chemistry, so I just want to be able to bring and help people gain confidence and come and show up every day and be that consistent voice and energy giver to others,” Whitney said. “I think my experience, that consistent, calm factor and just giving everybody else confidence so everyone can shine.”

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