I stepped onto campus in the fall of 2010 and by the first Wednesday I had already joined the pep band. During high school, I had played for the marching band and this seemed to me to be the logical extension. The semester started slow and the band had practice and played for a few events but I wasn’t fully hooked until Mason Madness. We set up to play and the crowds started flowing in and this may be the rose colored glasses of nostalgia but I remember the stands being full to bursting. When the team finally came out of the tunnel, the crowds erupted. After the scrimmage and the dunk contest the atmosphere was electric. I was hooked. That year I didn’t miss a game. I would get to the game an hour early to help the band set up and right before we began to play, I would run into the bathroom to paint my face green and gold. The band took me to the pregame tournament that year in Charleston and the CAA tournament in Richmond. I didn’t get selected to go to the NCAA tournament that year but I watch breathlessly as we beat Villanova before losing to Ohio State in the second round.
The next year wasn’t the same though. I still went to the preseason tournament and later the CAA but the team just wasn’t the same. We were all upset because Larranaga had left and he seemed to take a little bit of the spark of greatness with him. The team missed out on the NCAA but I knew that it was a lot to ask to have my team make it every year. 2012-13 was the year that the cracks began to be clear in the team and my attendance at the games began to fade. I was busy with my fraternity and club sports and class but what was really keeping me away was the fact that the electricity that I felt my freshman year was gone. By 2014, any remnants of hope I had in the team were snuffed out. I started coming home from games frustrated and the crowds were all but gone. My heart and my voice couldn’t take it anymore so I gave up.
My point in relaying the sad story of the past few years of Mason’s basketball history is to show that I have some baggage. I was upset with the coaching and upset with the players. So, when I watched Coach Paulsen take the reins last year, I was pessimistic to say the least. The season went about as poorly as the season before so I was not expecting much from the team this year. Then, we started winning. I was shocked and excited to see us turn it around, despite some of the weird loses we have suffered. So when I got the opportunity to be a side-line coach, I jumped at it.
I began working full-time at Mason in the fall and my boss told me a few weeks after starting that she had won the opportunity to sit on the bench as a sideline coach. Although exciting for her, I forgot about it and dove into work. Unfortunately, a few weeks before the game she was going to coach in, she broke her foot. Her doctor’s told her she needed surgery, so during our weekly one-on-one, she offered to see if I could take her place on the bench. After a few emails back and forth, I got an itinerary for the experience from Ted Rawlings, the Director of Basketball Operations. Not only was I able to go the game but I could sit in on the practice the day before. I was ecstatic. I began eagerly counting down the days until I could slip out of work and run over to Eagle Bank.
The day finally came and I raced over. I spent a little more time than I would like admit trying to find the right entrance into the arena but after a while, one of the team’s staff members took pity on me and showed me the way. I got the court about halfway through practice and sat down behind the media table. The first thing that caught my attention was that the chairs on the court are every bit as comfy as they appear from the plastic hell that count as the normal seats at the games. The second thing I noticed was how hard the team was working. They were playing a full speed scrimmage. The starters were playing against the bench, who were doing their best impression of University of Richmond. Coach Paulsen would talk to the team during the time in between baskets to reposition a player on defense or explain a tendency of one of the Richmond players. His comments were always positive and he never got upset. When he had something negative to say, he didn’t beat around the bush. He was honest but never mean and always pushed for the team to play with more energy. In a conversation with Ted, he told me that he liked working with the team so much because the coaches were a good group of guys and were low maintenance. From my limited experience, it seem as though he hit the nail on the head.
We went in to watch video from games Richmond had played and I was a little surprised at how thoroughly each player on the opposing team was broken down. I didn’t really know what to expect, this being my first time in a video session, but I was amazed by the thoughtfulness of the assistant coach in talking about each of the tendencies of the opponents and what we could do to stop them. When a clip from the previous Mason/Richmond game came on, Coach Paulsen, as in the previous setting, would give honest feedback the players and, using his laser pointer, would even tell guys exactly where their foot should be placed to be best on defense. As soon as it started though, the session was over and the team was off to their classes and I drove home.
The next day I got to work and I was anxious. I was excited about the game but worried because I knew how strong Richmond was. If we were able to win this game, there was a chance we could get a double bye in the conference tournament. The team was just doing shoot arounds when I arrived at Eagle Bank around six. With every miss during the shoot around, my heart sank a little. I thought to myself that I might be in for a long night. Now, I know that even the best players will miss one out of four shots but after enduring so many seasons of terrible Mason basketball, I thought it was either perfection or a complete failure. We went back off the court, then back on, then back off again. I didn’t really understand why the team did this when I was in the band and I still have no idea.
We were finally in the locker room right before the game and I tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I was afraid that anything I did may throw one of the players off and then I would be to blame for their bad night. Coach Paulson got up to speak and one part of his pregame speech stuck in my mind. He said that on offense we should have “no emotional baggage” but just like in the video session, it seemed like it had just begun when the team was running out of the locker room to queue up at the tunnel. The team was loose and joking around right before the fire horn started going and then they were all business.
Jogging through the weird Patriot-head-thing and onto the court, I was a little underwhelmed. The crowd was tiny and there was a random flap of cloth hanging down in the tunnel that hit me on the face when I ran out. Not a great start to the game. I won’t describe what happened during the gameplay, go read the excellent post by my friend Tyler Byrum, but there were a few major points to note. The first was that Coach Paulsen’s style did not change through the entire game. Always positive and purposeful. The only time I saw a flash of passion was when the spiders has clawed their way back to a two point deficit and he told them team play with more energy before returning to a more measured tone. The second was that the bench was in the game just as much as the guys on the court. They would cheer, stand up (maybe a little too long for the referees), and slide out onto the court when Mason had the ball and was making it up the court. I was worried that I would yell too loud, it is really hard to get a technical in the pep band for yelling at the refs, but the bench was so loud with supportive talk that my voice was drowned out. The final point was that the team was just fun. Whether it was after a three-pointer which provoked dancing and yelling or at the end of the game when Jalen was mobbed for reaching 1,000 points, it was obvious that the players like each other and that win or lose these next few games, this season had been positive for everyone involved.
After the game, I was walking to the car beaming from ear to ear and I was trying to think about why I was so happy. It is always good to win but it was more than that. When Abram slammed the ball down on the fast break at the end of the game, I knew that the spark was back. It was then that I remembered what Coach Paulsen said in the pregame “no emotional baggage”. So moving forward, I am going to take this sentiment with me. Win or lose this is my team, this is my school, no more emotional baggage.