The Belmont women’s basketball program is going to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons, but a trip to the Big Dance feels a little different this year.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Women’s NCAA Tournament is being held in a controlled environment in San Antonio, Texas. On Monday, the 12-seed Bruins will face the 5-seed Gonzaga in the first round.
Brentwood Academy alum Blair Schoenwald is no stranger to the postseason after her banner years with the Eagles. Now playing at the next level with the Bruins, she finds herself in a quite different playoff scenario.
“It's definitely been pretty weird,” Schoenwald, a freshman at Belmont, said about this year's NCAA tourney. “We will be heading to testing or walking to and from our rooms, and we'll see other teams. We haven't seen Gonzaga yet, but we've seen other teams, which is kind of crazy.
“We forget that there's a real city and a real world around us when we see people here in San Antonio living their lives when we're trying to stay secluded in this bubble for as long as we can.”
A bubble environment certainly adds a new wrinkle to March Madness for Belmont coach Bart Brooks. Even with several appearances under his belt, an NCAA Tournament is something he never takes for granted, especially when last season’s iteration was cancelled.
“Every year is really special, and you never take it for granted anytime you get to compete in the tournament, but with everything that's happened this whole season, I'd be lying if I said this didn't feel a little bit different and special,” Brooks said.
“For these these players to be able to experience this with all the sacrifices they've made throughout the year, the things that they didn't do or weren't able to do even right now. At normal tournaments we'd be enjoying time with our families. It would be a celebration for us. We're in lockdown, but we get to play still and we get to compete for a championship.”
Schoenwald is used to the big stage, after all. During her time at Brentwood Academy, the Eagles made four consecutive Division II-AA State Championship finals (2017-20), taking home the title in 2018. But the NCAA Tournament is another level.
“It prepared me in many ways and, obviously this is a little bit bigger stage than a state tournament, but relatively it's the same kind of adrenaline,” Schoenwald said. “I was very well-prepared at BA, and I'm super thankful for that because otherwise I would be a little more overwhelmed at this point if I hadn't had the opportunity to play for state championships every year.”
Two of Schoenwald’s teammates on those talented Eagles squads are also in the NCAA Tournament this season. Sydni Harvey plays for AAC champion South Florida, while Maggie Brown is in the field with Patriot winner Lehigh.
“It's just really exciting to be able to bring a piece of Brentwood to San Antonio for this tournament,” Schoenwald said. “It's a really cool experience, and I'm glad I could represent Brentwood and BA and everybody around there.”
Gonzaga will be a tough matchup for the Bruins, but a competitive non-conference schedule will have Belmont prepared. Despite the logistical hurdles COVID presented, they were still able to schedule three NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Marquette, Middle Tennessee) and an SEC squad (Auburn) in just five non-conference games.
“Anytime you get a chance to compete against the best players and programs in the country, we try to do that every year,” Brooks said. “I'm a firm believer in being fearless in scheduling teams that are going to prepare us for this time of year. There’s no doubt in my mind ever going into a season that we can compete with that level.
"But I think once our players get to play those games and get to be on the floor against that level of talent and size and that athleticism that they can start to understand, we can play at this level and we can compete.”
After a career that’s featured not one but two ACL injuries and a freshman season at Belmont full of unknowns beyond her control, the main thing Schoenwald has taken away from this season is not taking anything for granted. Like Brooks, she recognizes a special moment when she meets it.
“The ability to play and step on the floor and be around the great people that we have in our program is something that should never take for granted,” Schoenwald said. “And I think our coaches and players will never take those moments for granted because they're never guaranteed as we've figured out this year.”