Lancers pushed to the limit

Published 6:00 am Friday, October 9, 2020

By Sam Hovan

Exhausting. Draining. Demanding. That’s the type of workout the Longwood University women’s basketball team faced together every Friday morning at 6 a.m. through the month of September for the past three years.

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In those pre-dawn hours, the team got broken down and built up again thanks to a combination of pushups, situps, leg lifts, planks, high knees, runs and more under the watchful eye of U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Jose Gallardo.

“It shows us how far we can push ourselves,” junior forward Akila Smith, a three-year veteran of the early morning workouts, said. “Even when things get hard, everybody finishes the course out. From a team standpoint, it shows us that we can do more than we think we can.”

“The workouts show me I have more left in the tank,” redshirt freshman guard Adriana Shipp said. “Like stuff that would normally exhaust me, knowing that I have to finish it so that we can win, that takes me to another level.”

These grueling workouts provided a perfect cap for a summer that the team spent building together as a family as they were all stretched to their limits, and beyond, together.

“We always do more than we think our bodies can do, and it pushes us outside of our comfort zones,” sophomore guard Anne-Hamilton LeRoy said. “We elevate our program with each other through that.”

“I think we’ve had opportunities where you see a woman is struggling, and another woman takes those reps,” Rebecca Tillett, entering into her third season as the head coach at Longwood, said. “That’s something that might happen in a basketball environment, and both women need to be good with that. They need to see the value of leaning on one another.”

Tillett brought the idea for these workouts with her from her experience as an assistant coach at the United States Naval Academy. She remembers seeing the impact that the intense training regimen had on those teams, and she wanted it to have the same effect on her Lancer squads.

“We did a little research right when we got here, and Sgt. Gallardo has an office in town,” Tillett said. “He’s here on a time schedule, so this is our last fall with him. It’s great to see the evolution of the program under his leadership. We’re really going to miss him when he moves on. He shares with us that this is something that is a passion for him. Also, the Marine Corps serves local communities. Marines are passionate about leadership, development and serving.”

For Tillett, the workouts also provide an opportunity for her women to learn about leadership and practice it, as many of the drills are designed to have multiple team members step up throughout the morning. Often those drills include challenges outside of the basketball skill sets they have honed, which forces the players to adapt and can push different teammates into leadership roles.

“My favorite part is the unexpected results,” Tillett said, “whether that’s a woman that shows a leadership potential that maybe she doesn’t even know she has yet, but it becomes so visible and apparent to everybody because of the rigor of these exercises. It also shows some things that are absolutely critical to success on teams.

“There’s an example this year where there’s one woman who kept resetting the part of the course that had to be set up in order for us to do the next thing. Nobody asked her to do it. She just did it. Because that’s what has to be done on teams to be successful. Sometimes you just have to do what needs to be done without anyone telling you to do it or getting any credit for it.”

That trait was present throughout the 2019-20 season, which saw the Lancers enjoy a breakthrough in Tillett’s second year that included eight Big South Conference wins and a nine-win overall improvement that was the 12th-best turnaround in the nation. Now the goal is to build on that success by raising the bar even higher.

“We’ve had times where they have to push past a perceived limit,” Tillett said. “One of our favorite workouts is you do this intense exercise, and you tell them that they’re doing it again. And we always, as a staff, watch their reactions, because you think you’ve hit a limit that you actually haven’t. Your body and your mind can do more.”

Tillett says the result of finding and pushing beyond those limits is about more than the physical benefits. The goal is to remain focused mentally, whether that’s in the fourth quarter of a tight, rough-and-tumble Big South basketball game or while reciting the team’s defensive principles in the middle of a plank at the end of an exhausting, hour-long workout. The team has to stand together in both situations.

“I would say the workouts are mentally tough, but also, with your teammates on your side, it makes it easier to get through it,” Smith said, who last year set the school’s single-season record and ranked 22nd in the NCAA in blocks.

“I like how difficult it is, how challenging it is,” LeRoy said. “And it’s not like you’re in there alone. So I like the challenging aspect of it, but I also love that I can hear the woman next to me, in front of me and behind me cheering me on throughout the entire thing.”

Creating that culture of support and growth to elevate a program is all part of the plan that Tillett has continually worked to build in her time at Longwood.

“Every team that you’re doing this with, you’re creating connections,” she said. “You’re creating leadership opportunities, toughness and both mental and physical challenges that they have to overcome together.”