Defining ‘family’: Women’s basketball travels to players’ hometowns
Head coach aims to help team connect through trips
In her nearly four years at AU, women’s basketball senior guard Emily Kinneston has only had one Thanksgiving dinner at home. It included industrial-size serving trays, dozens of folding chairs and enough mashed potatoes to feed an entire Division I basketball team, coaching staff, medical personnel, sports information directors and bus driver.
She brought her team home for Thanksgiving.
Amy Kinneston, Emily’s mother, knew a month in advance that she would have 43 mouths to feed on Thanksgiving day in her home in Shelburne, Vermont.
“Well, 44 including the bus driver,” Amy Kinneston said. “He also came to the game with us. I think he’s now a fan of American University women’s basketball.”
Head coach Megan Gebbia makes it a point to schedule an away game in each of her player’s hometowns during their time as college athletes. She hopes that this will help her players connect to their teammates on a deeper level.
It’s worked. As the team wrapped up its record breaking season, capped by a Patriot League championship and trip to the NCAA tournament, eight athletes on the team used the same word to describe their teammates: family.
“My philosophy always with Thanksgiving is that whoever you’re with on that day is your family, and we figured that these girls are now Emily’s family, so by extension, they’re our family too,” Amy Kinneston said.
AU is a member of the Patriot League, which includes Army, Navy, Lehigh, Loyola Maryland, Lafayette, Boston University, Colgate, Bucknell and Holy Cross. This mainly mid-Atlantic geographic region requires some air travel for games. However, trips typically consist of semi-long bus rides and crossing one or two state lines. Because of Gebbia’s goal to visit her players’ hometowns, AU women’s basketball has the opportunity to travel beyond Patriot League’s bounds.
Junior forward Cecily Carl said that the Patriot League can feel geographically restrictive, so women’s basketball players graduate knowing that they played additional teams around the country.
Some AU athletes, however, live near Patriot League schools, so the non-conference games are close to home anyway. Carl, who is from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, spent time with teammates in her childhood bedroom when the team traveled to Bucknell at the end of December.
“It’s so nice to have their own fans in the stands,” Gebbia said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Beside the fact that she got to eat turkey and stuffing at her own dining room table, Emily Kinneston’s homecoming story was made all the more special when she hit the game-winning shot against University of Vermont, where her mom said she developed her love of basketball as a child. Emily Kinneston’s family, childhood friends and girls she coached in basketball summer camp filled her hometown bleachers for the game.
“It was just like a Disney movie, Mrs. Kinneston!” Amy Kinneston remembers senior guard Kate Bond telling her after the game.
Tom, a close family friend and next-door neighbor to the Kinnestons, passed away from kidney cancer last spring. He was “like a second dad” to Emily Kinneston, her mom said. His wife and four children were in the stands to watch her play and score the game-winning basket. While he was in the hospital, he watched the team play online.
“I don’t know if it was luck or fate,” Amy Kinneston said. “Tom’s wife, Barb, said to me afterward, ‘I can’t help but think that Tom had something to do with that.’”
Most hometown games don’t end as explosively as Emily’s 64-62 win over UVA.
Women’s basketball opened up its season on the road at the University of Tulsa – and won 72-67 – in early November. The team slept over at Kate Bond’s estate in Oklahoma, where they ate breakfast with Bond’s family in the morning, played childhood games (like kickball and tug-of-war) on their property and attended a University of Oklahoma football game. Bond was most excited about teaching her teammates OU’s “Boomer Sooner” cheers, hoping they would embrace the spirit of Oklahoma.
“That was the most unique trip we’ve ever taken,” Gebbia said. “Kate’s family was so kind, and we went the OU football game with one of the largest crowds ever.”
Last December, the team traveled to senior guard Maria Liddane’s house in Grosse Pointe, Michigan to play the University of Michigan. AU lost 82-33.
“To be honest, it was not a good game at all,” Liddane said, laughing. “But the trip wasn’t about the game’s loss, it was about the fact that we were leading up to the holiday and the team got to be with my own family and friends.”
When the Kinnestons hosted the team for Thanksgiving, Amy Kinneston moved furniture, rented tables and reached out to a friend in the restaurant industry to snag some commercial food warmers and serving trays.
She wanted to soak in the fact that her daughter was spending the holiday with her for the first time in four years, but she realized too that her teammates were going another Thanksgiving without their own siblings and family traditions. She tried to make the girls as comfortable as possible, playing football on the TV and cooking traditional favorites, like stuffing and sweet potato casserole. Amy Kinneston even sent senior forward Michael Harris, one of Emily’s roommates, home with a Vermont maple oatmeal pie.
“I don’t know if I thanked them all enough,” Amy said. “It’s cool when this big bus parks in front of the house and tall girls are filling up every corner of where you live. It was our pleasure more than any burden, and it was all so much fun.”
This story was originally published in the April print edition of The Eagle.