On a rain-soaked summer morning nearly 16 months ago, Shannon Sword awoke abruptly to the buzzing of her phone.
A barrage of texts arrived one after another, each warning the Ursuline College women's basketball coach that a powerful tornado had touched down on campus overnight. Most buildings at the Cleveland-area women's college emerged unscathed, but 110-mile-per-hour winds ripped the roof off the school's gymnasium, leveled parts of three of its walls and scattered debris for miles.
"Somebody sent me a picture of it, and I thought I was dreaming," Sword recalled. "I called a couple people back, got dressed and drove over. It was pretty unbelievable. It was one of those things you see on TV, but you don't ever see in person."
Damage from the tornado forced Ursuline officials to demolish what was left of the gym and begin construction on a new athletic complex, sending Sword scrambling to find temporary options for her program. College basketball's only homeless team has since held meetings in empty classrooms, conducted pregame walk-throughs in dorm lounges and practiced or played at the nearest vacant gym it can find, from neighboring high schools, to rival colleges, to churches and seminary schools with basketball courts.
With Ursuline's new facility not scheduled to open until the end of May, Sword's team has prepared for a second straight season as basketball nomads. Piling into a pair of 15-seat vans and driving up to 25 miles from campus is a huge hassle just to go to practice, but Ursuline players and coaches have tried to find humor in their unusual plight.
They laugh about the time they drove through a blizzard to practice at another college only to discover the gym that they reserved was double-booked and another team was already using it. They chuckle at the memory of a couple players accidentally setting off the security alarm at a nearby high school while trying to get into its gym for some late-night shooting. They even playfully roll their eyes whenever someone uses the term "home game" to describe a contest they'll play in an unfamiliar gym miles from campus in front of a crowd consisting of only a handful parents or siblings.
"I think we all have gotten good at making light of the situation," senior forward Emma Ricketts said. "Nobody's happy we don't have a gym, but our coaches remind us every day not to get down about it. We're going to get in our white vans, we're going to play some good music, we'll go to practice and we'll make the best of what we have because we really don't have any other choice."
The lack of a home gym was not one of the challenges Sword anticipated when she left her assistant coaching job at Division II national runner-up Ashland University to come to Ursuline in May 2012. The Arrows had just completed a woeful 6-21 season two months earlier, but Sword relished the challenge of starting from scratch with a program transitioning from NAIA to Division II.
Sword's first recruiting class helped Ursuline ascend from 4-22 in her first year to 14-14 last season, an especially impressive improvement considering the numerous scheduling and logistical issues the team endured in the wake of the tornado. Most Cleveland-area gyms had already been reserved by the time Sword began searching for options, so Ursuline ultimately had to cancel three games because the coaching staff couldn't find a vacant venue. Ursuline also practiced at six or seven different gyms last season, sometimes starting as early as 5:30 a.m. or as late as 8 p.m. because that was the only time a court was available.
A seminary school where Ursuline practiced a half dozen times last season had a court so cramped players were bumping against the walls when they spotted up for a corner 3-pointer. Another court Ursuline frequently used only had an NBA 3-point line, so coaches had to measure the distance from the rim for the college line and attempt to create a makeshift arc with tape by hand.
"Our girls would sometimes get confused and shoot from the NBA line," senior guard Brianna Woods said. "If they make it, I guess that's cool, but there were a couple air balls now and then."
Scheduling practice at consistent times and fewer venues has been easier this season since Sword could make arrangements further in advance, but other logistical problems remain.
Many of Ursuline's practices this year take place at a Cleveland church on an NBA-sized court that also doubles as a rollerskating rink. Youth teams who have reserved the facility after Ursuline typically arrive early and make their presence known.
Sometimes the kids blast episodes of "Spongebob Squarepants" so loud on a TV adjacent to the court that Sword's players can barely hear her instructions. Other times kids will interrupt Sword's practice to ask if they can borrow a ball and take some shots. A few times, the facility manager has politely but forcefully told Sword to vacate the court because practice was running long and cutting into the youth teams' court time.
"Of course, it's always at the time where you're trying to teach something," Sword said with a chuckle. "One time I sent [Woods] over to try to turn down the TV, but she couldn't figure out how to do it. It's just something we have to live with, I guess. The whole last half hour of our practice, it's loud and it's hard for our kids to focus."
In addition to its practices, Ursuline also faces other obstacles.
The team won't regularly practice at any of the three colleges that will host its home games this season, so the rims and shooting backdrops will be no more familiar to the Arrows than their opponents. Players also can't take extra shots between classes the way their peers at other schools do since there's no gym available on campus, nor do they always have time to venture off campus late at night or early in the mornings since driving to and from practice cuts into their study hours.
"Our nights are longer than they would be if we had our own gym," Ricketts said. "By the time we eat, shower and head over to the library to get our work done, it's usually already well past 9 p.m. So there are a lot more late nights or staying up in the wee hours of the morning."
For all the obstacles Ursuline has faced, the team has done an impressive job overcoming most of them. Ursuline's team GPA was a 3.5 last year and its 14 victories were one shy of tying a school record. Almost every underclassmen from last season's team returned including seniors Woods and Ricketts, even though neither one of whom will ever play another true home game at Ursuline again.
"It's really hard on those two because they'll never get to play in the new gym," assistant coach Brandon Stewart said. "We always tell them we'll have an alumni game after they graduate so they can come back and play in it."
The other silver lining to the tornado damage is that a new facility is finally being erected where the former antiquated one stood. That means Sword will soon be able to recruit to a state-of-the-art Division II-caliber gym instead of the ruins of a cramped 40-year-old facility better suited to be a recreation center in the first place.
"When we first got a look at the gym after the tornado struck, our school president made a joke that this was God's way of saying we needed to build a new facility," Sword said. "So this is a longterm blessing in disguise in that sense. We did not have Division II facilities on our campus before this and now we will."
- - - - - - -