Athlete of the Week: Sam Weaver dishes on building a team dynamic and leading a young team
A sophomore from Apex, North Carolina studying global health and Spanish, Samantha Weaver has become an integral member of the Washington University women’s basketball team this season. Weaver has started all 12 of the Bears’ games this year, totaling the second-highest number of minutes this year, the second-highest number of rebounds and the third-highest scoring average. She had her first career double-double on Dec. 6 and has scored in double digits in half of the Bears’ games this season. I sat down with Weaver ahead of the team’s two University Athletic Association games this weekend.
Student Life: I wanted to just to start off by talking about the team’s play this season. You guys went on a five game win streak early December. Since then you’ve lost three straight, tight games in late December. So what do you think of how the team has been playing recently?
Samantha Weaver: I think we’ve just faced harder battles. We’re playing better teams. It’s not like we’ve lost by a ton; we’re just learning how we have to stay the same as we were at the beginning of the season, how we have to maintain that through even tougher battles. We are learning how to do that as a team, especially with new players again and people being injured.
SL: Right, and the team’s record right now, 7-5, is the same as it was last year, when the team ended up making a deep run into the playoffs, so it is not as if the team is having a bad season. How does it feel compared to last year? What’s the vibe on the team like?
SW: Yeah, well it’s just a completely new team right now, so it’s not even comparable to last year. We’re having to create our own identity and vibe right now. We’re all trying to be supportive and getting everybody to lock into their roles. That’s a really big thing for us right now. So like: if you’re a shooter, if you’re an attacker, if it’s your goal to shoot, if it’s your job to rebound. We want people to commit to that. With a new group of people, that can be somewhat challenging but we’re constantly enforcing that in practice and enforcing that in games. We talk about it every single day, so I sound like a broken record at this point.
SL: You mentioned each player having their own role on the team. What do you think your role is on the team?
SW: It’s really important to me to be a leader. Even though I am a sophomore this year and I’m not considered an upperclassman, on the team I guess I am a veteran. So, whatever I learned last year, [my role] is to incorporate that into this year. And help [the new players] have a smooth transition but also to push everyone and hopefully they are holding me accountable as well.
SL: With such a new team, how do you think the Bears’ playing style could be described?
SW: I think it just depends who is on the floor. We’ve got some really fast players and we have players who are used to playing in a system. What our coaches try to instill in us is that we want to play a fast game. We play a lot of transition. We don’t really want to have to set up at halfcourt and have to say “run that play, run this play.” Even if we are in halfcourt, we run more of a free flow. We just want to be basketball players. I think we have a lot of athletic people on the team who can do that. So we just want everybody to tap into their roles, again. We have plays, but we don’t have so many because we don’t want to limit people from doing their best.
SL: What are some of the challenges that accompany that goal of being a team that thrives in transition?
SW: Sometimes, I think that if you’re just watching the game you just see “oh, they’re just running down the court.” But there’s a lot to that: you have to run your lane, you have to know “ok, if I’m the fastest I need to be up first.” It’s a commitment. Sports is so much more complicated than what you see from the stands. With that transition, what has been a little difficult is everybody learning to run their lanes and knowing where they are supposed to be on the court. Even though it is not a play, there are still places where you need to be. With transition, you’re moving really fast up the floor, so it takes a lot of communication. Communication isn’t always like “go here” and that sort of thing. It’s also about trusting each other to know that, “oh, she’s gonna catch that pass. Oh, I know I can give this to her.” It’s about working together and most of that you have to build off the court.
SL: Given that the team is so young, can you talk about how you built up that communication so quickly? That’s the kind of thing that you might expect to see from a team that’s been together three or four years, like mostly juniors and seniors, but you’re mainly freshmen and sophomores.
SW: Outside of just constantly doing reps and practice, I think that something that we’re striving to work towards so that we can communicate better is to get to know each other outside of basketball. We’re gonna be around each other a lot, especially in the second semester when we’re travelling a bunch. I feel like with any sport—anything that you do—you feel better when you’re doing something for somebody or you know people’s roles. You know them better if you’re spending time with them and get to know them as a person. So we try to hang out more, it’s anything like “you want to eat food?” and just small stuff like that. Asking important questions and being super genuine about it. It feels like care. And through that care it makes you want to work hard for your other teammates.
SL: That makes sense. Is there a moment off the court this year that you think has stood out to you in terms of facilitating that bonding and care between players?
SW: We were here over break and we got to travel to Iowa. It was the first time we had traveled as a team and we ended up going to this restaurant. I can’t remember the name, but it was just super Midwestern. I’m from North Carolina, so it was just a different vibe. There’s a lot of people on the team who are not from the Midwest and didn’t get the vibe but we were just there in the restaurant sitting at this big long table. We’ve only known each other for two or three months at this point, but it was nice how easily we were able to talk to each other. That made me want to look forward to playing this year and playing the next two years. I knew that this was a group that I could grow with and that that would make my Wash. U. experience better, both on and off the court.
SL: You’re part of coach Henderson’s first recruiting class. Does she ever talk about that with you guys or what that means to her?
SW: I feel like it was more of a discussion maybe last year because it was her second year. We’re still in the process of creating an identity for what we want the team to be. Every once in awhile she’d remind us: “you’re a part of my first recruiting class and who you are as a person first and foremost and what you do on the court is something that I want to be what Wash. U. represents.” If anything, it’s just the reminder that you are important and that you have value to this team, that we just want you to stick to your job and stick to your role because what you’re doing and what you can do, that works for us, that’s good for us, and it’s that kind of environment that we want to create.
SL: How does that identity relate to the playstyle that we talked earlier about creating. What is that identity?
SW: We’ve got an ongoing conversation about what identity we want to have as a team. Being an athlete, especially here at Wash. U., is not an easy thing. One big word that just sticks out to me is that we just want excellence. Our coach always pushes us and she’s like, “what is excellence?” She will ask existential questions, which are actually pretty good, because they make us think. Excellence means excellence on the court and off the court. To do that, that means supporting each other. We want this to be kind of like a sisterhood sort of environment, where you know that they care about who you are as a person. And they care about your development as a player. I think we also want to be known as a team that’s constantly working hard. When you see us on the court, when you see us walking around on campus or whatever, we want people to just know that we want to be here and we want to be our best. We understand that that takes hard work and we’re willing to do it. We just need to be a team where it’s obvious that we care about each other and are willing to work for each other.
SL: You talked about what it’s like to be a student athlete at Wash. U. and how that can be hard. At a school with a general student body that doesn’t necessarily prioritize athletics, what is it like to be a student athlete, like when you’re not at a big state school where everyone knows that there’s a great women’s basketball team? What is it like to not necessarily have the full support and full awareness of the student body?
SW: Honestly, I think athletes here—the community that we have and have created with the support of other athletes and the athletic department, athletic director and alumni—is so big that even though the student body doesn’t realize it, those people do, and their support is overwhelming and it’s insane. Where that love is not felt within the student body it’s felt elsewhere. Not that we don’t miss it—of course, I would love it—but it’s not like it’s not given at all. I would also say, my experience as part of the Ervin Scholars community: [the other Ervins] have been interested in what I’m doing and they’ve been friends and they come to games to support it. The student body as a whole might not understand or tap into [athletics] but our little groups that we create and the alumni provide you with a lot of support and love.
SL: What would your ideal support from the student body look like? Like, what’s the best way to balance everyone having their diverse interests and feeling like you have the support of the students behind you?
SW: What has been nice for me is that I think this year, the athletic department has really done more in its listing of what’s going on in athletics, not only with women’s basketball but with all of athletics. They’ve done a better job of that all across campus. Just through that, I’ve had brand new people come up to me, especially a lot more this year, just to be like “oh, there’s a team? When do you guys play?” It shows that they do care. I think more than anything, the support that we want I guess is just the recognition. It’s not always people coming to the games but it’s the recognition of how hard it actually is to do both. I’m mainly driven by a love of playing and by the people that I’m around.
SL: One of the moments that already sticks out to me from this season where the fans got really into it was the end of the game against Rhodes [College] back in November when you had the layup with under five seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime. What was going through your head as the gym went wild and the game went to overtime?
SW: Yeah, that was super cool. It wasn’t even the plan for me to get the ball. It was the plan for Kristina Schmelter to get the ball and she got the inbounds from Molly Gannon but it was too far from the basket. She’s one of our post players and I saw her get that pass and fall away from the basket and thought “oh, she might struggle a bit out there, let me cut to the basket.” She made a great pass and when you play basketball this long you get insane. I knew the time was down but honestly I wasn’t even thinking about it. It’s all crazy, but also we didn’t want to be that close to them. We felt like we should have won that game by at least 10 or 15 points, so the fact that we had to get that last bucket, I was like “ok, we got it, now let’s go win over time.” Feeling that with the crowd yelling and all that stuff is cool, but I’m always like, “okay, let’s get it right.” That’s my focus.
SL: That’s where you’ve had all of your successes, right? In the post. You’ve attempted just two three-pointers in your first two seasons. Is that intentional? What’s the reasoning behind that?
SW: That goes back to the roles thing I talked about earlier. When I was in high school, I shot from pretty much all over: three-pointers, jump shots, and I still drove to the basket. You just have to do what’s best for the team and what’s the role that you have. We have really great three-point shooters, people that can shoot it and make it work consistently. So with the spots where I am out on the floor a lot it’s just that I don’t get that shot as easily and it’s not really a shot that I’m looking for right now. I’m looking to get to the basket and draw fouls and I’m looking for 15-footers. So that’s just me being super strategic about my role on the team. Who knows about the next few years. Definitely the goal is to expand your game and get more consistent at it. I do practice the long shots in the gym, but not that much in the games, you’re right.
SL: Haha yeah, that makes sense. I’ve got my last question now. As you head into your second and third conference games, on Friday against Case Western Reserve University and then Carnegie Mellon University on Sunday, what do you think are keys to snapping the losing streak and getting back on track?
SW: I think it’s about us. It’s not even about focusing on the other teams. Today in practice we just really focused on going back to our identity—who we are as a team and who we want to be and how do we want to show up in conference. Because it’s now or never. Conference play is so important and with the University Athletic Association, especially with traveling, all you have is your team. We have team meetings. I think what is important for us to do is for everyone to play their role. I know Molly Gannon and Sammi Matoush and Naomi [Jackson] are our three-point shooters. We want them shooting the three and getting in shots this week. We want them just keeping them in their minds. We want Raevyn Ferguson and Karisa Grandison attacking the basket. We want Kristina Schmelter working both sides of the rim. We’re just working on a lot of skill work, because it’s not like we don’t have it.