March 28, 2015
Kayla Matrunick walked down the inner concourse of Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City carrying an oversized box filled with salads and sandwich wraps for the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team.
Matrunick, Notre Dame’s director of sports nutrition, had to squeeze in lunch at the arena because the Fighting Irish were tackling a hectic schedule as they continue their march to hoops glory.
No. 1 seed Notre Dame walked off the basketball court around 11 p.m. local time Friday after dispatching No. 4 seed Stanford 81-60 to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship.
Matrunick had a midnight meal for the Irish designed to enhance recovery and start building up energy for Saturday.
On Saturday, the Fighting Irish got in a morning study hall, did stretching and conditioning, went to the arena, handled press conferences and practiced for Sunday’s regional championship game against Baylor.
Coach Muffet McGraw’s Irish (34-2) will be primed to battle Sunday night at 8:30 EDT for a chance to earn a berth to a fifth consecutive NCAA Final Four, thanks to a team that doesn’t get spotlights beaming on it in the arena, or names ringing out over the public-address system.
Matrunick is one of a number of people who put the fight in the Irish.
“We have such a great support staff in every way,” McGraw said.”Strength and conditioning, training room, nutrition, it all goes into it.”
THE TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM
After Friday’s game, Matrunick made sure a meal was set out for the Irish around 1 a.m. after the 10 p.m. EDT start, Megan Bastedo of Fighting Irish Digital Media worked on video highlight packages until 2:30 a.m. Chris Masters of Notre Dame media relations worked on media notes until 5:30 a.m. Notre Dame women’s basketball director of operations Natalie Achonwa sent an itinerary for the Elite Eight via email to everybody in the Irish travel party.
Notre Dame’s team behind the team has a thousand different tasks – all critical to a successful championship experience – and the support staff pulls it all together.
“One of my favorite things about traveling with the team is to see so many fantastic people who are so good at what they do,” Notre Dame senior associate athletics director Jill Bodensteiner said. “When we celebrate women in sports, this is part of the excellence that I see.
“I think we have one of the best athletic trainers in the country. Anne Marquez has worked with USA Basketball. She is very highly regarded. She has a perfect demeanor. She’s like the Lindsay Allen of athletic trainers. We have Dr. Becky Moskwinski, who has a great overall general practice, taking care of flu and coughs and throats.
“We have Natalie Achonwa, handling the day-to-day logistics. For her to be a 22-year-old who graduated less than a year ago … when you look around at the director of operations from other schools who were here at the Sweet 16, it’s all seasoned, 30–, 40- and 50-year olds. I’m not sure there are many former players who could have stepped into it and pulled off what she has pulled off this year.”
Bodensteiner said Amanda Hall, the academic advisor for the women’s basketball team, has done an exceptional job.
“Amanda is tough on the student-athletes because she wants them to be their best in the classroom,” Bodensteiner said. “Our student-athletes are students first. She’s done a great job of keeping the student-athletes in good shape because they miss a lot of classes being on the road.
“We also have people like Megan Bastedo on film, capturing all of these moments so our fans can see what’s going on.
“There are so many people behind the scenes, many of whom I’m forgetting, who do such an amazing job.”
EAT TO WIN
Matrunick designs meals to meet the Irish needs, whether it’s to recover from a tough game, or refuel for the next competition.
“What we talk about for the players is having the same amount of energy in the first minutes as you do in the closing minutes,” Matrunick said. “That’s critical, because you have your physical and mental capacity at 110 percent then, and you’re ready to go. That’s something we talk about, in terms of getting the student-athletes to buy into nutrition and having them understand that it’s a difference-maker at the end of the game. You have to be court savvy, but you also have to have your athletic ability and your body to do what your mind says.”
Notre Dame sophomore post Taya Reimer says Matrunick has helped her step up her game.
“Kayla has definitely helped me out a lot,” Reimer said. “I don’t like fruits, so that’s a big thing for me. I’m definitely somebody who enjoys food. I love mac and cheese. I love pasta. I’ve learned that at certain times, you can eat certain things. You have to learn to eat for energy and to recover. I’m walking past the places I used to go to, places that don’t have good food for me. What I’m eating now has really made a big difference in my game.”
Craig Cheek, Notre Dame’s assistant director of strength and conditioning, has had the Irish stretching in hotel rooms, hotel hallways, anywhere he needs to in order to keep the Irish in prime condition.
“Craig Cheek does a fantastic job,” McGraw said “We’ve got the new GPS system that we wear on our backs that tells us how hard we’re working–and whether we need to maybe take a day off.That has been really helpful to have some statistical information.It’s easy to look at them and know whether they’re tired or not.But I think we’re in great shape, especially Jewell (Loyd) and Lindsay (Allen).They can go all day.They’ve been in phenomenal shape all year long. They do a great job in the weight room.”
After the Stanford game, Cardinal players said Notre Dame’s energy was a difference-maker. Baylor players said Notre Dame’s energy had an impact on last season’s regional championship won by the Irish.
Travel poses particular problems since the Irish workout rooms aren’t a short walk from the basketball court.
“It’s not ideal, but one of the things we try to instill with the kids year-round is that you’re not always going to be comfortable,” Cheek said. “We don’t have the comforts of home being in a hotel space or the hallway, but it doesn’t faze the players and it doesn’t change what we do. Travel poses challenges, but it’s nothing that we can’t overcome.”
Cheek trains the Irish with the idea of building strength in order to finish strong when it matters the most.
“I think the way we develop throughout the course of the year, we go through phases of training throughout the year like most teams do,” Cheek said. “We really try to build a foundation in the summer, and that carries over into the fall. Once I turn the student-athletes over to Coach McGraw, the way they practice, that’s how they get into game shape.
“Right now, the big part of conditioning is how well we can get them recovered in between games,” Cheek said. “We do the extra stretching and mobility, they do massages and some of the compression, nutrition … it all plays into it. At this point of the year, those are the things we really have to dial into and be on point. Coming back from the ACC Tournament, three games in three days, we were able to play at a high level all three games. Effort-wise, the kids were able to put out every night. Coach was very pleased. That speaks to the recovery stuff that we’ve been doing to get them ready. Plus, they’re resilient.”
Reimer said she has learned to appreciate conditioning.
“I lifted a little bit in high school, so I was a little familiar with weight training … but I was not in very good shape when I came to Notre Dame,” Reimer said. “Looking back on how I was last year compared to this year, I’m so much better. I think as you get older and really appreciate it, you focus on it more.”
Notre Dame’s support staff also includes Notre Dame Security Police captain George Heeter, who handles communication with law enforcement agencies, including police escorts through the streets of New York City when required, and escorts players on side trips on the road.
“We’re so happy to have George with us,” McGraw said. “He makes everything run smoothly. He takes care of us any time the girls have anywhere to go. We feel safe with him around. He always keeps an eye out for us.”
Achonwa said Notre Dame’s managers also play a key role in the massive undertaking of getting a basketball team on the road.
Guiliana Figliomeni, Rebecca Moor and Elizabeth Moulton handle a myriad of tasks, ranging from loading equipment off onto the team bus or doing laundry at 2 a.m.
“I work closely with the managers, and the best part of those individuals is that they have the same mentality the team does,” Achonwa said. “They are willing to do anything for each other. At the drop of a hat, they are willing to get up from their dorm and go do something we need. They are willing to do the extremes. That’s a whole program mentality. It’s not about one person. It’s about the whole team. They take care of the girls. When I was a player, they always took care of me. Now that I’m working with them, I can see the sacrifices that they put in as well, to be a part of this program. It’s tremendous. The work they do is amazing.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent