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Catching up with Jess Sancataldo: At home in Australia

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The Sydney native discussed living at home, taking online classes and developing the next generation of Australian “basketballers.”

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 13 Women’s Northwestern at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As Northwestern’s women’s basketball defends its conference title, it remains without junior Jess Sancataldo, who appeared in eight games in 2019-20 after recovering from knee surgery. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Sancataldo home in Australia for the season, but between online classes, training and coaching, she is making the most of the opportunities presented to her.

Inside NU: When did you go back to Australia after the cancellation of the 2019-20 season?

Jess Sancataldo: I went back in the middle of March. We were thinking that we were going to have a big party for the NCAA selection [show], and Dr. Phillips came in and called a team meeting in the film room and said, “Everything’s canceled. You’re all going home.” Straight after that, I booked my ticket as fast as I could because flights to Australia were being canceled, so it took me a day-and-a-half, almost two days to travel to get home, and then I had to self-isolate for two weeks before I could go out.

I didn’t actually tell my parents I was coming home. I surprised them, which isn’t a great idea during a pandemic, but I called my grandma and we schemed about it. She picked me up from the airport, and I was sitting down on the couch at home and waited for them to walk in the door. My dad looked at me and looked away and looked at me like I was a ghost.

INU: Did you have the chance to come back to Evanston for the season?

JS: At first, I thought there was no way I’d be able to go back, because the Australian government isn’t letting people leave the country. I could apply for an exemption but that would take a month-and-a-half to get approved. The main thing that’s kept me here is that no one can get into Australia. If I needed to come home for something, they’re only allowing 1000 people back into the country every month. For me, it wasn’t really an option, which is unfortunate because if I was able to get home from America, I could go play, but I could be stuck there. I have friends from around the world currently stranded with nowhere to go.

INU: How difficult has it been not to play this season?

JS: I can’t tell you how much I miss playing with my team. I came back from three knee surgeries. In the second half of the season, I started to find my form, my groove. Watching the livestream and the live stats, I have so much sideline fever. I want to help them. I want to shoot the ball. It sucks, it really does, but I’m doing what I can to prepare so that when I go back, I should be able to fit in right away and help them win some games.

INU: How have you adjusted to being away from the team and staying in shape?

JS: I’m a very self-motivated person, so I go to the gym every day, whether doing injury prevention, cardio or working on my shot. It is hard not being able to play for a team. The NCAA has a rule that I’m not allowed to play for any other teams here because it’s basketball season at the moment, which is hard because I really want to play with my mates. But I’m able to play 1-on-1 with my friends. I have some mates who are here who would be playing college ball, so I have some people to train with. I definitely miss the team environment and the facilities at Northwestern, which are especially good.

INU: How have you been keeping up with your teammates and coaches throughout this season?

JS: I’ve been messaging the girls a lot and keeping up to date. I’ve been messaging the girls who graduated last year as seniors a lot, because they’ve gone in different directions. I’ve also been communicating a lot with the coaches. They’ve been calling and keeping me up to date, which is really good. So, I don’t feel alone on this island country. I’ve loved watching the first-years getting out there and doing their thing, and I just can’t wait to meet them in person. I just love how the people off the bench have been stepping up into their roles and providing that spark when the starters get tired.

INU: Have you been able to watch your games?

JS: I don’t have a subscription to ESPN or BTN, because sometimes it’s not available in Australia, or, if it is, it’s really expensive. So, I watch the live stats on ESPN and then I wait and see the video on Hudl and it’s broken down really well. I watch all the highlights on Twitter as they roll through, refreshing the page. Sometimes I’m stuck in class, other times I’m working, so it’s hard to always watch.

INU: How have you adjusted to online school?

JS: School is tough with the time zones. I’m really good at calculating it in my head, but if I have an assignment due on Thursday at 5 p.m., I have to think “okay that’s Friday at 10 a.m.” Getting out of bed to do Italian at 4:30 a.m. last quarter was not very fun, but I have to do what I have to do. I’m grateful that I can still have an education from here. It is really rewarding when I can get it done, but it definitely has it challenges. On Zoom, everyone’s looking really nice, and I have bed hair in my pajamas, pillows behind me. It is tough.

INU: Are there any advantages to being in Australia right now, aside from the lack of COVID-19 cases relative to the United States?

JS: I’ll do class from a café, and it doesn’t occur to me that people are walking in the background. My professor asked me, “What’s that feel like?” It took me a moment because that doesn’t happen in America, because life is back to normal.

I love being home right now. It is really great to be with my family and have Christmas together for the first time in a few years. That’s really nice. I haven’t had an Australian summer in three years and get to be with my sister as well. I love being able to do my education from home and stay in contact with everybody. I’m also doing a lot of work in basketball in Australia trying to help development with younger people and try to help people get to college — some of my mates, trying to make that process easier for them.

INU: How much are you coaching?

JS: I’m coaching a couple of club teams. I love coaching. It’s something I want to pursue after I graduate from Northwestern. I’ve done a lot of individual sessions with kids. On top of that, I’m breaking down a lot of film with the younger age groups of children and talking with parents to educate them about the college pathway. It’s not the easiest process to get there with recruitment and exposure and once you get an offer from a university, finding which one is the best fit for you and what they’re hiding, and what they’re selling. It’s such a complicated process. There’s not a lot of money in basketball in Australia, and unfortunately for the younger age groups if you get hit with one bad coach, your playing career is over because you miss that development. So, I’m trying to teach kids as much as I can before I go back, and I’m having so much fun doing it.

INU: Have you ever envisioned yourself coaching at Northwestern?

JS: I’d be very fortunate to have a role at Northwestern. I’m a very technical, detail-oriented person, so I’d have a lot of enjoyment out of it. I’m actually coaching seven days a week in Sydney. I’m trying to mentor some of the younger coaches who don’t have as much experience but want to get into basketball coaching. I absolutely love it. It’s my dream job. I wasn’t really sure about it before I went to Northwestern. I use to do some individual coaching and run camps by myself for kids, but since I’ve been back, I’ve been on a mission to help develop them and it’s just inspired me to keep going. That’s the one good thing this pandemic.

INU: When did you first get in to coaching?

JS: Before college, I coached four or five different kids. Since then, I’m regularly working with four or five kids. I’m mainly working with kids who have aspirations of going further in basketball. I don’t want to be someone who’s a baby sitter. I want to help someone who has dreams and aspirations of playing in the future. I’m lucky that I get to work with some really good high school players. I make them run. I can be a nice coach, but I can be a bit brutal. Some people say I don’t have a mean face, but, when I’m coaching, it changes.

INU: Have you taught any of the kids you coach the Blizzard defense?

JS: I break down film with girls who want to play basketball in the future, and they want to see my team play, and they’ll ask ‘What defense is that?’ I’ll maybe try to explain the Blizzard in 25 words or less, and you can see their eyes go all over the place. These are 14-year-old girls. Adults can’t even break Blizzard down. Maybe when they’re older they’ll learn all about it. Maybe that’ll be the new Australian style of defense, because it clearly works. Everyone has a hard time with it, but it’s so adaptable. As soon as teams cut it up we find a different way to change it. Maybe I’ll have to rename it. Not plagiarism. Inspiration.

INU: Is being recruited out of Australia a challenge?

JS: My year was the biggest recruiting class ever from Australia. Each year it seems to be growing and getting bigger. Until my age group, it was quite unknown. There were a lot of girls that didn’t know about the process, they’d get to college and be great basketballers but didn’t realize you also had to study at the same time and had to take the community college route.

The American and Australian university systems are two very different systems, and people don’t figure it out until it’s too late.

INU: Do you have any idea of when you can return to Evanston?

JS: I hope that I could return relatively soon. Every week I check to see what the Australian government are doing about people coming home on flights, because that’s the main thing determining when I come back. I don’t think it’s going to be changing for a few more months, which is really unfortunate. When I first got here, I thought it’d be six weeks at home, then COVID’s done, then back to Evanston and do classes, but I remember getting emails that the rest of spring quarter would be online, and the next minute the dorms are shut for the following quarter. It all happened so quickly.