Amid the stillness of a shutdown, Sonia Citron recognized an opportunity.
There was plenty of idle time after the New York state girls basketball tournament was halted in March by the encroaching pandemic. And with the state’s first COVID-19 hot spot no more than a wind sprint away in New Rochelle, there were few objections.
It took a few weeks, but Citron found a way forward.
“We really couldn’t do anything for a while there,” the reigning Gatorade New York Girls Basketball Player of the Year from Ursuline (N.Y.) High School said. “The end of the high school season was like the beginning of COVID-19 here, so everyone was kind of wondering and waiting to see what might happen. School went online and I quarantined for a while. I wasn’t leaving the house and it was like that for a couple of months because it was really bad here. I was scared. I didn’t want to get the coronavirus. I didn’t want to pass it on to my parents or my family. We all just stayed low key.”
The 6-foot-1 guard — who committed to play for Notre Dame and new head coach Niele Ivey back in April — only went outside to shoot in the backyard.
“It was definitely tough,” added Citron, who also began to log miles on the family treadmill. “Once I got the hang of things, I was able to get back into a routine. Like everyone else, I just had to do what I had to do. It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, but you have to make the best of the situation and stay positive. It was a scary time. There’s a lot of uncertainty still, but things will eventually go back to normal and I want to be ready.”
The process is ongoing, but the impact is already visible.
“Sonia has taken advantage of the pandemic by really focusing on that aspect,” Koalas head coach Beth Wooters said. “She did play some in the summer, but she focused on the physical transformation that will make her an impact player on the college level. It’s pretty amazing. I only saw her at one open gym before we were shut down a couple of weeks ago, but she has raised her game. She is stronger. Her range has increased. She is more explosive. I really think Sonia has taken a huge step forward.
“The few times I was able to watch her play online, the game changes when she is on the floor.”
Citron went into the pandemic a highly skilled, highly accomplished and highly recruited player. She was coming off a 24-0 season that culminated with a Section 1 title. Citron averaged 23.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.3 steals and 3.1 assists per game. She had already visited a number of collegiate powers before the lockdown and committed to Notre Dame.
Stanford was the runner-up.
The player who inked a National Letter of Intent during an improvised ceremony at the family’s dining room table three weeks ago is not the same player who gave Notre Dame a verbal in the spring.
Ursuline shut down the campus last month, forcing Sonia Citron (center) to sign her letter of intent to play basketball next season at Notre Dame at the family’s dining room table. She is with her brother, Will, and Liza Mariner, who both play soccer at Cornell.
“Sonia has amazing range and can create for herself off the dribble,” said ND coach Ivey, who landed a pair of top 20 prospects in her first week back on campus after taking over for Muffet McGraw. “Her ability to defend and score will make her a next-level competitor and the (biggest) adjustment will be the physicality of the college level.”
Adding muscle was always part of the game plan.
“You can never be strong enough, quick enough, fast enough,” Citron said. “I’ve seen how strong and how big and how fast the girls are in the ACC right now. I’ve talked with a lot of my friends who are playing in college for the first time this year and they are telling me the biggest change is the physicality of the girls and the speed of the game, so I’m just trying to get ready for Notre Dame. I want to be in the best shape I can be in because I know when I get there it’s going to be a whole different level.”
There was a brief return to normal over the summer.
Citron was able to spend time on the court with her Philadelphia Belles club team. A limited schedule provided a needed opportunity to compete. Citron was hoping for a second run with USA Basketball until the pandemic canceled tryouts for the U17 team that was to play in the 2020 FIBA World Cup.
“We played in a couple of tournaments, one in Indiana, and them some club games in Philadelphia on the weekends,” she said. “It wasn’t what it was supposed to be before corona, but I’m thankful we got to do something. It ended pretty early, so the rest of the summer I kind of started to do my own thing. On the weekends, I’m working on the court with Steven Johnston and then during the week I go to Transform and work on my fitness and strength.”
When it was time for school to restart, Ursuline went to a hybrid setup. Citron is live and in person with cohorts in the first half of the alphabet 2-3 days a week.
“I would’ve never thought I’d be going to school online, like from my bedroom,” she added. “I’ve gotten used to it and have found that I kind of like being in the comfort of my own house. It’s not like I don’t want to see my friends but wearing the mask for eight hours is tough for me. It was hard to focus at home in the beginning. There were some distractions, my phone, but now I have everything set up on the desk in my room and I’ve gotten used to a new routine.”
Down time is now reserved for watching Notre Dame games.
“We talk often,” Citron said. “They’re always checking in just to see how I’m doing. I text them just to wish them good luck before games. I could not be happier about choosing Notre Dame and getting to be part of that atmosphere. I already feel so close to some of the girls on the team. We’re on social media a lot and go back and forth, so I feel like I’ve found a second family.”
Basketball is considered a high-risk sport in New York, so the high school season is on hold until at least Jan. 4. Given the pandemic’s resurgence across the state, very few involved expect Gov. Andrew Cuomo will sign off on that date.
“If we have a season it’s going to be in the spring,” Wooters said. “I don’t think Jan. 4 is going to happen. Maybe it changes depending on how many vaccines we can get in New York, who knows? If we don’t have a season, I’ll be so disappointed because this is such a unique group.”
The Koalas have four starters coming back from an unbeaten season – Alexa Mustafaj, Ciara Croker, Meghan Casey and Citron.
Fiona Mills was first off the bench last season and is expected to step right into an expanded role.
“Our team is really, really close so I’m in touch with a lot of the girls and if we’re not talking about basketball it’s about school or whatever else is going on,” Citron said. “We all really want the season to happen. We’re looking forward to playing together again. I don’t really care about how long the season might be or who we’re going to play, I just want to be able to play at least a couple of games to have something. I’ll be thankful for anything.”