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AU’s Jessie Warren on What Makes Her Coaching Style Unique and Why the League Is Succeeding

Jessie Warren on field / JWS
Jessie Warren on field / JWS

Jessie Warren is a professional softball player for Athletes Unlimited. At Florida State, she led the Seminoles to the 2018 Women’s College World Series title and was named Most Outstanding Player of the World Series. She spoke with JWS about what led her to Athletes Unlimited, her unique style of coaching, and how the league is working to keep everyone both safe and sane. 

What went into your decision to join Athletes Unlimited?

The idea was pitched to me in the beginning of December, and at first I was a little skeptical just because I didn’t understand the format and things like that. But then after talking to Jade Ray, who was actually going to come play but opted out to go to the police academy, I became really interested. And then Victoria Hayward reached out, and I didn’t know if my Pride season was going to run into this season. So, I was kind of a little bit like, “I don’t know if I can do it,” because obviously I already had obligations with Pride. But then once I realized that Pride season wasn’t going to run into AAU, it was an automatic yes.

And then after getting to know about the format, I thought it was really cool. It’s something different that nobody’s ever done before, obviously. And I think it’s a good difference, because it was grasping a lot of people’s attention, catching an audience’s eye about the differences in the game, obviously not the rules or anything, but just the point system. And it allows us as individual athletes to try to succeed as an individual, but also play to law and succeed as a team.

Your team went 3-0 in the first week. What are your thoughts on how the games went?

Right away I noticed that the people who were racking up the most points are those that are on a winning team. My team called ourselves the Cuties because of the orange jerseys we wore and in the practices that we had, we really focused on team runs and how we could get people in. We knew if we won innings, we would win points. And if you win innings you are going to win the game. It’s team ball. If you’re playing team ball obviously you’re doing something individually successfully, so you’re going to get some points too. I think we were most more focused on winning each inning and winning as a team than we were worried about getting ourselves points. And it kind of really showed that we were playing as a unit and not individually.

Now in the second week we will see all new teams. How do you plan to adjust to a new team dynamic and stay as consistent?  

I think that’s always the hard part. You know, if I could keep the team that I was on for the whole six weeks, that would be awesome, but it’s an even better opportunity as an individual to get to know other people and connect with them. I’m just keeping an open mind that everybody’s dynamic and their coaching style is going to be different.

Cat [Osterman] is a captain this week, and her coaching style is going to be completely different than mine, so her team will be a whole different dynamic. As a player, I’m just going with it and trusting that they know what they’re doing and just going out there and playing ball.

You were obviously pretty successful at balancing your role as a team captain, coach and player. Did you find that balance to be easy or were there any difficulties there?

I had a lot of help from Christian Conrad. He was kind of familiar with what I wanted to do and then Cat Osterman was a huge person for me to have on the team. For the experience that she has on the coaching side to help as well. But at the end of the day, I sat down with Christian, I talked about my strategy. And we kind of just all clashed minds and came up with a lineup. And then, for the girls, I was more of, “Hey, do what you guys do.” We’re going to just be laid back and chill. At the same time, we’re still going to be disciplined, but I’m not going to be someone that’s going to be down their throats or anything. That’s just not my style.

What do you think this type of a league will do for women’s sports at the pro level and specifically for softball?

This whole business is just such a great idea. And then John and Jonathan, our league founders, have done such a great job marketing this whole thing. And there’s so many people that I’ve heard from that have texted me and are just like, “This is so cool. It’s so fun to watch. I love seeing it on TV.” You don’t really see many women’s professional sports, and just the fact that this is going in the right direction, it’s just so amazing for the younger generation and the young girls that are looking up to us.

They have dreams and the knowledge that they can come play professional softball, professional volleyball, and they’re able to work at something that they may not have been able to work for before. I’m just blessed to be able to pave the road and start something for them. I’m excited for the future of all sports in AU, especially softball.

Was there anything else that you wanted to mention that I didn’t bring up?

I do actually really want to add that the hospitality and how they’ve taken care of us since we’ve been here has been great as well. We have batting cages, we have training facilities, our locker rooms are great, and we’re following the CDC’s guidelines. It’s great to feel safe with everything that’s going on in the world. I was kind of second guessing it at first. I know I had a conversation with my mom. Like, I don’t know if I want to go because of Covid. But the league has done a great job following protocols and being in contact with CDC and having great doctors here and things like that to keep us safe. I think that’s my number one thing is I feel safe.

And another thing is the mental health part of it all. You think about coming into isolation by yourself for six weeks, and then you think about your mental health being alone, because some people just aren’t good with things like that, but again, they’re doing such a great job to help us. We have trivia nights and things like that to keep us kind of busy so that we’re not going crazy in the bubble. Every Friday night we have this thing called Friday Night Lights, and last week was about mental awareness, this week it’s going to be something different, then next week it’s going to be something different. Again, they just have a bunch of activities for us to come and attend online or even in person, but in person is only for people that are in the bubble. But it’s just awesome and great to see so many athletes and know that I’m not the only one going through some of the things that I’m going through. Just being able to talk to them and relate with them has been such a great experience as well.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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