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Cindy Brunson, Sheryl Swoopes’ AU partnership a ‘dream come true’

Cindy Brunson and Sheryl Swoopes (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

When Athletes Unlimited basketball began five weeks ago, it wasn’t just the players who made history. Cindy Brunson and Sheryl Swoopes, AU’s broadcasting team for the inaugural season, became the first female commentary duo of color to lead a professional sports league.

“If you’d have told me, tapped me on the shoulder 20 years ago when I was at ESPN and said, ‘Hey, this is coming,’ I would’ve been, ‘Yeah, right, I’ll believe it when I see it,’” Brunson told Just Women’s Sports. “But now that it’s happened and I actually get to be a part of it, it’s so freaking amazing.”

Brunson has sat in history-making seats before. Two years after starting at ESPN in 1999, Brunson became the first biracial woman to host “SportsCenter.” She was there for 13 years before leaving to join the Pac-12 Network and work other sportscasting gigs.

Then last year, Ilene Hauser, Athletes Unlimited’s senior advisor of operations and the former manager of marketing at Nike, approached Brunson with the opportunity to serve as the play-by-play voice of AU’s debut basketball season. The chance to serve in a front-facing broadcast role for a major professional sports league was too good for Brunson to pass up. And the possibility of having Swoopes join her as color commentator made it feel like a winning lottery ticket.

Swoopes, the first player to sign with the WNBA in 1997, ended her career as a four-time WNBA champion and three-time MVP, and is still considered one of the best women’s basketball players of all time. While she’s worked in the booth periodically since her retirement, Athletes Unlimited gave Swoopes her first full-time color commentary gig at the professional level.

“I’ve had the great luxury of working alongside some really fantastic people in my career,” Brunson said, shouting out fellow “SportsCenter” hosts Neil Everett and Stan Verrett, but she noted that her chemistry with Swoopes has been off-the-charts since the beginning.

“It has blown me away,” she said. “I’ve never gotten into a rhythm that quickly with an analyst in my career.”

Swoopes said Brunson is “a big reason why” she has enjoyed the five-week gig with Athletes Unlimited and hopes to work with her again in the future.

“She has taught me so much about being an analyst,” Swoopes said. “She is such an amazing broadcaster but an even better person. Her knowledge, passion and excitement for the game is what’s missing in the women’s game today.”

Brunson and Swoopes both recognize that the existence of a league like Athletes Unlimited only contributes to the growth of women’s sports. For a long time, people who played and worked in women’s sports operated with the attitude that they were “just happy to be here,” grateful for whatever scraps they were given. Brunson believes that narrative is a thing of the past.

“Athletes Unlimited has said that, not only do we not want to be adjacent, we want a seat at the table,” Brunson said. “In fact, we want to be at the head of the table. And I love that about this league.”

While AU was founded in early 2020 by two men, Jonathan Soros and Jon Patricof, the women who have taken a chance on the burgeoning league are united in their efforts to forge their own path. Beyond the founders, everyone Brunson has worked with at AU has been a woman.

“I think women have gotten to the point where they are tired of waiting for men to do the right thing,” she said. “They have built a bridge, they have gotten over it, and they are taking the reins to make things happen for themselves.”

Part of the generation that “did a lot of going along to get along” in order to make strides earlier in her career, Brunson has been glad to see a shifting of the tides. Now, she can prioritize Athletes Unlimited rather than call games for other networks just to maintain her standing in the male-dominated industry.

Brunson knows she has the responsibility of being a standard-bearer for women in sports. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted and then slowed sports down in 2020, she gained a new understanding of how much of an impact she has on those watching at home.

“It’s not just me driving down the road in my career anymore,” she said. “I’ve got a bunch of younger, Black and brown people in the backseat, so what I do, what exit I take has to be as good for them as it is for me. That’s why it was a no-brainer for me to do Athletes Unlimited.”

It’s also why the emotions rushed in after she and Swoopes finished their first AU game in late January. The magnitude of what they had accomplished as trailblazers in the women’s sports broadcast booth was finally starting to set in.

“When I took off the headset after that first game, my eyes were wet,” Brunson said. “I just thought, this is how I dreamed it would be. And my dream came true.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.

Caitlin Clark stuns in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports. It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation and shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing him a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her best line of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns start NWSL season winless, in uncharted territory

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage and remaining winless through its first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before. Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, answers need to be had from head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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