NOWRA'S Kyle Leslie always knew playing college basketball in the United States was going to be an experience like no other.
But even he couldn't have predicted the challenges he and his Davis and Elkins College teammates would have to overcome during the 2020-21 season - largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Our team was shut down for two weeks due to two positive cases on our team, so we missed four games and had to make them up in the weeks to come," Leslie said.
"We finished the season playing three games a week for the final three weeks - playing some back-to-back games which made it tough.
"COVID-19 restrictions made it hard to access the gym and weight room in the early season, so it was hard to get extra work in but we made the most of what we had."
Despite all these challenges and a condensed schedule (only 15 games compared to 20 last season), which didn't tip-off until January 7, the Senators opened the year with a 108-100 win against Frostburg State.
But wins were few and far between for the former Nowra Anglican College student and his Senators, who finished the season with a 4-11 record - including a double-overtime defeat to Concord in the first round of the Mountain East Conference Tournament.
"I believe we played well considering we lost numerous senior and key players early in the season," Leslie said.
"It forced others to step up, which was a solid challenge.
"But playing with eight players most of the season gradually wore us down."
From a personal perspective, the 2020 Waratah League division two youth men's Most Valuable Player averaged 8.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists through his 15 games this season - which all marked improvements on his freshman season.
"I feel I made a jump from last season," the 20-year-old said.
"I averaged more points and focussed mainly on rebounding this season - I had the opportunity for more minutes this season due to our limited numbers.
"The freshman season is always the hardest, trying to adjust and play at that level of speed and physicality but I believe I've improved across the board since my first year at the school.
"I focussed on both defence and rebounding but also shot with more confidence - after putting in extra training on my contested shots.
"Also, thanks to playing alongside some of my older teammates, my understanding the college game and IQ on the floor has improved - with all them being extremely knowledgable about the best way to succeed at this level."
The Shoalhaven Tigers junior has now returned to Australia, which marks the end of his time with the Senators - as the six-foot-seven forward is transferring to division two school Southeastern Oklahoma State University for his junior season.
"My percentages did not go up as expected, meaning I'll be working on improving them in the off-season," he said.
"On top of that, quickness and defence have always been a goal that coaches want for me to keep improving.
"Going into my third year, being an upperclassman, I want to improve in IQ and knowledge of the game, while also having a better opportunity to excel and win, which I'll have by making a fresh start at a bigger school, with more resources like I'll have with the Storm.
"Also, leading and helping the freshman improve so we can strive as a team is definitely a goal for me, as I'm always trying to better my expectations to continue moving forward as a player."
Leslie is currently doing two weeks of hotel quarantine but is thoroughly looking forward to getting out on Thursday.
"Hotel quarantine hasn't been great," he said.
"Lots of television, homework and Xbox has gotten me through it but at the end of the day, I'm happy for it to be done.
"Although I've had the vaccine, I'm willing to quarantine if it means we as a country can move forward to a normality standpoint without any COVID-19 cases."
Once he is released, Leslie will team up with former Shoalhaven product Scott Balsar and line up for the Illawarra Hawks division one youth men's side - ahead of his return to the United States.
"I'm excited to play for the Hawks this year, as I feel it's the right progression from playing division two with Moss Vale last season," he said.
"The goal is obviously to bring a championship to Illawarra and I'm prepared to play an impactful role where ever that may be in order to help us win."
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