The center of the Nebraska women’s basketball defense the past three seasons, Kate Cain found herself at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak at her family’s home in New York in early April.
The 6-5 center from Middletown, New York, returned to her family home as soon as the college basketball season and on-campus classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln officially ended in mid-March.
While home is usually a sanctuary and relaxing environment for college students to reconnect with family, and recharge their minds and bodies during breaks from school, Cain knew this trip home might be a bit more risky because of the virus.
“It was definitely weird for the season to end the way it did, especially since we were still practicing in hopes of making a run in the WNIT,” Cain said. “Once we learned that the tournament was canceled and school was going online, I did my best to get home quickly. I didn’t know what would be closing and if flights would get canceled, so I tried to get back quickly. Going home, I knew I was walking into a mess with the coronavirus being so prominent. It was kind of unnerving just because everything was so out of whack, but I tried to stay optimistic.”
While Cain, who was a CoSIDA Academic All-America nominee as a junior after earning Academic All-Big Ten honors for the second time in 2020, tried to make sense out of the sudden change in the world, the virus soon hit her family directly.
“A few weeks after I got home, we learned that one of my dad’s co-workers had tested positive with minor symptoms,” Cain said. “While everyone in New York was quarantined, my father was deemed essential, since he works at West Point for the Army Corps of Engineers. Soon after his co-worker tested positive, my father began to feel sick, followed by my mom and older brother. In the end, my entire immediate family had been exposed to and tested positive for the virus.”
Cain, who is the leading shot-blocker in Nebraska history and one of the top-10 shot-blockers in the history of Big Ten women’s basketball as she enters her senior season, was thankful that her own immune system recorded a big block to stop the virus, but not everyone in her family was so lucky.
“My father (Tim) and older brother (John) had minor symptoms, and my little brother (Chris) and I were asymptomatic,” Cain said. “Unfortunately my mother (Alison) was hit extremely hard by the virus because she has a compromised immune system.”
Cain’s mother, Alison, who was a 1,000-point scorer and one of the leading shot-blockers in Fairfield women’s basketball history, has a genetic kidney disorder and was the recipient of a kidney transplant during Kate’s freshman season at Nebraska. Medication associated with Alison’s condition actually weakens her immune system, making her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A nurse herself at an elementary school, Alison was hospitalized for a day because she developed coronavirus-induced pneumonia. Alison was able to fight through the illness, although everyone in the Cain family knew they were in a serious situation.
“While my family was sick, it was very scary and our daily activities were very unpredictable, especially since my mother was struggling so much,” Cain said. “But after a few weeks of remaining quarantined in the house, my entire family was cleared of the virus.”
As soon as they learned the news from Cain, Nebraska Coach Amy Williams and the Huskers were extremely worried for the entire family.
“We were obviously very concerned when we heard that Kate and her family were impacted by the virus, especially when we found out how severely it was affecting Alison,” Williams said. “We immediately wrapped Kate and her entire family in our thoughts and prayers. We felt such a strong sense of relief for the Cain family, as their symptoms began to subside and their health returned to normal.”
With the direct effects of the virus behind them, life has returned to a new version of normal for the Cain family, and Kate is completing final projects and exams before focusing on the summer.
“Now that everyone is better and stable at home, it has been pretty boring,” Cain said. “Although I enjoy getting to see my family at home, since we don’t get those opportunities often, we are all getting really stir crazy.”
The Cain family is athletic, competitive and hard working. They are not at all accustomed to sitting around the house. Kate’s father, Tim, was an All-American basketball player at Manhattan, while Alison starred for the Fairfield women’s basketball team in college. Kate’s older brother, John, is a 6-10 left-handed pitcher in the Los Angeles Angels organization, while her younger brother, Chris, a high school basketball player, plans to compete at Cushing Academy this season.
“It’s been frustrating trying to work out. I can’t see friends, and even the hassle of going to the store, but I understand the precautions needed to prevent people from becoming ill,” Cain said. “I feel very fortunate that my family got through the sickness.”
While she hasn’t been able to go to a gym, Cain has benefited from the family hoop at home, and she has worked to stay on task with individual workouts provided by Nebraska Women’s Basketball Strength Coach Stuart Hart.
“Since all the gyms are closed I am really fortunate to have a hoop in my driveway,” Cain said. “Other than shooting when it is nice outside, I’ve been doing the home workouts that Stuart sent the team. I have been doing just about any athletic activity I can do just to keep moving. It’s been kind of difficult to create the most normal and structured workouts right now, but I’ve been working with what I have.”
Now that Cain and her family have moved past their own bouts with the coronavirus, she is ready to focus on being a leader for Nebraska on the court as a senior in 2020-21.
A two-time Big Ten All-Defensive selection, Cain wants to work to get her game to an All-Big Ten level overall. More importantly, she wants to help carry Nebraska back to the NCAA Tournament – a feat she helped the Huskers accomplish as a true freshman in 2017-18.
“Plain and simple, I want to play in the NCAA Tournament again. I am going to have to be a leader and perform consistently on both ends of the floor in order to do that,” Cain said. “Despite the adversity that may come our way, I need to remain mentally tough and push our team to overcome the obstacles we may face. I am willing to do whatever it takes to get us back to the tournament, and I am ready to push myself to be the best player and best teammate I can be.”
Cain is no stranger to facing challenges on the court. Originally signed to play at Delaware after being ranked as one of the top-100 players in the nation by ESPN out of high school, a coaching change for the Blue Hens sent her in search of a new place to play even before she ever arrived on campus at Delaware.
“My college experience has definitely had its share of adversity. Even from the beginning, committing to Nebraska after a quick recruiting process after de-committing from Delaware was very stressful, and the adjustment was not easy,” Cain said. “I dealt with a lot of homesickness, especially my first two seasons, but I’ve grown up a lot being far from home.”
She made her decision to join the Huskers in June of 2017, just a few months after Nebraska completed its worst season in school history at 7-22. She made her collegiate debut with 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks off the bench in a win over SIU-Edwardsville in Lincoln on Nov. 11, 2017. She started the next 31 games for the Huskers, helping them produce the biggest turnaround in the nation in 2017-18, posting a 14-game improvement in the win column to finish 21-11 and advance to the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Cain earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team and the Big Ten All-Freshman Team by averaging 9.9 points and 7.0 rebounds while adding a then-Nebraska school-record 100 blocked shots. Along the way, she created an unforgettable moment in Husker history by recording the first points-rebounds-blocks triple-double in school annals with a career-high 22 points, 14 rebounds and a school-record 11 blocks in a win over Florida Atlantic at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Dec. 19, 2017.
“On the court there have been so many great moments and games at Nebraska. From beating Duke in a close game this past season to beating Iowa at Iowa my freshman year, there have been so many games where our team really rallied together and played for each other. I love those games,” Cain said. “Personally, I also really enjoyed getting the triple-double my freshman year, too. It really helped me realize that I’m capable of playing a big role in this program and definitely boosted my confidence as a freshman.”
As a sophomore, Cain’s production slipped slightly to 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 79 blocks, and the Huskers lost more games (10) by two possessions or less than any team in school history.
The frustration of a mediocre sophomore season helped fuel Cain during the summer of 2019. She started her junior season stronger and quicker than her first two college seasons. After she extended her streak of consecutive starts in a Nebraska uniform to 91 games, Cain closed the year averaging 9.3 points, a career-best 7.2 rebounds and a school-record 101 blocks. She claimed her second spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team, and helped Nebraska to a three-game improvement in the win column with a 17-13 overall record.
Still, as the season came to its unexpected close before Nebraska could compete in the postseason, Cain was not satisfied with the way the year ended on the court.
“I’ve always wanted to be a great basketball player, since I was little,” Cain said. “Growing up in such an athletic and competitive family, I’ve always been encouraged to do my best and push myself to win and succeed. There is so much I can do to elevate my game to an All-Big Ten level, and I’m going to work my hardest to reach that goal. I think in general, I need to be more consistent with my scoring. I’d have games where I’d be a scoring threat and others where I wouldn’t score at all, so I need to work on my consistency. I need to make sure I’m staying in the weight room so I can get stronger down low. I also need to develop more post moves going toward the basket, so I can draw more fouls and get closer shots. There are so many things I need to work on, but I think those are very important.”
Cain has shown throughout her career that she is not afraid to work on weaknesses in her game. She has proven that with physical and mental focus she can create positive results. As a freshman, Cain hit just 42.9 percent (24-56) of her free throws. As a junior, Cain hit 68.3 percent (28-41) of her attempts at the line and gained confidence throughout the season, which is helping to encourage her to attack the rim more.
“Basketball-wise, I’ve really struggled through periods where I lacked confidence and began to question my abilities and my role on the team,” Cain said. “I’ve always been really hard on myself in a lot of different areas in and out of basketball, but I’m extremely fortunate to have had the continuous support of my family, teammates, coaches and our team’s sports psychologist to help me through the highs and lows. The struggles have taught me a lot about myself and what I can overcome. I will continue to learn from the obstacles I face.”
Cain knows that Nebraska’s success in 2020-21 will require more than just her own increased individual production on the court. The Huskers will lose senior leaders and four-year starters Hannah Whitish and Nicea Eliely to graduation, along with seniors Grace Mitchell and Kristian Hudson. Like hundreds of schools around the nation, the Huskers also lost several transfers. Those departures have opened the door for a large group of first-year players who will be looking for leadership in Lincoln this coming season.
Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said Cain has the tools to elevate her play and become a stronger leader for the Huskers.
“I’m proud of the growth Kate has made in her first three seasons at Nebraska, and looking for her to have a great senior season,” Williams said. “Kate is very motivated to make her senior year her best. She has always had a very high basketball IQ and the ability to pick things up quickly, but she is starting to really understand the importance of the other aspects of the mental side of the game. She is working hard to do the things that keep her confidence high and allow her to stay focused through challenges.”
Cain, who expects to earn her bachelor’s degree as a management major from Nebraska in August before beginning pursuit of her MBA, will be the only returning senior on the Husker roster. She knows leadership and team chemistry will play key roles in Nebraska’s success.
“I’m definitely prepared to take a bigger leadership role this year,” Cain said. “Although I try to be helpful off the court and give consistent efforts to lead by example in practices, I’ve never been the most vocal leader. I’m going to have to be more comfortable expressing my opinions and pushing myself and my teammates to make sure we can accomplish our goals.”
Cain knows she won’t be alone in providing leadership. She is looking forward to the return of fellow fourth-year Husker Taylor Kissinger to the court, after Kissinger redshirted in 2019-20 with a hip injury. Cain also knows she can rely on the presence of junior-to-be Sam Haiby, who started all 30 games for Nebraska at guard as a sophomore.
“I’m definitely going to feed off of teammates like Taylor, who has been here just as long as me and brings a new perspective by playing a different position and having a redshirt season,” Cain said. “Great teams have great leaders, so I know how important it is to really step up this year.”
Cain is also expecting to have help inside with the return of sophomore-to-be Isabelle Bourne. The 6-2 forward from Canberra, Australia, played in all 30 games for the Big Red last season and capped her freshman campaign with a career-high 16 points, six rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.
“I was really impressed with Issie’s play last year. It was easy to see the raw talent she had with her moves and the athleticism she brought to the table,” Cain said. “With a year of experience playing in the Big Ten, Issie is going to be able to bring so much more to the team next season, which is exciting to think about.”
Cain is also excited about the opportunity to work with a large group of newcomers to the Nebraska program, who are hopeful about the chances of learning and growing together on and off the court in 2020-21.
“We have a lot of new faces coming in this year, and I’m very excited to see how all of these pieces come together. We have a lot of players who want to win and play together as a unit, and with so many weapons it’s exciting to see what the future will hold. I’m really excited to help get our team back to the NCAA Tournament, and I’m very optimistic when thinking about the future and the pieces being brought in. I want to end my career at Nebraska in the most positive way possible, and I want to put Nebraska on the path to remain successful after I leave.”