For Easter, Dip Metress dresses up like the Easter Bunny. At Thanksgiving, players who join the festivities have to take a picture with the inflatable turkey in the yard. At Christmas, players have to wear holiday hats and exchange gag gifts.
Heather Metress enjoys the food and company every year. But most of all, they enjoy a tradition that started back during Dip’s early coaching days at Belmont Abbey.
“We were going to be home one year for Thanksgiving and some of the kids were going to be around, so we invited them over to our house,” said Heather, who is the registrar for AU. “It’s such a different atmosphere than when you just have them over because it’s very relaxed … They spend a little more time there than when it’s just a typical dinner. We realized that we enjoy doing it as much as they hopefully enjoyed the environment.”
Once they came to Augusta, the couple started hosting team Christmas parties.
“We are usually playing around Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was basically, players didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Dip Metress, who is in his 16th season as head coach with the Jaguars. “We’ve also had guys who have nowhere to go during Thanksgiving or Christmas, so those guys often will stay with us.
“Usually around this time, people are leaving and not coming back until January and the players are usually the only ones in the dormitories, so we want to give them something to do so they’re not lonely,” he added.
He said the dinner is always a hit, which has ranged from tacos to grilled selections to Italian food.
Early on for the international players, it was a guaranteed place to be able to spend time during the holidays. With changes to the NCAA rules and scheduling, some players have time to go home these days, but others stay in town.
Freshman guard Gabriel Moller is from Njardvik, Iceland, and this year was his first Thanksgiving experience. His parents were also in town for his 20th birthday and the Metresses told him to invite them to dinner.
“We don’t have Thanksgiving in Iceland. I’ve heard of it, like in the movies and stuff. But it was different,” Moller said. “The food was really good. The Thanksgiving culture was different but we’re surrounded by good people.
“And my parents really like the environment that I’m in,” Moller added. “They like the people that help take care of me … It just feels like I’m in a family.”
For senior forward Rafael Monteiro, this is his second year experiencing the holidays in Augusta. He said last year everyone really got into the gift exchange because “everyone just kept stealing it from each other.” But the overall excitement of being able to spend time as a team away from the court is a good bonding experience.
“It makes it feel like home because I can’t go back to Brazil, but it’s really fun and makes the team like each other better and get more chemistry.”
Monteiro also enjoys showing his mom the pictures posted on social media.
“Yeah, she’s big on that … she loves it. My dad, too,” he said.
Heather Metress acknowledges she gets more excited about it than anyone else because she likes to sit down and plan the days, but it’s also a chance for the players to see her husband in a different setting.
“They always see him as the disciplinarian because he’s always getting on to them about academics and basketball, but when they see him at our house for the holidays, I hope they see him for the person that he is,” she said.
She mentioned that former players will show up if they’re in town because they know the couple will be hosting the team and friends, which allows her to reminisce about the times they spent together.
“Student-athletes have a hard time; there’s a lot of pressure on them when it comes to academics and sports. We want them to know that this is a safe place to land,” Heather said. “We just try to make it light and fun. They know if they come to the house, we’re going to ask for pictures with the turkey or Dip as the Easter Bunny … and, you know, I think if they hated it, they would avoid coming to the house, because they know we’re going to do it. But I think this is something everyone looks forward to doing.”
Both Dip and Heather know what they’re doing for the team means a lot not only to the players but also to their parents, especially since their daughter, Elizabeth, is team manager for the University of Georgia women’s basketball team.
“Oh, I think it means a good bit to their parents because I think it’s important to see their child,” Dip Metress said. “I think (the players) enjoy the camaraderie of having teammates and just kind of hanging out with each other.”
“A lot of my very first interactions with the international players is when I see them for the first time here,” Heather Metress said. “Having sent my daughter to college, I have so much respect for these parents and that they can do this because it’s hard.
“Our daughter’s at UGA and we cried the whole way home. And so I think that was one thing that Gab’s mom said to me was it wasn’t just that we were sending him to college, we were sending him to an entirely different culture and speaking an entirely different language. And I just said wow, because I thought I had it hard dropping my daughter off.
“Here they’re putting their trust in Augusta University but also in Dip’s hands, and I just want them to know that we don’t take that lightly. We’re going to take good care of them, and any time that you can extend some hospitality, I think that goes a long way,” she said.