Sunny days and ways
The M Club must already be planning the soiree.
And who knows? Perhaps they can convince a now-famous English lit grad to have a celebratory sparring match with Marty the Martlet to cap the festivities.
As Montreal Member of Parliament and newly-minted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be inclined to say, these are “sunny days, my friends, sunny days,” for the women’s basketball program at his alma mater.
The McGill Martletshave captured the past five Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec regular season titles, the past four postseason crowns and stand poised to better last year’s national silver medal when Canadian Interuniversity Sport tips-off its 45th championship draw at the University of New Brunswick next March.
Rival coaches say the Martlets have a legitimate shot at becoming the RSEQ’s first CIS title-holder since Bishop’s in 1984. They have such phenomenal depth, the coaches add, that you could pluck five players off coach Ryan Thorne’s bench, and they’d be in the hunt for a league title.
The only problem with that notion, Thorne says, is that he doesn’t really have a first or second unit, just a seemingly bottomless roster that’s shuffled in and out of the rotation depending upon their level of exertion in practice.
“I think we have pretty good depth,” he concedes. “We don’t lose a lot when we sub.”
Indeed, the embarrassment of riches includes first-team All-Canadian, RSEQ player of the year and leading rebounder Mariam Sylla, second-team league all-stars Dianna Ros and Jennifer Silver, the league’s leading shotblocker Alexandria Kiss-Rusk (who once toiled at Virginia Tech), point guard Marika Guerin and fifth-year forward Gabriela Hebert.
A half dozen of the 14 Martlets were lifted from Les Nomades de Montmorency units (coached by Guillaume Giroux, a former McGill assistant who was recently appointed to the helm at Laval) which captured Canadian Colleges Athletic Association titles. So they know how to win. The latest addition from the Momo pipeline is Gladys Hakizimana, who led the college ranks in assists last season.
After their run to the CIS final, the first time since 2002 that a Quebec team (Laval) made the championship game, the Martlets’ biggest challenge is remaining focused, says Thorne, the starting point guard on the 1998 Bishop’s men’s CIS title team. “Sometimes, based on the way you finished the year before, you kind of become complacent and think, ‘hey, we’ll be there,’ next year or this year. They have to understand that it’s a process and you gotta take the right steps to get there. You’re not just promised that.”
Giroux got a rude welcome atLavalwhen Jane Gagné, a first-team all-star and the league’s reigning rookie of the year, tore an ACL in preseason. Joining her on the sidelines is 5-7 second-teamer Sarah-Jane Marois, another ACL casualty who won’t be available until December. That leaves Giroux, who won seven of the last 14 CCAA titles while coaching at Momo, with an ultra-quick starting line-up featuring point guard Claudia Emond, off-guard Gabrielle Girard, wing Raphaëlle Côté, forward Geneviève Derome and post Justine Guay-Bilodeau.
Giroux says Côté appears poised for a breakout season, and “if we can get back Sarah-Jane after Christmas, we could be a team that could be in the pack because we have a lot of speed. We shoot really well. Obviously, we rely on that a lot because we’re not big, so we don’t have a lot of inside game. But by penetrating with the dribble and kickouts, we give ourselves chances to get good shots.”
Having assisted at McGill for the past four seasons, does Giroux know the secret Martlet weaknesses and have enough weapons and a game plan to challenge Thorne’s juggernaut?
“They don’t have a lot of weaknesses, that’s the problem,” he says. “I know them well. But they have the package right now to win it all. I even think they should be the favorite for the entire country this year.”
Don’t underestimate Giroux though. Coaches in the CCAA ranks have long marvelled at his skill at eliciting hardcourt magic from his troops.
Coaches say the Université du Québec à MontréalCitadins may also pose a threat to McGill supremacy. The Citadins return 2nd-team All-Canadian and RSEQ first-team all-star Quételine Célestin to their line-up, along with another first-teamer, Jessica Lubin, and a tenacious guard, Janice Quintos. Others logging major minutes over the course of the preseason have included Sarah Cabana, Lorna Desrameaux-Simon, Bianca Marois and Carmen Djossou.
Célestin is a whirlwind on the court and Lubin a force in the paint, but the Citadins may lack a measure of depth. Still, coach Albena Branzova says her troops are contenders because their basketball IQ rapidly improves with each game. “We’re not very tall, so we’re trying to compensate with aggressivity and good defense, and quickness. It’s not just about size. It’s about playing the game right. ... We have to be patient, move in the right place and the right time, with the right speed, and make sure you see what’s going on, on the court.”
After two years as the recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Montreal-born Hofstra University guard Tenicha Gittens returns to Canada to assume the helm atConcordia, where two-time RSEQ player of the year Kaylah Barrett (2012 and 2013) has graduated, but first-team all-star and the league’s leading scorer (15.8 ppg) Marilyse Roy-Viau returns.
Expected to join Roy-Viau in the starting line-up are forward Richelle Gregoire, McGill transfer Marie-Eve Martin, Canadian-born University of Tampa transfer Shanica Baker and veteran point guard Tamara Pinard-Devos.
“We’re not going to have an issue scoring. We’ve got enough shooters and we’ve got two, three off the bench that can fill up the basket as well,” says Gittens. But defensive discipline will be a pre-requisite, “being able to stop teams and take them out of what they want to do, being able to dictate and act, and not react, on the defensive end.”
Ecuadoran national team guard and second-team all-star Edith Noblecilla Varela will again serve as the primary threat atBishop’s, having recovered from an injured wrist suffered at the FIBA Americas women’s championships. The Gaiters will also start 6-4 Argentinian post Mara Marchizotti, all-rookie selection Noemie Hamel-Petit, and rookies Ashley Milhomme and Maude Archambault, who coach Alex Perno recruited from Momo in hopes of avoiding a fourth consecutive 0-16 campaign.
“We play well at times,” Perno notes. “Offence for rookies is kind of on and off.”