2015-16 is the final regular season where we see the Canada West basketball Conference (BC through Manitoba) of Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition split into two age-appropriate divisions. The Explorers Division houses the six newest teams, in UFV, Thompson Rivers, UBC-Okanagan, UNBC, Mount Royal, and Grant Macewan. Meanwhile, the Pioneers Division is home to the elder statesmen of CW Basketball, in Victoria, UBC, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Regina, TWU, Calgary, Alberta, Lethbridge, and Brandon. Needless to say, there’s some uneven scale-tipping taking place west of “On-terrible.”
UFV’s Cascades men’s and women’s basketball programs had sent a team to the national final four in the last few pre-realignment seasons, with the women bringing home a national bronze as recently as 2013-14, and the men coming in fourth place in the country for the 2011-12 season. Contrast that with playing the past two seasons in a division where only one of the other teams on each of the men’s and women’s sides had ever made the playoffs at this level (TRU Wolfpack in both cases). The 2014-15 season proved to be ample opportunity for coach Al Tuchscherer and the women’s Cascades to engage in the start of their rebuild, after losing all five starters (four to graduation) following their breakout bronze medal performance.
Meanwhile, the men continued their regular season dominance, adding 15 straight wins to the 14 consecutive regular season victories they ended the previous campaign with, only to lose in their quarter-final matchup to a Victoria Vikes team that went on to a conference gold, and a national tournament berth. Coming into this season, missing finally-graduated centre Jasper Moedt, as well as campus favourite and one-time perfect game shooter Kadeem Willis (40 points without a miss against Brock during last year’s pre-season in St. Catherine’s), the men from Abbotsford were expected to run away with the Explorers Division for the second year in a row.
The women, on the other hand, looked ready to jump out of their single-season rebuild with a completely retooled and by all accounts fearsome lineup; National Tournament all-star Kayli Sartori, the lone non-graduating starter not to return from that bronze-medal season, made her triumphant return official at the end of the first Explorers Division season. Teaming her back up with fellow WJ Mouat standout, post star Katie Brink, as well as adding former Quest University stalwart Shayna Cameron, who had just raised a PacWest banner at the college level (CCAA), as well as welcoming 2013-14 Canada West Rookie of the Year, Syd Williams, the women’s Cascades looked ready to regain their perch atop Canada West, Pioneer / Explorer inclusive.
That leads us to this past weekend, a trip to Kamloops, and a meeting with the aforementioned only other Explorers Division teams to reach the Canada West post-season before realignment. It would be difficult to make the case that both UFV men and women’s basketball programs were NOT the teams to beat in the Explorers Division, and at times, potentially even all of Canada West.
In previous years, TRU coaches Scotts Clark and Reeves would have been making big mistakes not planning to build teams that could compete with, if not eclipse those of their southern mainland rivals. The TRU men literally played for their Canada West lives last year, seeking out a win on UFV’s senior night, after forcing the unstoppable Nate Brown into a fifth disqualification the previous night, rendering him ineligible to play on the Saturday. The Wolfpack went on to graduate three huge parts of their attack, the Brett’s Parker and Roualt, and post Tallon Milne.
On the women’s side, TRU ran away with the division on the power of would’ve-been-Cascade Michelle Bos, superstar shooting post Taysia Worsfold, and one of the tallest teams in CIS women’s basketball. UFV did make the playoffs last year, thanks to a record-shattering season by Sarah Wierks, in her only year without older sister Nicole, but hosting the Regina Cougars, only three years removed from an unbeaten season, proved more than enough to stop the Cascades from rolling further.
But this year, with a retooled UFV women’s team, and a TRU men’s side that lost so many key pieces, the Cascades rolled into Kamloops looking for staunch competition. Four games and a 69-point differential later, it’s fair to say that TRU has asserted itself on top of the men’s and women’s basketball table in the Explorers Division of Canada West.
Both Cascades teams were playing without their star centres; Nate Brown sustained injury earlier in the season, and is expected back for January, while Katie Brink has been questionable since the pre-season with a flurry of different health issues. Mark Johnson, who began this regular season with consecutive breakout performances against UBC-O, sustained a season ending injury not eight minutes into game three at home, leaving the men two posts short of a full roster heading into Kamloops.
The women are also without the paint presence of Shayna Litman, who red-shirts this season after surgery last winter, while second-generation Cascade (brother Nate) Hailey Kendall made her season debut this past weekend after suffering a wrist injury, so shaking off the cobwebs is certainly a factor, and Kaitlyn McDonald hasn’t quite had enough shots under her belt to get the three-point prowess she exhibited so well in pre-season going, as the TRU announcing team never failed to remind us.
For coach Adam Friesen and the men, Superman Kevon Parchment was the main match-up in mind for a Wolfpack team that retained Boston Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk’s former high school teammate / lookalike Josh Wolfram, former Cascade Luke Morris, and point guard Reese my-older-brother-Kevin-was-a-great-guard-too Pribilsky. Add to this a veteran from the European leagues, Volodymyr Iegorov. Parchment had no room to work his magic on.
With a paint presence composed of consistent, if not flashy, Nav Bains, and newcomer Matty Cooley, the experienced Wolfpack big men were free to spread out onto the perimeter and fetter the looks from UFV sharpshooters Manny Dulay and Vijay Dhillon, despite the latter scoring 26 points in 24 shots on Friday night.
So it’s now the Wolfpack with an even more indelible mark on their backs, a state of being the Cascades know all too well over the past five years. Being the underdog hasn’t been something either of these teams know what to expect from, and being swept in four games between two teams over one weekend is something that hasn’t happened for years, and not at all, save at the hands of the UVic Vikes, one of the two most storied teams in this country’s post-secondary athletics history.
UFV closes out their season at home, hosting the TRU Wolfpack once again this year, and with that, we will wave goodbye to the Explorers / Pioneers Division Canada West Conference alignment, and no one will say it came too soon.