“We have to be ready to kick some ass,” Al Tuchscherer, the Cascade women’s basketball coach, says to the team at their first meeting of the weekend, the night before the first of two games against the UBC Okanagan Heat. All eleven girls are sitting cross-legged on the room’s two beds as Tuchscherer stands at the front of the room.
The team, along with the men’s basketball team, have only arrived at their hotel in Kelowna 15 minutes ago, after a three-and-a-half-hour drive.
This weekend is important to the team and a lot is at stake. Not only are they playing the third ranked team in the Explorer Division of Canada West (the Cascades are fourth), but losing these games would essentially end the team’s playoff hopes. However, if the Cascades sweep both games, they’ll have new life in the playoff race with just four regular season games remaining. It’s a make-or-break weekend.
“We’ve had a really inconsistent season, so we’ve put ourselves in a bit of a hole here,” Tuchscherer says. “We’re not sitting in a playoff position right now, and it’s important that we get [there] … It’s better late than never to pull everything together.”
The girls listen intently as Tuchscherer goes over plays for the next day’s game. The singing and laughter that was on the bus earlier is replaced with silence as Tuchscherer emphasizes how much is riding on these games.
After the meeting, the girls grab some food. Some head for the Spaghetti Factory across the street from the hotel, while others opt for the nearby A&W — anything quick. There’s not much time for anything else when they have a big game the next day.
The next day the team is up early for breakfast, and at their morning practice by nine. The gym at the UBCO campus is empty — the bleachers haven’t even been pulled out yet — but that doesn’t mean the team isn’t nervous. With nine hours until the game, there’s no time for slacking off, and Tuchscherer’s morning practice routines makes sure that they don’t.
“As the season goes on, you need to be realistic and let your players know that there’s a little more at stake,” Tuchscherer says. “As coach, you’ve got to kind of make them understand the urgency, but not to the point where they’re freaking out about it. You’ve got to sense that.”
After practice, the girls head back to their hotel for study hall, something that Tuchscherer has added to the team’s road-trip schedule this season. With a younger team and a lot of first-year players, the group needs a bit more encouragement to get their homework done while on the road. The team heads to a conference hall that they’ve booked in the hotel and, without any push from Tuchscherer, they all start on their homework.
“It’s different for every team that we have,” Tuchscherer explains. “For a while we had a really good group that was veterans. We had a lot of fourth- and fifth-year kids on the team, and they know what to do, so you don’t really have to chase them around and you don’t have to be on them.”
But this year, with two first-year and three second-year players, the team is younger and a little less experienced.
“There’s some teams that you have to chase all over the place because they’re young and they don’t really get it,” he says. “This group’s a little different … they just kind of want to study.”
Course work is important to Tuchscherer, and making sure that the team is always on top of their game academically has served them well, with three graduated players currently in med school, one in chiropractic school, and many in various other professions.
“It’s almost a sports cliché — you’re here to get your education — but it’s true,” he says. “I think that’s why they are here, and in our program they understand that is why they’re here, and they’re using basketball as a vehicle to get their education.”
But academics aside, the team still needs to put everything they’ve got into these games.
With under two hours until game time, the team gets ready. With dance music blaring from someone’s phone and banter between the girls, it’s easy to forget just how important this game is.
That changes as the team steps onto the court. They warm up on one side of the court while UBCO is on the other, the tension between the two teams already growing.
But when the game starts, there’s no time for tension. All that matters is winning — and the team does just that. With a final score of 65-50, and 15 points from fourth-year forward Kayli Sartori, who’s leading Canada West in scoring, as well as 15 from guard Sydney Williams — the most of the night from the team — they’re one game down, one to go.
They’re proud of their win, but Tuchscherer reminds them to not slack — UBCO will be coming in stronger for the second game.
“Whenever you start a game with that hunger it needs to keep going,” he says to the girls in the locker room after the game. “They’re just getting warmed up … They’re gonna come at you and they’ve got the personnel to do that.”
The team may have defeated UBCO and be one win closer to their goal of nationals, but they still have one more game to face, and losing that would cancel out all the hard work of this game.
The next day isn’t much different, but it’s clear that the team is getting tired. It’s Saturday, so after morning practice Tuchscherer lets the team take a break from studying. After the team lunch at the nearby Spaghetti Factory, most of the players head back to sleep before their next game.
For Kayli Sartori, as well as the other girls, being on the road is a lot harder than playing home games, but that hasn’t stopped the fourth-year player from doing well. After taking a year off from the sport, this is Sartori’s first season back and she’s already been awarded two conference star of the week awards, is leading Canada West in scoring, and is in the top 10 for rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals.
“Your whole routine gets thrown,” she says. “At home I have a completely different routine than when I’m on the road. Here, it’s like your job. You show up to the gym, you get ready together, you go to the floor together. It’s different.”
Aside from a completely different schedule, being on the road comes with a lot less free time, and therefore less mental space to work and focus on school. This means that the athletes have to balance the little time they get, but that’s easier said than done.
“We don’t have any balance in our lives,” explains Sartori. “When it’s season, it’s season.”
“There’s a lot of sacrifice for some things. You see your friends going out and having a good time and having that sense of freedom,” Williams says. “There are sacrifices, but at the end of the day, you do it because you love it and there’s so much more of a reward to it.”
But it doesn’t take long for the girls to adjust to the craziness that comes with being a university athlete. After all, they’ve been balancing school and sports long before university.
“You get used to it,” Sartori adds. “I feel like every girl has had that schedule and that commitment and it doesn’t really change much. The only thing that gets a little different is the intensity of school.”
Being this close to the end of season, every game counts, and like the night before, the team shows how much this game means to them. UBCO’s efforts to come back stronger are no match for Williams and fellow guard Shayna Cameron’s on-fire scoring. Cameron’s 18 points and Williams’ 19 points, along with Sartori’s 19, bring the team a 90-44 victory over the Heat — their best offensive game this season.
With two wins under their belt, the team feels ready to face the rest of the season.
“It was such a great stepping stone for what’s to come in the following weeks,” Sartori says. “It wasn’t just a three-point win — that was a blowout. That was showing them that we are here to compete and we’re ready to go.”
Despite the craziness of being on the road every other weekend and having to balance a full course load on top of basketball, for Cameron, and all of the other girls on the team, it’s worth it.
“For me, basketball is my escape route, and I can see that with a lot of the other girls,” she says. “Being able to come together and achieve something together is probably one of the hardest things you can do with such different dynamics and personalities and characters.”
“It’s a love-hate relationship when it comes to basketball,” Sartori adds. “You don’t want to get up at six in the morning to go to practice at seven, and then go to classes for six hours and then go back to practice for the evening. You don’t love those parts of it, but you do it because of the big picture, because of the little things and the little goals you reach and the big games you get to play.”
“There’s so much more to it than the wins or the points — it’s that feeling when you know you’ve put your heart or your effort into it,” Williams says. “It’s the little things behind the scenes that, unless you’re able to experience that, you don’t really know what it’s like.”
It’s obvious that the girls are exhausted after the game, and they load the bus less than five minutes after the men’s game ends. The team is much closer to their goal of playoffs. That doesn’t mean there’s time to relax — but for now, with another three-and-a-half-hour drive home, it’s all they can do.