While the 2012-13 Cougars wrestling season is still young, Leo McGee, head coach of both the women’s and men’s teams at the University of Regina, has no shortage of confidence in either team’s ability to compete.
“I don’t think that we have the experience that other people in the country do, but we’ve got good athletes,” McGee said. “We’ve got kids that work hard, kids that are a lot of fun to coach, and I guarantee that we’re going to be really competitive before this year is over.”
But it is not going to be easy to match last year’s success.
In 2011-12, the men’s team captured four individual Canada West gold medals on its way to its second straight Canada West team championship, while the women’s side also took home a pair of Canada West gold medals.
At the end of the season, the men were ranked second in the country, while the women were fifth.
This year, the men have their work cut out for them, as this year’s squad is missing three of last year’s standouts in Gilbert Musonza and brothers Connor and Gaelan Malloy.
“All three of those guys were conference champions,” McGee said. “I think when you lose a group like that you should be going ‘Oh my god,’ but I think that, like the women’s team, this is a young group, but I like this group.”
On the women’s side of things, McGee said he sees no reason why the team can’t improve on last year.
“The women were fifth in the country last year, and this is a much better team. I think that we’ve added a lot of young kids and good kids and it’s early in the season for a lot of them,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea of where we stand as the year goes on, but I think this group here is real good. I think they’re strong, and I think that we’re going to be a contender for a conference title.”
But if the Cougars women want to be contending for a Canada West championship in February, they will have to prove they can grapple with the best of them.
“I know right now Alberta’s got to be considered one of the top teams in the nation. They were ranked No. 1 all of last year,” McGee said. “They’re a powerhouse, but we’re going to be strong, and I think what’s going to make us strong is we’re going to be more consistent across a lot of weights. We don’t just have one or two good kids, we’ve got a number of good kids.”
“Experience is big, but if you’ve got an athlete and they’re not afraid of hard work, you can make up for a lot of experience.” – Leo McGee
While both teams’ lineups have their share of younger wrestlers, McGee doesn’t necessarily see that as a weakness.
“Experience is big, but if you’ve got an athlete and they’re not afraid of hard work, you can make up for a lot of experience,” he said. “You have to be a whole lot more directional as a coach in situations like that, but I like what we have. I like this group.”
Although he expects a certain degree of commitment on the mat and in the gym, McGee stresses that his wrestlers are students first and athletes second.
“When they come here to play a role in the program and to be a factor, their number one priority has got to be academics,” he said. “As long as they walk out of here at the end of the day with a degree … that’s the number one priority. That’s a full time job, and anybody that doesn’t think it’s a full time job is mistaken. The second thing to that is wrestling.
“Number three is the goods of college life, but don’t ever dare let that interfere with one or two, OK?” McGee warned, flashing a slightly menacing smile.
For some of the veterans on McGee’s squads, the balance between school and sport has become almost second nature.
“It’s my fifth year, so I’m used to the balance,” said Jasmine Slinn, one of the Cougars 2012 Canada West champions. “It takes time, like late night hours studying, early morning workouts, but I don’t find it difficult right now.”
In a sport as physical as CIS wrestling, there’s no room for laziness, Slinn said.
“If you really want to succeed, you have to commit every day,” she said. “There’s no skipping practice, because if you skip one day, then you’re two days behind.”
Fourth-year, Danielle Anderson, offered a similar answer, saying it takes a lot more work than people might think to stay competitive.
“We’re in here all the time. It’s kind of like a lifestyle,” she said. “You have to live and breathe wrestling, you can’t just do it … You have to be committed all year round. We don’t get an off-season. When you’re in the off-season, you’re still training.”
It also helps to have a coach like McGee, who Anderson describes as “the best.”
“I’m obviously saying that for brownie points, but no, he’s a good coach,” she said with a laugh. “He knows his stuff. He can pick apart any wrestler and make you good. He can take people who have never wrestled in their life and make them champions.”
But according to McGee, individual championships aren’t necessary for his teams to come out on top.
“The University of Minnesota won a national championship in division one wrestling without winning one weight class, so it’s teamwork,” he said.
“Our conference is really tough in both men’s and women’s. The name of the game for us is we would have to qualify as many people as we can to get them through to the national tournament.”
To McGee, the path ahead couldn’t be any clearer.
“The road to the national championship goes through Edmonton, Alberta,” he said. “They have the top program, I would say, in the conference in both men’s and women’s right now, so that’s where it starts.
“Our expectation is we want to compete. We want to compete for a conference championship, and it starts right there, and with both teams. Not just one.”
Photo courtesy Arthur Ward