After falling just short of a national title in 2012, the University of Regina Cougars women’s basketball team is looking to make amends in 2013.
Through the first three weeks of the regular season, the team looks to be in good shape, boasting a 5-1 record.
“I think we’re definitely one of the top three teams or so in the country,” said head coach Dave Taylor. “We had a really challenging pre-season playing the top teams. All of our losses have been to teams in the top five in the country, so yeah, I think we’re where we want to be.”
Despite the convocation of two elite players last year – guards Carly Graham and Joanna Zalesiak – this year’s squad continues to find success on the strength of a core group of veterans.
“Michelle Clark, Lindsay Ledingham, Brittany Read and Danielle Schmidt are all in essentially their last year for us, so with veterans like that, they automatically take the leadership spots,” Taylor said, adding that this year’s team has adopted a slight change in style compared to last year.
“Last year we were more run-and-gun and transition, this year we’re trying to be a little more of a half-court team,” he said.
While the team has been anchored by its veteran presence in the early stages of the season, a pair of standout rookies have been pitching in as well.
“Charlotte Kot and Katie Polischuk both have been contributing, and they’ll help us with our depth,” Taylor said. “They’re going to be future stars for us.”
Fifth-year guard Danielle Schmidt talked about this year’s different-look Cougars.
“We lost a couple of big players in Carly and Joanna, but we’ve had a lot of girls step up,” she said. “We’re playing a bit different style this year, trying to get it inside more, but we’ve been playing with this core group of girls for a while now so that’s a good thing.”
With the Cougars hosting the 2013 CIS national championships, that familiarity will go a long way towards ensuring the team puts on a good showing in front of its hometown fans.
“You always want to do well in front of your home crowd, but right now we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Schmidt said.
While hosting nationals means the Cougars automatically qualify for the final eight, Schmidt doesn’t see that as an excuse for complacency throughout the season.
“We’re not looking at that,” she said. “We want to earn our way in, and let other teams know that we deserve to be there, and that we’re a contender when we’re there.”
“I think we’re definitely one of the top three teams or so in the country." – Dave Taylor
To do that, Schmidt said, the team will have to work on being consistent game in and game out.
“We’ll go out one night and play really well, and then the next night not so well,” she explained. “Having the same level of consistency on the court and executing will be some of our biggest challenges.”
Staying consistent through a long season is more about mental toughness than physical, and “just knowing what works for you,” Schmidt explained.
“If you’re not having the best game, [it’s] learning how to get out of your funk, or how to contribute to the team in a different way,” she said. “It’s just learning to work together and bringing each other together when we’re not playing so well.”
The first test of their mental fortitude came in the first game of the season, when the Cougars lost in overtime to their provincial rivals, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
The season-opening loss came in stark contrast to last season’s spotless 20-0 regular season record, but could prove to be beneficial to the team in the long run.
“I think there was a lot of pressure, obviously, not losing a game and then going into the biggest games of your careers [in last year’s CIS Championships],” said fifth-year forward, Lindsay Ledingham. “It’s kind of nice to not have that in the back of your mind, and it’s kind of just nice to have some losses that you can learn from, because obviously when you lose you make a lot of mistakes, and to be able to take those into account helps.”
While the Cougars are off to another strong start, at this early stage of the season they’re still learning and adjusting to a new style of play.
“I would say right now one of our biggest challenges is defensively, just kind of containing our checks and keeping them in front of us, and then obviously with defence comes our ability to rebound out of it,” Ledingham said. “One of our strengths is our transition offense, so if we don’t get stops then we can’t run the floor.”
Learning a new system and perfecting it through practice is one thing, doing it on top of all of the other stresses of university life is another altogether.
But according to Ledingham, that’s just the life of a student athlete, and Cougars basketball provides her with a nice balance.
“It’s hard, because obviously you have a lot going on, but at the same time it’s kind of a relief to have two hours a day where you can kind of just step on to the basketball court and not have to think about school or any of the other drama going in your life,” she said.
“When you step on the court, obviously you’re just thinking more about basketball than all the other problems in your life, so it’s nice to have a couple hours to escape from those.”
The Cougars continued their pursuit of another national title on Nov. 17, when they hosted the struggling University of Manitoba Bisons for a weekend double header.
The Saturday afternoon contest featured a dominant showing by the Cougars starting five.
The home team held a decided advantage over the Bisons in both height and athleticism, holding the visitors to the outside for much of the first half, where they threw up brick after brick from behind the three-point line.
The first half saw the Cougars go on a seemingly effortless 22-0 run, finishing the half up 44-14.
The assault wouldn’t let up much in the second half, and the Cougars finished the game with an 83-32 victory.
Ledingham and Read both scored 14 points in the win, while Clark notched 13 points and added six assists.
Second-year guard, Kehlsie Crone, came off the bench to score 12 points, while fourth-year post, Nicisha Johnson, led all players with nine rebounds.
While the Manitoba offense would put up a better showing in the Sunday afternoon rematch, so too would the Cougars.
Clark and Schmidt led the Cougars with 17 points each as the home team disposed of the Bisons 104-51.
It was the first time the Cougars have cracked 100 points this season, and with the victory, their winning streak increases to five.
This weekend the Cougars head west to take on the Thompson Rivers Wolfpack on Nov. 23 and the UBC Okanagan Heat on Nov. 24.
Their next home game is Friday Nov. 30 against the Trinity Western Spartans.
Photo courtesy Emily Wright