AUS Season Preview

AUS Season Preview

By Wayne Kondro Special to CIS

 

It is a simple statement of fact that Atlantic University Sport women’s basketball has never produced a national titlist.

They’ve come close on many an occasion, winning silver medals seven times, including UNB (1972, 1974 and 1976), Dalhousie (1980), UPEI (1989), Cape Breton (2006) and most recently, Saint Mary’s (2014).
 
The long drought, though, may finally come to an end this season as coaches say the mighty Huskies of Saint Mary’s, who coach Scott Munro has transformed into what’s euphemistically called a dominant program, can play with anybody, as they proved by spanking five-time consecutive Canadian Interuniversity Sport champion Windsor 73-59 during the preseason.
 
Rival coaches say the Huskies are the prohibitive favourite to capture their fourth consecutive regular season, and fourth consecutive postseason, title. And should they advance to the CIS women’s basketball championships, they’ll have the relative advantage of having familiarity with the court, and theoretically sympathetic fans, as the draw is being held at the University of New Brunswick next March.
 
The Huskies are so strong, says Acadia coach Len Harvey, they have “the potential to run the league.”
That task is made easier by graduation and coaching changes across AUS, says veteran Cape Breton coach Fabian McKenzie. “I think that the AUS as a whole is down. But past Saint Mary’s, our league is going to be a crapshoot every night.

Indeed, Munro appears to have turned AUS women’s basketball into his personal fiefdom, and the rich, as they say, just get richer. The Saint Mary’s line-up already features Kennisha-Shanice Luberisse, a first-team all-star, and the league’s rookie and defensive player of the year (a rare double), along with Angelina Carvery, Laura Langille and Shanieka Wood. Then there are erstwhile starters Emma Valikoski and Katrina Murrell. But add to that already-formidable unit such transfers as Jenny Lewis from Victoria and Rachelle Coward from Charlestown Southern, who is returning to the Huskies after a year off because of injury.

In short, a deep team with a winning pedigree has even more experienced and talented pieces. Little wonder that they spanked powerhouse Windsor. And that was without Coward, who sat out the match after being popped in the nose a few nights earlier.

“We did return our whole team and have lots of depth,” observes Munro. “It’s always nice when you have two or three people at each spot, without a big amount of drop-off.”

Indeed it is.

Rivals predict Cape Breton will pose the biggest threat to Huskie supremacy. McKenzie returns first-team all-star Alison Keough and second-teamer Colleen Keane, both of whom averaged double digits in scoring, along with point guard Valentina Primossi, Natasha Roach and Jalynn Skeir. Among the Capers’ recruits are 5-6 Baltimore, Maryland product Jayda Pearson.

“We’re better than we were last year. We’re a little more athletic,” says McKenzie, a five-time AUS coach of the year who’ll be looking to get his troops back into the national draw for the first time since 2011. “Our problem is scoring a lot. We have to score by committee.”

Alumnus Mark English assumes the reins at Memorial after leading the University of Prince Edward Island to the AUS postseason final in his rookie year at the Panthers helm. The former men’s assistant at Lakehead was lured back to the Rock to replace dismissed 22-year-veteran Doug Partridge.

The Sea-Hawks graduated big guns Megan Robinson and Tianna Brown but returnees include Brooklynn Wright, Chante Clark, Sydney Stewart, Sydney Ezekiel and Carolyn Adams. “We got some good size there. I see it as a pretty good defensive line-up for us. They can protect the paint and we can get out and pressure with that line-up,” says the 31-year-old English. “New coach, new team, girls that played a smaller role for us in previous years now all of sudden are trying to find their own. They have to get comfortable with that, get comfortable with each other.”

Throw a blanket over the remainder of the squads, most of whom, the coaches say, will be honing their skills at small-ball.

As hosts of the CIS nationals, UNB earns an automatic berth into the draw, which gives the Varsity Reds the luxury of time to reincorporate 6-3 post Katelyn Mangold and 5-6 guard Chelsea Collette into the line-up when they return from the lengthy ACL recovery process in January. Until then, UNB will rely heavily on second-team all-star point guard Grace Wade, wings Laura Kaye and Nicole LaFleur, along with forwards Kiley DeLong and Rachel Cleary.

Coach Jeff Speedy says the Varsity Reds have good inside-outside balance and exceptional depth. “Our Achilles heel has been turnovers,” he says. “We have to cure that.”

Second-team all-star Lindsay Lessard should draw fewer double teams and have a little more room to operate at St. Francis Xavier with the return to the roster of two-time 2nd-team all-star (2013 and 2014) Kolbi Roper and Kimberley Taylor, after a year off because of injuries. Courtney Kilyk will start at off-guard, while the point will be manned by highly-touted Halifax rookie Chelsea Provo, backed up by Dalhousie transfer Korenda Colley. Depth comes in the form of Shannon Hatch, daughter of three-time AUS MVP and three-time CIS 1st-team All-Canadian John Hatch, forward Kayla MacIntyre, and Louisiana guard Marcy Robinson, a transfer from Mid-American Christian University.

Provo may be just the therapeutic solution for a grade-A hoops headache, says X-Women coach Augy Jones. “AUS is a guard-oriented league and last year, we got killed with 22 turnovers per game.” Jones also plans to mix-up defences more this season as a means of “changing tempo” and throwing a few spanners into opponents’ strategies.

After a dreary 0-11 start, Acadia turned around its 2014-15 campaign around when Arizona product Paloma Anderson joined the roster after Christmas, which will surely bring a grin to Harvey, who left Mount Royal to return to his roots in the Annapolis Valley by replacing retiring-legend Bev Greenlaw. The desert whirlwind will again play the point, and guide a formidable front-line that could go 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, if Harvey takes that option. Projected starters include Emily MacLeod, forward Alexandra Berry, wing Lauren Jodrey and off-guard Chanel Smith. Among rookies expected to contribute are Nova Scotia juvenile team gunner Alyson Fulton.

The 5-1 Anderson “plays like she’s 6-4. She’s got the heart of somebody who’s a foot taller,” says Harvey. “We’re trying to free them up a little bit more. We’re not running a lot of sets or anything yet. We’re really trying to get into our flow of offence and so far, we’re top five in the country [in scoring], for whatever exhibition is worth. We’re putting the ball in the hole, which helps. We just gotta figure out how to keep it out of ours.”

With the departure of English, UPEI, in turn, reappointed Greg Gould, one of Atlantic Canadian basketball’s classic characters, to the helm. He guided the Panthers in 2013 and 2014, improving their record from 6-14 to 9-11, and there’s no reason to believe that, given time, he’ll won’t ultimately prove as successful as he was in the high school ranks (12 New Brunswick titles).
 
For now, though, Gould must re-tool after losing eight regulars. The returnees include Anne Kiberd, Tamara Tompkins, Katelynn Donahoe, Kiera Rigby and Jane McLaughlin but all are under 6-0, so there is nary a legitimate post threat among them. Among the newcomers is 5-9 Illinois junior college product Angenay Williams, who’ll become eligible at Christmas.

“I hate losing more than I like winning,” Gould says. “I’ve won championships and the satisfaction lasts about a day. I’ve lost championships and the disappointment lasts for years.”

The trick will be instilling that ethic in his Panthers.

Dalhousie graduated first-team all-star Courtney Thompson but returns fifth-year forward and second-team all-star Tessa Stammberger, daughter of coach Anna Stammberger. Other projected starters will come from the mix of Christina Brown, Shalyn Field, Shannon Forbes, Ainsley MacIntyre, Sophie Gaube and rookie post Michela Barresi.

The Tigers are defending better this season, Stammberger says. “I’m very pleased and excited about that because if we can keep the score down, then we have a chance in the games. ... Also, for us, we need to learn and embrace more physicality. We need to play more physical.”

That, my friends, is a universal proposition advanced by all coaches.