It’s been over a year and a half since Rams varsity basketball has been played at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.
The last game was a provincial championship between the Rams women’s basketball team and their division rivals, the Brock Badgers.
The team went into the game ready to defend home court after their most successful season to date, winning a record 18 games and finishing first in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) central division.
A second Critelli Cup under head coach Carly Clarke’s guidance was all but a given.
Unfortunately, the Badgers’ third-year centre Sam Keltos had other plans. She exploded for 42 of Brock’s 84 points, helping the team win its first provincial championship since 1983.
Despite the loss, the Rams still qualified for national championships in Ottawa, but the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers proved to be too much in the end.
The Rams lost by five points in the national quarterfinals. They played a consolation game against the University of Calgary, marking the end of an otherwise successful season.
Since then, some players believe the pandemic has washed away the disappointing end of the 2019-20 season.
“I think it’s completely gone,” said Marin Scotten, a fourth-year guard for the Rams. “It was just so long ago [and] so much has happened… We’re living in an entirely different world.”
The Rams team also looks different this season. Four of the eight players who played in the provincial championship are no longer on the team.
Former starting point guard Hayley Robertson signed professionally in France, and then signed on as an assistant coach with the Waterloo Warriors.
The Warriors also hired longtime Rams assistant coach Jessica Roque to be their head coach.
With their departure comes nine new players to the team this season with a variety of different backgrounds.
“I think we’ve been fortunate to attract more great players to our program,” said Clarke. “We’ve got a lot of depth and versatility this season.”
Coming from the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference, the Rams added two-time AUS all-star guard Mikaela Dodig last year, who is poised to fill a big role this season.
Dodig played four seasons with the University of New Brunswick.
Dodig said the transfer from the AUS to the OUA is almost like playing in a new league, but she’s been working with the team since the end of July to prepare for the season.
While Clarke was at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the national women’s basketball team, Dodig and her teammates worked with assistant coaches, starting with individual skill work and then moving to competitive drills.
The Rams also added Nyamuoch Teny and Eve Uwayesu, two fourth-year guards who transferred from the University of Windsor.
Coming from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the Rams added second-year guard Kaillie Hall from Bowling Green State in Ohio and third-year guard Tiya Misir from Long Island University in New York.
Hall has drawn attention from her teammates, especially for her defence and her active, offensive playstyle — either driving hard to the basket or cutting at the right time to get a good look.
“In terms of adding value, it’s just everyone’s goal to show up and do their job,” said Hall. “I think when we all collectively do that, really great things will happen.”
Hall, Misir and first-years Haley Fedick and Jayme Foreman stepped up in a big way during the team’s close win against Brock in the pre-season.
With numerous key players not playing due to injury management, the Rams squeaked out a one-point victory against the Badgers.
The new additions to the team also played a big role in a win against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, the defending national champions.
The Rams were down by 10 in the first quarter, but eventually pulled out a nine-point victory.
The team went undefeated in the pre-season, also beating the Western University Mustangs and the Warriors, a homecoming for Roque and Robertson.
“One thing I’ve learned about our team is that we’re extremely tough and we don’t give up easily,” said Misir. “We fight through everything. We’re very resilient and we’re extremely competitive. I feel like we bring that every day in practice, no matter what it is.”
Misir said when they play intense defence, it translates to their offensive play, with a high pace in transition.
“Our guards are really fast and everybody’s sprinting down the floor really fast. Even our bigs are quick. Once we attack we get it out to our shooters, and we’ve been knocking them down.”
The Rams have a lethal shooting attack with dynamic duo Scotten and third-year forward Rachel Farwell.
Farwell and Scotten were number one and two respectively in the three-point percentage bracket in the OUA.
Farwell has also impressed during the pre-season, playing some minutes at the centre spot after the departures of Bronwyn Williams and Emma Fraser this year.
With her ability to guard bigger players defensively and to stretch out the Rams offence with her shooting, she will be a key contributor this season.
One of the most important players this season will be Scotten. She returned to the team after graduating with a Bachelor of Journalism in June.
Scotten said she felt uneasy not knowing when her last game was going to be and wanted to give basketball and her teammates a proper goodbye.
“Everything felt really incomplete ending on that final year,” said Scotten.
This season will feature a new league-based structure for basketball, with two divisions comprising nine teams and a reduced 16-game regular season.
Each team will play each other twice.
Clarke said the changes in the schedule do not affect how the team will prepare because the OUA had previously changed formats regularly before the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the Rams will have more time to prepare for opponents and recover from games.
The Rams will play Queen’s, Nipissing, and Ontario Tech in the first half of the season, with the majority of those games happening on the road in North Bay and Oshawa.
After they return from the holiday break, they will play their final 10 games against the University of Ottawa, Laurentian, Carleton, York and the University of Toronto.
With the return of varsity basketball, Clarke is happy to be back to balance the long-term goal of winning championships with the day-to-day activities of the team.
“Our team always has sights on competing for a championship, but I think the big goal is just to really enjoy and be grateful for the opportunity to be back because it’s been so long,” said Clarke.
The Rams women’s basketball team will be returning to the MAC on Friday night for its first game of the season against the Queen’s Gaels.