LANGLEY — Even in more tumultuous times, her body language never wavered.
The women’s basketball program at Trinity Western University has gone through some pretty tough times since Cheryl Jean-Paul took over the program in 2010, yet there has always been something comforting, almost stoic about the way the Spartans’ head coach has watched over her teams from the sidelines, her familiar crossed-armed pose symbolizing an unspoken and ongoing expectation to grow and improve.
And now, eight seasons into a process that started with 2010-11’s nightmarish 3-21 campaign, the results of faith and patience — from Jean-Paul, her players and the school’s athletic department — have manifested themselves in a 5-1 start to the current Canada West campaign, one which continues Friday (6 p.m.) and Saturday (5 p.m.) as the second-place Spartans head to Vancouver to face the UBC Thunderbirds (3-3) at War Memorial Gymnasium.
Last season’s 12-8 record was a huge high-water mark.
It not only set an all-time program high for wins in a season, it marked TWU’s first .500-plus record and led to the team both hosting and winning its first-ever playoff series.
This season’s 5-1 start?
It comes on the heels of a 4-1 preseason record in which the team’s only loss was a 66-60 setback to traditional NCAA Div. 2 standout Western Washington.
“We talked a lot about a culture change, about creating an environment where alums leave our program with a sense of ownership of it,” said Jean-Paul, “and not just the basketball pathway. It’s about them investing so much time and energy into this environment that they want the next person to wear their jersey to have more than just a basketball experience.”
Yes, the school is faith-based, and when it’s pointed out to Jean-Paul that just such a belief system must have come in handy as she patiently built the Spartans into contenders’ status within the Canada West, she isn’t beyond a bringing a light moment to what began as an epic struggle.
“Yeah, it took a lot of faith,” she gushed. “But even though we were patient with our program, I knew what we were shooting for.”
…ALL PART OF A BIGGER PICTURE
A good barometer of the Spartans’ cohesion could be seen last Saturday at the LEC.
Playing for a sweep of visiting Victoria Vikes (4-2) and looking to set a new program-record five-game win streak, Trinity Western opened the game on a 14-3 run en route to a 70-63 victory over a team that was undefeated when the weekend began.
Kayla Gordon, a 5-foot-11 fifth-year senior forward out of Prince George’s Cedar Christian has developed into a most dependable team elder, and she finished with a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Fourth-year players Tessa Ratzlaff (MEI) and Jessie Brown (Brookswood), added 18 and 16 points respectively as co-leaders from the team’s respective front and back courts. Guards Sarah Buckingham (Lord Tweedsmuir, 3rd) and Julia Marshall (Brookswood, 2nd), the latter the former B.C. Triple A championship Defensive MVP, round out a starting five which has shown great inside-out balance.
“When you have a group that has stayed together for a few years, they learn how to fill in each other’s gaps and this group has done a good job of that,” says Jean-Paul, who played five years with the Manitoba Bisons and later coached at the CCAA level where, in 2009, she led Red River College to the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference title.
Yet if the task at hand of building a winner at one of the smallest schools in U Sports’ entire membership seemed especially daunting for the women’s basketball program, Jean-Paul took heart in the fact that several other Spartans’ programs were doing just that, and as a resource to her, their doors wide open.
“When I got here, the first thing I did was sit down with all of the other coaches to ask them how they built their programs,” she says. “Very early on I learned from (women’s soccer coach) Graham (Roxburgh), (men’s volleyball coach) Ben (Josephson) and (women’s volleyball coach) Ryan (Hofer) that your players have to be the right people first.
“When you have those core players, then you can put your heads down and work hard,” Jean-Paul continues. “I will admit that sometimes we had to look hard for proof. There were the years where we might win five or six games, but lose seven by single digits. But we worked and waited for a breakthrough. Getting a taste of the playoffs, and then a playoff win really accelerated the process.”
Jean-Paul also feels that the conference’s ill-fated attempt at creating so-called ‘A’ and ‘B’ divisions with the Pioneer and Explorer conferences, one which was scrapped last season, actually helped her program, which had been placed among the more established teams.
“When we went to two divisions, people would ask me if I was upset we weren’t in the other division,” Jean-Paul relates. “I understood what they were saying but the way I looked at it, we got to play a ranked team every week. I think that is one of the main reasons we are finding ways to win now is because we got beaten up for several years in a row. My part was to help us understand that it was all a part of a bigger picture.”
WHAT A LEGACY LOOKS LIKE
Chantelle Martin was a talented guard who brought a rough-and-tumble edge throughout her high school career with top-ranked teams from Surrey’s Elgin Park Secondary.
In fact in her Grade 11 year of 2008 she helped the Orcas win the B.C. Triple A title.
Yet after spending her first two collegiate seasons at Utah Valley University, she transferred to TWU for Jean-Paul’s second season for the challenge of her life, red-shirting with the Spartans back in 2011-12, then playing the next three seasons.
“I think that Cheryl works so incredibly hard,” says Martin, 26, who has returned to her alma mater and is now in her second season as an assistant on Jean-Paul’s staff. “And the one thing she always told us about was buy-in, that we might not experience success but that one day we would be able to see that we had left a legacy. Now, we’re seeing it.”
When viewed through the widest prism possible, that may be the greatest single asset Jean-Paul has brought to the Langley team.
Martin’s three seasons in Trinity Western colours were not exactly prosperous.
The team went a combined 16-48 in the Canada West.
Yet look at the players brought in at or near Martin’s final playing campaign in 2014-15 and you see surnames like Ratzlaff, Gordon and Brown.
“We had a lot of frustrating losses, we would get blown out, we did’t win a ton,” verifies Martin. “It was hard to come back on Monday to practice when you had so lost so many games in a row, but Cheryl ran the kind of program where we were on the floor for two hours and then into the weight room. She did not give us time to feel sorry for ourselves.”
It’s like Jean-Paul said earlier: “Yeah, it took a lot of faith.”
Through all of those tough times, quite incredibly, her message never changed, and while maintaining her steadfast stance, Cheryl Jean-Paul, without the standard measure of tangible win-loss success, achieved total team buy-in.
Look at Martin, she has decided to give herself to the game.
She is now a teacher, working at Langley Secondary School, and despite the demands of collegiate coaching, she will guide the fortunes of the LSS junior varsity Saints girls this season.
As well, she also spent a part of the summer honing her coaching chops within the local club system.
And that’s where the best part of this story unfolds.
“When I am with Cheryl, I am always taking notes and learning a ton,” says Martin. “In fact a lot of the things I do, I have learned from her.
“But it was the funniest thing that in the summer, when I was coaching a club team,” Martin continues, “I realized in my head one day that I was standing there just like her. Coaching just like she does, with my arms crossed.”
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