LANGLEY — The date and the stakes were not lost on anyone within the world of Trinity Western women’s basketball. 

Yes, for the first time ever, a game in the month of March. 

And with it, a last-ditch shot to qualify for the U Sport Final 8 championships.

And while the Spartans’ 65-63 home court loss to the Calgary Dinos last March 3 at the Langley Events Centre in the Canada West bronze-medal final halted TWU’s season one game shy of a berth at the national tournament, head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul barely gave herself enough time to shed a tear.

“I mourned the Calgary loss for a day or two, and then I went to nationals by myself,” Jean-Paul told Varsity Letters on Wednesday, just ahead of a flight to Ontario for a series of three exhibition games, which began with a 56-53 loss Thursday to the Western Mustangs and concludes with a pair against the Windsor Lancers on Friday (3 p.m.) and Saturday (4 p.m.). “I watched the eight teams there, and I made a list of all the things we weren’t doing.”

This is all a part of the process for Jean-Paul, who has annually repeated the habit and along the journey lifted TWU women’s hoops to a spot among the rising elite of the U Sports women’s basketball.

“Each team helped give me a recipe card of what is missing in our game,” she continued, “and so our goals by the end of the summer was to make all of that a part of our game.”

Nothing static. Continual reinvention.

It’s what made the 2017-18 TWU women’s basketball season the program’s new standard-bearer over its near-two decade existence in CIS/U Sports.

*A 16-4 regular season record which included a 10-1 record on LEC hardwood.

*A Canada West opening round sweep of the Alberta Golden Bears, then a push of the Saskatchewan Huskies to the limit before falling in a best-of-three conference semifinal.

*And then with one last shot remaining at that elusive national tourney berth, a one possession loss to the Dinos.

Yet while only two players have graduated, the absence of  5-foot-11 starting forward Kayla Gordon and the team’s sixth player, guard Ashleigh Barnes creates a void that isn’t as simple as finding replacements, from the 200 overall player-minutes-per game, for the 47 minutes the pair combined to provide .

“You lose two athletes but you look significantly different,” begins Jean-Paul who will miss the presence of her two former veterans as much as their combined near-20 ppg. “I don’t think we are prepared to make the mistake of thinking we will start right where we left off.”

Former Brookswood guard Julia Marshall has honed her Canada West point guard chops as she heads into her third season of U Sports hoops. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of TWU athletics)

NEWCOMERS LIKE BANNERMAN, BOSMA SET TO SHINE

A depth chart for for the 2018-19 Spartans will be dictated by pre-season performance, yet it’s clear what the team has coming back.

Impressively, there’s 6-foot, fifth-year forward Tessa Ratzlaff and her 18.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the front court.

And in the back court and swing spots, a healthy group of guards led by fifth-year shot-maker Jessie Brown, fourth-year Sarah Buckingham, third-year Julia Marshall and second-year Kianna Wiens.

Brown, a 37 per cent three-point shooter who averaged 12.4 ppg, has not travelled with the Spartans on the current swing due to her nursing studies.

Buckingham led the team in both minutes and assists last season. Marshall has developed her point guard skills, and Wiens brought 15 solid minutes per game off the bench in relief as the Spartans played it up-tempo the entire 40 minutes.

Jean-Paul liked the Marshall-Wiens partnership last season.

“With the speed and tempo we brought, it was hard for one player to do it all year, so the two guards allowed us to maintain pressure on the opponent for 40 minutes,” the coach explains. “And in a lot of games, we didn’t win until the last four-to-five minutes of play. Our win in the playoffs against Saskatchewan was like that, and so was our overtime win against UBC.”

From the incoming class of freshmen guards, local eyes will be trained on Chilliwack-G.W. Graham standout Jaya Bannerman.

Not surprisingly, her gusto for the game remains unabated at the next level, even though the natural process of gaining physical stature to compete in Canada West will take time.

“We’re looking for Jaya to wreak havoc,” Jean-Paul says of the 5-foot-7 Bannerman. “She is making (Marshall and Wiens) work. But the reality of the preseason is that you need to find out how deep you are.”

In TWU’s recent friendly against the Chinese national team, however, Bannerman tried to finesse a floater past a 6-foot-5 post and was promptly rejected.

“But she went right back at it and she has not backed down yet,” the coach explains. “Jaya has to be crafty because she’s not strong enough yet. Can she defend a (player like UBC’s) Jess Hanson? She is gamer. But she has to learn that if you don’t show me what you can do in practices, the game opportunities won’t come. Will she get her opportunities? That’s up to her.”

If there is a change from the past, it’s in the overall height Jean-Paul has efforted to bring to Langley.

Scan the roster and there are not only five six-footers, but one for each of the five years of eligibility.

“It’s funny but we played for years with no one over the height of six feet,” Jean-Paul says of having a lot of so-called tweeners. “So we had to get faster and force bigger teams to play at our tempo. It’s a hard way to play and it takes a lot out of you. Now, we’re almost split between our guards and forwards.”

The preseason will show just how touted CCAA transfer Jessica Bosma fits with the group of bigs.

Coming in as a fourth-year out of Hamilton’s Redeemer University, the 6-foot Bosma averaged 19.1 points per game, and scored the most total points in the entire OCAA last season. She was also third in total rebounds with 262, averaging 13.1 caroms per game.

“It will be all about her transition from the college to the university game,” Jean-Paul says. “But we are excited for the bigger bodies when it comes to the rebounding aspect. I remember so many games where Tessa and Kayla had to defend the 6-4 post, and the game plan was always ‘Good luck, and we’ll support you the best we can.’”

The Trinity Western Spartans, who open U Sports play this weekend with a three-game exhibition tour of the OUA, are working to insure they have plenty to celebrate in 2018-19. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of TWU athletics)

RECIPE FOR LONGEVITY

Jean-Paul’s recipe cards, gleaned from her time at the national tournament, were just the start of her preparations for 2018-19.

“In the spring, we did a lot of evaluation as to why we had success last season,” she says. “We spent the entire off-season looking at the gaps we might encounter with Kayla and Ashleigh graduated. Both of them played such a big role in our training environment that some of the softer voices and cooler attitudes needed to realize ‘I am going to have to step up and someone has to bring that fire.’ But it’s not fair to the athletes to expect one person to be the new version of another. If everyone steps up their competitiveness, then as a group we can take steps forward.”

The Spartans play the always-tough Windsor Lancers both Friday and Saturday before returning to home base in Langley.

From there, it’s a three-week break before they re-visit with Calgary in an exhibiiton game in Edmonton on Oct. 20. They’ll play the host Alberta Golden Bears the next day, then make a stop off in Bellingham to face the always-tough GNAC power Western Washington Vikings on Oct. 22.

Canada West play will open at home Oct. 26 with the first game of two-game weekend set against Kelowna’s visiting UBC Okanagan Heat.

“I feel this program has used heartbreak every year to get better,” Jean-Paul says of an opening-round playoff loss in 2016 to Victoria, a quarterfinals loss to Regina in 2017 and then conference semifinal and subsequent bronze medal loss to Saskatchewan and Calgary respectively last season.

“I can remember the days when there were 47 teams in U Sports and we were 46th,” she adds. “So it’s been cool to go from being one of the lowest-ranked team to being in the Top 10.”

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