LANGLEY — There is a virtual mountain of statistical evidence to illustrate just how unforgiving a season the young Trinity Western women’s basketball team endured in 2019-20.
The good part for the Spartans is that head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul has been through this tough, early part of the journey before with her program, and its precisely why there is plenty of reason for optimism despite what the numbers might say coming off a 6-14 Canada West campaign in which TWU missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
One of those statistical essays?
Out of the 50 opposition starters who made up the 10 teams on the Spartans’ 20-game Canada West schedule this past season, 56 per cent of them were either fifth- or fourth-year starters, and that is even further magnified because a Trinity Western team which most regularly started a third year, two second-years and a pure freshman, had the youngest starting five (at 2.2 years per player) in the entire Canada West.
“It was such a wealth of experience we faced every weekend… so extreme that we had to be realistic,” admits Jean-Paul whose team may have missed the post-season but played a regular-season conference slate which included seven of the eight teams which qualified for the conference quarterfinals.
All of this seems especially relevant for a program bursting with growth potential. TWU went into the offseason with just two fifth-year players among its ranks, and brings in a new class of recruits which includes a pair of CCAA transfers.
“It definitely helps having been through this cycle before,” admits Jean-Paul who just recently brought along a group which included 2018 grad Kayla Gordon, and 2019 grads Jessie Brown, Tessa Ratzlaff and Sarah Buckingham through the most productive run in program history: A three-season stretch in which the Spartans went 40-20 in Canada West play, including its best-ever 16-4 mark in 2017-18.
“I think looking back at that previous group of athletes, how they started and then looking at how they finished, it was a lot easier to have the understanding of what this current group has to go through to get to where they want to be,” added Jean-Paul of the current Spartans, whose core group is led by rising fourth-year point guard Kianna Wiens, rising third years in post Nicole Fransson and forward Jolene Vlieg, and Jayden Gill, the rising second-year off-guard from Abbotsford’s Robert Bateman Secondary.
“You can’t pretend to skip over steps,” she added. “That is just what I learned with Tessa, and Jessie and Kayla. As much as you want to get there quickly, it’s layers of experience that count. That’s how a team gets to that (top) level of competition in the Canada West.”
Just like their recent predecessors, who went 6-14 then 8-12 in the two seasons which immediately preceded that 40-20 run (12-8, 16-4, 12-8) from 2016-17 to 2018-19, it’s meant taking some early lumps, ones which Jean-Paul is pretty certain won’t have been made in vain.
Still, they hurt.
“Our second semester was especially challenging,” says Jean-Paul, whose team faced playoff foes in five of its final six double-header conference weekends beginning last January, going 3-9 in the process and getting swept by the likes of UBC, Fraser Valley, Alberta and eventual national champion Saskatchewan.
“We kept talking about what it is like for a first-year to start against a fifth-year, or a second-year having to start against an all-Canadian and how much better we are going to be in three or four years,” Jean-Paul added.
Case in point is a player like Fransson.
The 6-foot-2 graduate of Edmonton’s Archbishop MacDonald is coming off a banner second season in which she led the team in both scoring (15.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.2).
“Nicole played all-star after all-star last season and parts of her game were exposed, and now her biggest challenge is not to feel that way again,” says Jean-Paul of facing the likes of Fraser Valley senior Taylor Claggett (19.6 ppg, 10.5 rpg), UBC’s fourth-year Keylyn Filewich (19.1 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Saskatchewan’s Summer Masikiwech (17.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg). “There were so many phenomenal post players in Canada West that she experienced the full gamut of what that is all about on a week-to-week-to-week basis.”
On a similar theme of being thrown into the fire, the 5-foot-10 Vlieg, a graduate of Leduc (Alta.) Composite, was able to show both her composure and her versatility.
Listed as a guard on the TWU roster, she had begun to morph into more of a small forward, yet spent the majority of 2019-20 at the power forward spot, making the switch after hard-luck 5-foot-11 second-year forward Nicola Peters, an MEI grad, first suffered an early-season finger injury, then later a torn ACL on the eve of the team’s return from winter hiatus.
“Jolene went from playing a few minutes in the playoffs the season before to becoming a sudden starter (who started all 20 games and averaged 8.1 points and 5.2 rebounds over 30 minutes per contest),” said Jean-Paul, who now has a versatile three-position player on her hands. “She did what her team needed her to do and that sacrifice has all been for the betterment of the team.”
Gill went from starring for Bateman’s Timberwolves at the provincial high school championships in the spring of 2019 to starting all 20 games for the Spartans last season, averaging an impressive 26.8 minutes per game.
And getting back to that stat we opened with, the one about how the young Spartans so consistently faced fifth- and fourth-year foes from some of the nation’s very best teams last season?
“When we played Saskatchewan (Jan. 3-4), the one thing we said to Jayden when she went out and guarded (fifth-year) Megan Ahlstrom was that she had played more games at nationals than Jayden had played in her entire career,” reminds Jean-Paul of her rookie, who had but eight conference games under her belt at that stage.
And then there is the rising fourth-year point guard Wiens from Regina’s Michael A. Riffel Catholic, who is coming off a season in which she led her team in minutes (31.9), made triples (33), assists (60) and steals (36).
“She became the young leader of a young team, a team that just lost four of the most mature players our program has had,” Jean-Paul says of Brown, Buckingham, Ratzlaff and 2018’s Gordon. “There were a lot of challenges for her to overcome, and they were the kind which defines who becomes a leader.”
Lana Shypit, a 5-foot-10 guard from Winnipeg, has elected not to return for her second year in the program. The Spartans, however, will welcome Peters back from injury, and there are six other underclassmen listed on the team’s 2019-20 roster.
As well, Jean-Paul is bringing in four players as part of her incoming class of recruits.
The class is highlight by point guard Shemaiah Abatayo, the 5-foot-5 point guard with East Vancouver’s Britannia Bruins.
Abatayo, who helped lead the Bruins to the B.C. Double-A championship title and was chosen tournament MVP, has the potential to be one of the program’s special players by the time her career is done.
“She has a perspective that basketball is supposed to be fun,” says Jean-Paul who had previously coached Abatayo on provincial teams. “The most important aspect of her game is her ability to be a problem solver. And that, to me, is next level basketball.”
The other pure freshman entering the program is 5-foot-11 power forward Ava Krepp from fellow Double-A powerhouse Langley Christian.
“One of the things I talked about with our incoming group is the blue-collar way of playing basketball, and Ava is that physical player who loves creating opportunities for her teammates,” says Jean-Paul. “I think she can make a quick impact because she understands how to get teammates open and the little things that make a team better like getting after loose balls and crashing the boards.”
Two other incoming players are CCAA transfers.
Hailey Van Roekel, a former high school teammate of Krepp’s at LCS through the 2018-19 season, spent her first collegiate season in New Westminster with the Douglas Royals and was named the Pac West Conference’s 2020 Rookie of the Year.
Jean-Paul loves the fact that Van Roekel got a lot of floor time with the Royals as a first-year player, allowing her to step right into the flow of play in the Canada West.
“The speed of the decision-making, going to college or university, that is the biggest jump,” the coach begins. “For Hailey to spend a year on the floor making game-speed decisions is something that a rookie who doesn’t play really misses out on. She gained playing confidence and the understanding of what it takes to play at the next level.”
Bringing even more experience as a rising third-year player is Calgary native Tegan McArthur, a 5-foot-9 guard who graduated from Ernest Manning High and last season averaged 10 points, playing 30 minutes per game with her hometown Ambrose University Lions of the ACAC.
“Her team suffered a lot of injuries last season and she played wherever they needed her to play,” said Jean-Paul of the swing guard who brings a utility skill set to the rotation. “She is the type of player who brings people together.”
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