LANGLEY — Ask university coaches across the country what the search for cohesion, chemistry and identity within their rosters has been like coming off the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 season, and while each will have their own way of describing the challenges, all are delivered along the same thematic road of putting all the pieces back together again.
On Thursday, that is precisely the process the Trinity Western Spartans women’s basketball team will continue to hone when they play host to the Winnipeg Wesmen, easily one of the most talented teams in the nation, in a 7:15 p.m. non-conference clash at the Langley Events Centre, one which also doubles as the team’s home opener.
In keeping form with last week’s men’s exhibition contest between TWU and Calgary, attendance will be limited to just 96 fans.
Winnipeg was also set to play Wednesday in Abbotsford against the Fraser Valley Cascades.
For Spartans’ head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul, whose charges picked up wins over Brandon and Lethbridge while losing to the host team at the recent Regina Cougar Classic, the process of re-establishing a veteran core group while also beginning to define roles for the past two incoming freshman classes, each untested by the rigours of live competition, is not only ongoing, but as it is for every other team, one without any standard benchmark of available comparison.
“In some way, it’s almost like the entire program is going through a return-to-play protocol… like everybody had a concussion or a season-ending injury,” Jean-Paul says in a most relatable way. “It’s like you’re actually trying to re-introduce an entire roster to competition.”
Indeed, the myriad ways in which the challenges of the 2021-22 season will be met by its coaches across Canada is surely the stuff of a thousand off-season clinics.
For the Trinity Western women’s program, it’s no stretch to say that the ripple effect of team success will emanate from the connection, the attitude and the will of a four-player core forged in what Jean-Paul refers to as “a trial by fire” over the 2019-20 season.
That season, starting point guard Kianna Wiens was the veteran of the group as a third-year, with front-court players Nicole Fransson and Jolene Vlieg in their second years, and off-guard Jayden Gill just a rookie.
Yet with no competition over a 2020-21 season in which their eligibility clocks all stopped ticking, and one in which they all practiced with virtually no contact, is it fair to think they are suddenly all sage and savvy?
“The challenge for that returning group is they wanted to be significantly better than they were two years ago,” says Jean-Paul.
“When we had a team meeting earlier in the fall, one of our athletes spoke to that sense of ‘I am a vet now, so I have to start thinking like a vet’ without having gone through the (competitive) process of a second- or third-year athlete,” she added. “So it’s really about helping them navigate through learning how to lead, with the expectation they also need to lead the younger ones.”
And on top of that, Jean-Paul adds a caveat.
“But we are also asking them to lead us through times that no one has had to go through before.”
PUTTING ALL THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER AGAIN
Finding a paint presence in the form of a reliable double-double points and rebounds contributor is one of the toughest chores in Canada West women’s basketball.
And thus, it is impossible to begin any discussion of the Spartans’ returning core without first speaking to the development Nicole Fransson, its 6-foot-2 third-year post.
When we last left her in 2019-20, the former Edmonton-Archbishop MacDonald grad was coming off a campaign in which she averaged 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
Stepping out of the COVID-induced time-warp in Regina at the Cougar Classic, she showed that she had indeed taken forward steps, picking up ahead of where she left off by averaging 17 points and 15 rebounds per game.
As Jean-Paul saw it, however, it was about more than just her numbers. It was the way in which they were delivered.
“I think she made statements in all three of those games,” the head coach adds, “and the best part of it was her consistency. She was rebounding on the offensive and defensive side of things through each quarter. That is what was most impressive. It was every quarter of every game. And these were physically-demanding games.”
Jolene Vlieg, the 5-foot-10 third-year forward/guard from Leduc (Alta.) Composite, will play a role defined by her versatility.
“For so many of the girls two years ago, it was a baptism by fire, and Jolene had to go out there and defend players like (Saskatchewan’s fifth-year 6-foot-2 forward) Summer Masikewich one week and (UBC-to-Winnipeg fifth-year 6-foot-1 post) Keylyn Filewich the next,” Jean-Paul remembers. “It was hard, but it’s also been really good to see her ability to understand that that kind of versatility can be her strength.”
The return of second-year Nicola Peters, the 5-foot-11 former MEI Eagles forward, from an ACL injury which cost her the 2019-20 season, will be a huge part of the front court puzzle, one whose rotation will also include first-year 5-foot-11 forward Ava Krepp from Langley Christian.
The back court is anchored by the energetic 5-foot-6 fourth-year point guard Kianna Wiens (Regina-Michael A. Riffel), and Jayden Gill, the 5-foot-9 second-year off-guard from Abbotsford’s Robert Bateman Secondary.
Both started all 20 games two seasons back, with Wiens averaging 31.9 and Gill 26.8 minutes per contest.
Throughout the preseason thus far, third-year former Langley Christian/Douglas College guard Hailey Van Roekel has joined the starting group, as has former Britannia point guard Shemaiah Abatayo.
HOME OPENER SETS THE BAR ON 2021-22 COMPETITION
Whatever is in store for Trinity Western this season, Jean-Paul knows the Winnipeg Wesmen team touring B.C. this week — including a 7:30 p.m. date tonight (Oct. 13) at UFV against Deanna Tuchscherer and the Fraser Valley Cascades — will pose as tough a test as they could hope for, especially at this early juncture of the re-start campaign.
Not only is Filewich, the all-Canadian and former UBC Thunderbird, re-united with a cast of former foes and teammates on head coach Tanya McKay’s 15-player roster, all of whom hail from the province of Manitoba, she’s joining forces with fellow all-stars in former Regina transfer guard Kyanna Giles, and returning fifth-year forward Faith Hezekiah, the latter felled by an ACL injury in the October of 2019. Also a part of that mix is 2020 U Sports rookie team all-star guard Anna Kergnahan.
“It’s an intimidating roster and their style of play, their defensive intensity, and just their… they play with that attack-mode kind of mentality,” says Jean-Paul. “So to host them is a great opportunity for us on learning how to withstand the pressure they will impose.”
And off course the first place most will look is in that re-introduction Fransson will get to Filewich in the post.
“For Nicole to play against one of the best posts in the country is great leading into our regular season,” said Jean-Paul, casting one eye ahead to the conference openers Oct. 28 at UBC (6 p.m.), and the Spartans league home opener the next night at the LEC against the Victoria Vikes. Both will tip at 6 p.m.
“It’s (Winnipeg’s) post play, it’s their guard play, their ability to shoot it, how they play defence and make you earn every point,” re-inforced Jean-Paul.
“If there are weaknesses after our last week of practice, they will reveal themselves, and then we’ve got two weeks to get ready for the B.C. Division. Winnipeg will give us the chance to see a little bit of everything.”
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