Hailey Counsell's third season of play with the UBC Thunderbirds will sees her ascend to the biggest role of her U SPORTS career as one of the team's acknowledged veteran players. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Women's Basketball

UBC women’s hoops 2021-22: War Gym a land of opportunity as youthful, untested ‘Birds open post-Huband era Thursday vs. TWU Spartans!

VANCOUVER — Its veterans are staring opportunity square in the face, and its rookies are going to get a chance to show early all it is that they are capable of becoming,

It’s not the simplest of tasks to quantify just how different the first UBC Thunderbirds women’s basketball team of the post-Deb Huband era will be when it takes to the War Memorial Gymnasium hardwood Thursday (6 p.m.) for its Canada West season-opener against the Trinity Western Spartans, but a logical place to start, might be noting nine first-year players occupying spots on its roster, the most for UBC women’s team since at least the turn of this century.

The UBC men will also open their conference season Thursday against TWU, following the women at 8 p.m. UBC’s women (5 p.m.) and men (7 p.m.) will then host Victoria on Saturday to cap off a season-opening weekend of home double-headers.

The legendary Huband, who won three CIS national Bronze baby championships over a 26-year career in which she became the all-time leader in Canada West conference victories, closed the book on what was indeed an era unto itself when she announced her retirement this past summer.

And all of that, with the combined effects of a cancelled 2020-21 campaign, graduation, transfers and two seasons of freshman recruiting, means new head coach Erin McAleenan’s roster will reflect a true first-chapter reading when the ‘Birds face the Spartans, and then two nights later the Vikes, now coached by longtime UBC assistant coach Carrie Watts.

Erin McAleenan, following a five-year stint in the OUA as head coach of the York Lions, opens her UBC coaching career Thursday as the Birds host Trinity Western at War Memorial Gym. (Photo property of York athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

“The biggest thing is, I am so honoured to have been selected to this position,” McAleenan said after coming off the practice floor Tuesday. “It’s big shoes to fill after a legend like Deb, and what she was able to do.

“To come to such an incredible academic university with such a highly-regarded athletic program and a women’s basketball program with such a strong alumni and a true legacy… I am super excited,” added McAleenan, who in addition to coaching at numerous levels within the Canadian National team program, spent three prior season in the Canada West as head coach of the Lethbridge Pronghorns.

“Of course, the goal is to bring us some more national championships, so with a young group this year, it’s about trying to set the bar in terms of expectations and remaining focussed on our process so that the outcomes can take care of themselves.”

Bottom line in Year 1: It’s going to be every last hand on deck starting Thursday because if you want to make your mark, this roster is the land of opportunity.

Simple math tells you that coming off U Sports’ first-ever cancelled season, to varying degrees, all teams are carrying a glut of unknowns in terms of two recruiting classes of non-tested talent, so UBC is by no means alone in that area.

What is germane to the topic?

Not only does UBC have a new head coach and new systems to learn, it has those aforementioned nine first-year players, and it has lost through transfer (post Keylyn Filewich to Winnipeg), graduation (top guard Jessica Hanson) and now injury (fourth-year forward Madison Legault) its three most influential players in terms of combined overall scoring and interior presence in the 2019-20 season. Graduated guard Maddison Penn was also a key part of that puzzle before injuries limited her that last season.

McAleenan is hopeful that Legault, currently nursing a fractured foot, can return before the U SPORTS winter break, but when the team tips off Thursday against the Spartans, it will do so with a group just now beginning to find its identity and chemistry.

UBC was unable to pick up a win over the preseason, losing twice apiece to Calgary and Regina and once to Lethbridge, yet as McAleenan points out, her players learned valuable lessons by their response at key crossroad moments in all of them.

“We have not been able to find a win yet,” she says, “We just need to get to that point.”

Case in point?

In the team’s second game against Calgary at the Thompson Rivers tournament in Kamloops on Oct. 10, a jumper by point guard Kate Johnson cut the Calgary lead to 56-51 with 3:02 remaining.

Kate Johnson steps into a bigger role in the back court this season with the UBC Thunderbirds. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

But on its next two possessions, in a game in which neither team would score from the field in an eventual 60-53 loss “we missed a three and a wide-open lay-up… so I know that it’s right there.”

Yet in the interest of keeping it real, the numbers bear out the challenges ahead:

*Consider that the 2019-20 season, 20 games in duration, provided 100 total player starts (five starters per game x 20 games).

Of those 100 starts, UBC is returning just 27 of them on opening night. Fourteen of those come from quicksilver four-year point guard Johnson and another 13 from the team’s most efficient returning scorer in third-year guard/wing Hailey Counsell out of Port Moody-Heritage Woods.

The ‘Birds also start the season by returning 415 of the 1,513 points it scored in its 2019-20 conference games, a total comprised of the outputs of just five players, and one which accounts for 27.4 per cent of that season’s output.

That level of infrastructural change is not solved at the snap of a finger.

It not only anoints both Johnson and Counsell as the team’s go-to players for the first time in their university careers, it gives second-year 5-foot-10 off-guard Emily Martindale a chance to make use of her size and range as a shooter and a cutter, and it asks the 5-foot-11, fourth-year forward Dina Strujic (Vancouver-Kitsilano) and 6-foot third-year Calgary transfer Azalya Forstbauer (Chilliwack-Sardis) to provide the physical paint presence the team so desperately needs, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

The season will dictate the truest plot lines, yet there is no questioning how well Johnson, the former UBC-Okanagan transfer guard out of Kelowna-Immaculata has thrived in an uptempo system.

If Counsell, who loves to plays at a frenetic pace herself, can get back to full health, she can carve her niche among a small group of the conference’s best scorers.

And Forstbauer, with her experience, is very likely the biggest addition the team made over the past two years in terms of the 2021-22 need areas.

And then there are the rookies.

When ‘Birds basketball fans think of gold-rush recruiting classes, they will all point to the 2003-04 edition in which Huband brought in the super six of Erica McGuinness, Cait Haggarty, Julie Little, Caitlyn Pankratz, Caroline Horsley and Jane Meadwell.

Those first three names are synonymous with the words ‘Bronze Baby’ and no one would ever think to put that kind of expectation on any incoming class.

Yet if there is one similarity from that group to this new one, now separated by an entire cradle-to-freshman span of 18 years, it lies in the word ‘opportunity’.

As it stands, Thursday’s active roster will feature six players in either Years 2, 3, or 4 of eligibility. The other nine have never played in a Canada West game.

Yes, opportunity.

In the preseason, some of them flashed.

Find their roster on-line to check out all of their names, but two worth an early mention, both swing players from Ontario, are 5-foot-10 Katie Hartman out of Oakville and Teigan Manson, a 5-foot-11 player out of Richmond Hill.

Able to play some additional minutes as the ‘Birds worked  in Counsell from an injury through the preseason, Hartman got a chance to spot start based on her ability to step in and defend at the wing and off the block, as well as show her skills in transition.

Manson seems already equipped to step into the conference as a catch-and-shoot threat, and in UBC’s 80-72 loss to Regina last Friday at War Memorial, she hit on 4-of-6 from distance and 6-of-9 overall.

“She was instant offence,” chuckled McAleenan. “Sixteen points in 16-and-a-half minutes, those are pretty good stats.”

UBC’s third-year transfer forward Azalya Forstbauer will bring a much-needed physical presence to the ‘Birds lineup. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Yet the domino effect of the program moving into its next chapter sans Filewich and Hanson, combined with the lost season and the turnover in coaching staff (one which includes the arrival of former ‘Birds and Handsworth Royal point guard Diana Lee, and former Oak Bay, Oregon and Santa Clara forward/post Lauren Yearwood) is akin to re-definition, in whole or in part, of every role on the team.

“I think when you look at Hailey and Kate and even Emily Martindale in terms of what their roles were in 2019-20 to what they are now, and not just on the court but in terms of also leading this team — because Jessica and Keylyn carried those roles in so many ways — that they now have to do all of that in addition to adapting to new coaches, and to our nine first years. It’s a lot.”

Yet if it’s a season which offers little in the way of assurances, it’s also one in which, from a players’ standpoint, that the new face of the program will most certainly be revealed.

And all of that starts Thursday.

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