Making a play for U.S. bucks

In Features /

By Mathieu B. Yuill

Boston College and Notre Dame are tied for second place in the Big East Women’s Basketball conference in the United States.

The game is the only meeting of the season between the two schools – a win now could mean a berth in the national championship tournament.

The score is tied at 76 and the home team, Boston College, has the ball in their end.

12.7 seconds remaining:  The home crowed is deafening. The time on the clock is encouraging fans to lean towards the edge of their seat.  The ball is inbound to point guard Cal Bouchard.

9.5 seconds:  Bouchard’s eyes dart from player to player.  Her Notre Dame counterpart guards her form the throw in, attempting to slow her down.  However, she takes the ball across half-court with ease.  The crowd is on their feet.

8 seconds:  “Offence, offence,” the ecstatic crowd chants.  Bouchard, their hometown hero checks the clock and drives toward the basket.

6.5 seconds:  Every single fan is on their feet, poised to throw up their arms in victory.  “Do it Bouchard,” fans cheer her on.

5 seconds:  She puts the ball up.  A silence falls over the crowd.  The ball goes off the blackboard, the crowd gasps as it bounces on the rim.

4.5 seconds:  And falls in.  Fans jump up and down, and although they never touched the ball or stepped on the court, they hug each other and say “We did it.”

Boston College retains their lead for the remaining 4.5 seconds of the game.  Bouchard raises her hand, her teammates rush to the court to join in on what is best described as a group hug on speed and steroids.  The home fans cheer and the TV commentators rave about Bouchard, who was three times named to the All-Rookie team last year, when she was a freshman, and is already eighth on Boston College’s all-time three point field goals list.

It is hard to find a comparison for the excitement generated for the home team at a U.S. college.  And usually, even harder to find a Canadian at the centre of it.  But today, all the excitement and all the cheers are for just that – Canadian Cal Bouchard.

Bouchard is from Aurora, Ontario, a town about 30 kilometres north of Toronto, and she is just one of thousands of Canadian athletes attending a U.S. university or college thanks to an athletic scholarship.

She is now in her sophomore year, the second year of a four-year scholarship that covers tuition, room, board and school supplies.  Those expenses amount to about $30,000 (U.S.) per year.

However, the school’s $30,000 investment is little compared with what it brings in for the college.  By attracting talented athletes like Bouchard, the college brings paying fans out to the games.  Talented athletes bring in alumni money and give the colleges something to brag about when soliciting new students.

The U.S. athletic scholarship system has given student the opportunity to attend schools they may not have otherwise been able to.  It has given talented athletes the chance to focus on their game.

So the question begs to be asked:  If scholarships are good for the United States, why don’t we have them in Canada?

“It’s a complicated issue,” says Gerald Carlse, head coach for the Centennial College men’s basketball team.

Carlse says it isn’t a mater of Canadians wanting scholarships, but are they willing to pay for them?

Currently, Canadian colleges can offer athletes a maximum of $500 per semester during the playing season.  The scholarships are not based on athletic performance but on academic results. Athletes have the options of applying for the scholarship, but a college cannot guarantee it to them.  The scholarships are open to all who played on a varsity team, but on a limited basis.

Carlse says he is in favour of athletic scholarships, but knows there isn’t the money for them.  However, he would like to see some larger scholarships available.  He feels he can offer little more than good coaching which, compared to money, sometimes doesn’t’ always cut it with the players.

Sometimes athletes get scholarships to U.S. schools with great academic and athletic reputations, but some athletes will take a scholarship at a school they have never heard of before.

“It’s important for the kids that they go to the right place,” he says.  “But that is usually not the case.  They go to the school for the money, when they should be going to the school for the program.”

Jeff Harris was on a football scholarship at Edinborough University in Eerie, Indiana for the 1994-95 season.  His experience there was less than positive although there were some benefits.

Harris played football every year in high school and attended summer camps in Canada to improve his game.  He was first scouted by a U.S. talent agency which does initial scouting in Toronto.  In his graduating year of high school he started receiving phone calls from U.S. universities – they would phone once a week to see how he was doing.

A few other schools were in interested in Harris, but Edinborough still wanted him after the other schools opted to go with American athletes.

Harris was flown down one weekend and hung around a senior football player at the university.  They talked about everything from student life at the university to what practice was like during the season.  Harris had a great time, and was excited about going to Edinborough to play football; he already knew somebody there.

But when training camp came around, the same senior who had showed him around that weekend didn’t even acknowledge his existence.

However, the training Harris received at Edinborough has no parallel to what he had in Canada.

In the United States class schedules for athletes are specially tailored to end at 2:00 p.m., just in time for afternoon practices or games Harris says.  “All the games are taped by professionals and we would review them before games and during practices.  They just don’t have the budget for that in Canada.”

However, being a Canadian at Edinborough wasn’t very pleasant, he said.

“It was more degrading than anything,” Harris says.  “When an American made a mistake, they would say ‘It’s okay, next time you’ll get it.’  But when a Canadian made the same mistake they would jump all over you – threaten to take away your scholarship – I think there is some resentment towards Canadian athletes at American schools.

If scholarships, even if they paid for two-thirds of the cost of education, were available in Canada, he would have stayed.

“Of course, it’s home.”

Level of play in the U.S. is one of the top reasons why Canadian athletes head to south of the border with scholarships, says Cathy Inglese, head coach of the women’s basketball team at Boston College.

“It’s not just the money which draw the players here,” she says.  “The caliber of ball is higher here than in Canada.”

Inglese is one of the most aggressive non-American recruiters in the United States.  Every year, she takes two or three international athletes.

Inglese first started recruiting Canadians ten years ago, while she was coaching at the University of Vermont.  She would make a trip to universities in Montreal to see athletes play.

Inglese considers herself lucky to be at Boston College.  She says when athletes come down to visit the college, she is able to sell them not only the location, but also the academics.  She is also able to sell them the idea of improving their game year-round.

“Cal Bouchard left here early last year to try out for the Canadian national team, and she made it,” Inglese says.

However, it’s not Ingleses’ job to ensure the athlete’s academic needs are being met.  That responsibility lies with the athletes alone.

“It’s the athletes job to know who’s good and who’s not,” Inglese says.

She has been a starter on the team for the two years she’s been at Boston College.

“We have a tournament her before the season starts at the Fleet Centre (Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins home arena),” Bouchard says.  “I stepped out onto the court last year for the first time and there was 12,000 screaming fans.”

It’s a rare occasion in Canada when 12,000 fans come out to cheer on a university women’s basketball team.

Bouchard has serious thoughts about going on to play professional basketball in Europe after graduation.  One of her goals is to play in the 2000 Olympic Games, so level of play has been very important to her – and the opportunity to have it paid for made it better.

“It’s great to have your tuition and board paid for,” Bouchard says.  “Although tuition isn’t extremely high in Canada, I could have gotten some academic scholarships to help out and it would have made me think some more about staying.  But the level of play is high in the United States.”

You can take the girl out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canada out of the girl.  Bouchard still wishes the Canadian national anthem could be played before the basketball games.

Most of Bouchard’s friends are in Canada, and she misses her family.  But until Canadian schools are allowed to offer scholarships similar to the U.S., she believes the level of play won’t rise, and a good portion of the top Canadian athletes will head south, where their tuition, room, board and school supplies can be paid for.

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