Photo: Farnia Fekri

The team that Clarke built

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While the men’s basketball team competes for the national championship at home this week, the women’s team will be heading to Quebec City to compete for their own trophy. In just three short years, head coach Carly Clarke has taken this team from mediocrity to the best it’s ever been — and the players couldn’t be more grateful. By Josh Beneteau

The first tweet Ryerson women’s basketball coach Carly Clarke posted after her team clinched a spot in the national championship tournament on March 6 said “What the heck do I do with all of these balloons!?”

With her 32nd birthday the following day, Clarke’s team had snuck into her hotel room in Windsor, Ont. and filled it with colourful balloons. Despite being on the road and competing in the program’s first Ontario University Athletics (OUA) final four, the team found some time for fun.

“She was surprised,” said third year guard C’airah Gabriel-Robinson with a laugh.

This season has been one full of surprises for the women’s basketball team, with the Rams setting records every time they hit the court. The team’s 16-3 record was its best ever. Their appearance in the final four last weekend was also a first. And when the team tips off against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in Quebec City on March 12, it will be its first appearance in a national championship.

This unprecedented season comes from the mind of Clarke, who was brought in as the new head coach in 2012 and has already filled the roster with almost all of her own recruits. A decade after the team had a 12 game losing streak, they’ve closed the season out with a 10-game winning streak and received a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

With the players now being of her own choosing, Clarke has been able to maximize the potential of the roster and build a deeper bench than there has ever been at Ryerson.

“When I first got recruited, she was really friendly with me,” rookie-forward Sofia Paska said. “She didn’t try to change me like other coaches and she just accepted me and worked with me.”

Paska was named to the OUA all-rookie team this year and was the Rams’ second-highest scorer with 10.6 points per game. Fellow rookie Cara Tiemens, a point guard, also made the all-rookie team after starting 17 of 19 games for the Rams.

“(Clarke) definitely put a lot of trust in me as a first-year pointguard,” Tiemens said. “I was a little nervous at first but she definitely built my confidence up.”

On March 6, the Rams beat the Queen’s Gaels in Windsor, 69-60, to secure a spot in both the OUA gold medal game and the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) final eight. But when the time came to take on the powerhouse Windsor Lancers the next day, everything the Rams shot up seemed to have an unlucky bounce. Ryerson quickly fell behind by more than 25 points and was never able to get the game much closer than that. In the end, the Lancers won their sixth provincial title in seven years and the Rams had bittersweet, but historic, silver medals hanging around their necks. As the players walked out of the locker room, Clarke took each of them aside, gave them a hug and offered words of hope for nationals.

“I didn’t have the best game but she really encouraged me,” Tiemens said of her talk with Clarke. “We hugged it out so that was a nice experience.”

Clarke came to Ryerson after coaching three years at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The Halifax native played five years for the Bishop’s Gaiters while completing a bachelor of science in biology. In the original press release announcing her appointment, Clarke’s experience both playing and coaching in the CIS was cited by Athletic Director Ivan Joseph and Associate Athletic Director Stephanie White as the main reason she was hired.

Three years later, White says they never imagined Clarke would turn the program around so quickly.

“She came in and built a culture,” White said after the final four semi-final win against Queen’s. “You could tell she was a passionate coach … and that culture shift is why this team is going to nationals.”

The star of the team during the past four seasons has been Keneca Pingue-Giles. But the two-time OUA all-star admits that when Clarke first came in, she and some of the other players didn’t get along with the new coach.

“I think it started off rocky.

Anytime you have a coach change it is going to be difficult,” she said. “But ever since then it’s gotten much better. We have fun, we joke around and we put balloons in her room.”

Clarke’s first two years at Ryerson were transition years, with the team sneaking into the playoffs and losing in the first round both times. But after adding Paska, Tiemens, and forward Katherine Follis, the hype around the team was high. The Rams opened the season on a three-game winning streak but the turning point – according to multiple players – was the fourth game of the season, a 77-74 loss to the defending CIS champion Windsor Lancers.

“Carly’s always stating that we can win a national championship,” Tiemens said. “We knew we were a competitive team [after the Windsor game].”

As the team prepares to head to Quebec City, they are fully confident that they can compete with the more experienced teams. But according to Pingue-Giles, and all the players agree, Clarke’s coaching is the reason behind their success.

“Without her leadership as a coach, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

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