After her fifth and final year playing collegiate basketball, Rams point guard Hayley Robertson reflects on transferring from Vermont and becoming a star at Ryerson
By Libaan Osman
uring her first semester at Ryerson University in fall 2018, now-former Rams point guard Hayley Robertson kept wondering if the move was worth it. She was back home in Toronto, but her heart was still in Vermont—where she played collegiate basketball at the University of Vermont for the last three years.
Robertson originally chose Vermont because she felt the coaches believed in her potential as a player. But as she grew older, she wanted to be in a program that was chasing a national title.
Her mother was a U Sports champion at Bishop’s University in the ‘80s, her father played ice hockey for St. Lawrence University in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and her grandpa was a Grey Cup champion. Robertson was striving for the same kind of success in her university career.
“I’ve done the whole rebuilding [thing],” Robertson said. “When you’re a younger kid, it’s not as bad. I just wanted more [in my career].”
In a span of four years, the women’s basketball team at Vermont went through a series of head coaching changes. The first one happened after Robertson’s first year and another one was set to take place right before she decided on whether she would be returning for senior year.
“It hit me, ‘Do I want to be here? What will my senior year look like? Will this give me the fulfillment that I want?’”
The team hadn’t gotten past their conferences’ quarterfinals since 2013, and players were expecting more turnover in the coaching staff for the upcoming 2018-19 season.
“We were shocked and in disbelief, wondering what the future looks like,” Robertson said. “It hit me, ‘Do I want to be here? What will my senior year look like? Will this give me the fulfillment that I want?’”
Throughout the uncertainty, her love for the game of basketball started to diminish.
She thought she might have needed a breather—time away from training, to take a step back and enjoy other parts of her life, as it had mostly revolved around basketball up until that point.
But during her three years in Vermont, the campus and the city of Burlington became a place she grew to love. She debated sitting out from playing basketball and finishing up her degree in business administration so she could stay at Vermont and be with her friends for their senior year. Robertson would go back and forth on the decision of transferring.A
round the same time, Ryerson women’s basketball head coach Carly Clarke heard from her good friend Jodi Gram—Robertson’s former high school coach at Bill Crothers, a secondary school in Markham, Ont.—that Robertson was considering transferring schools. Clarke jumped at the opportunity.
“We were really close to having a championship-contending roster,” Clarke said. “But I felt like we had a gap [in] the point guard spot. Cara Tiemens played that position but it wasn’t her natural position.”
Ryerson was also set to host the U Sports women’s basketball Final 8 tournament in 2019 for the first time.
With the host team automatically guaranteed a spot in the Final 8 tournament every year, Clarke thought having another ball handler with Robertson’s experience could make their chances at a national title even greater.
Later that summer, Robertson returned home to Toronto with a visit to Ryerson on her agenda.
She already had an idea of what kind of roster she’d be joining if she did transfer to Ryerson and knew how talented the team was. Growing up, she played on a regional Ontario development team her mother coached, which featured Ryerson guard Tiemens and forward Sofia Paska. Her older sister Samantha Robertson—a guard at the University of Toronto—also played with Rams forward Katherine Follis.
“There was a sense of [comfort]. I knew a couple of the girls and knew they were good people,” said Robertson. “I went out for lunch with the [team] and we talked about the program, how cool it’ll be to host nationals and how much talent we would have in that first year I would come.”
“You’re trying to best integrate your strengths without overstepping and sorting out a whole new team dynamic”
The decision to stay at Vermont or transfer to Ryerson could’ve gone either way, but Robertson couldn’t imagine a year without basketball. She thought she owed it to herself to see where the game could take her, and a chance to compete is what drove her back home to Toronto.
In August 2018, she was officially enrolled at Ryerson. In the fall semester she completed leftover courses from her undergraduate degree in Vermont, making her eligible for Ryerson’s masters of business administration program, while simultaneously joining the women’s basketball team.
The move to Ryerson allowed her to be at home with her family, but those first few months away from Vermont still came with growing pains.
“You’re trying to best integrate your strengths without overstepping and sorting out a whole new team dynamic,” said head coach Clarke. “There’s different challenges in joining a new program as an upper-year athlete.”
Robertson said she felt a sense of guilt creeping up as she left behind teammates in Vermont, who had become close friends. “It was hard seeing them all down there having a blast and just feeling that I should’ve been there…I was pretty sad with how my basketball journey had gone to that point, so I was in a dark spot.”
Robertson was still holding a piece of Vermont everywhere she went. There were even moments in her first semester at Ryerson where she’d return home and tell her parents that leaving was a mistake.
In those first few months on the team, Robertson kept her head low as she tried to fit in with the program. She looked to bring a positive energy while getting to know her new teammates. Slowly but surely, she became one of the most integral pieces to Ryerson’s playing style.
“We played our hearts out, it was really one of the best feelings. I couldn’t stop smiling”
“The first couple of months it was kinda just me feeling out my teammates and coaches, making sure I was doing what they wanted,” Robertson said. “When I realized that I was able to play basketball freely, and compete and improve and develop, I wasn’t scared or nervous—I started loving basketball again.”
Playing meaningful minutes off the bench for the first half of the year, Robertson started for the first time in January 2019 after Ryerson guard Marin Scotten was sidelined with an injury. In arguably Ryerson’s two biggest regular season games of the year, Robertson scored in double-digits against the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees, playing over 30 minutes in both games.
She averaged 9.1 points and 5.1 rebounds in her first year and finished the season leading the team in assists (4.3) and steals (2.0) per game. Entering her second and final year at Ryerson, Robertson’s role off the bench turned into her becoming the starting point guard.
Every decision that the Rams made offensively this past season led with the ball in Robertson’s hands, and she didn’t disappoint. She guided Ryerson to an 18-4 record while averaging 11.1 points, 6.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals.
She started to bond with players on the roster and began to realize there was room for both cherishing her time at Vermont and turning Ryerson into a place she’d love, where she could hone her craft.
“I [knew] the girls much, much better [in my second year], and [Ryerson] does feel like home,” Robertson said. “I felt a genuine relationship between all the girls. That kind of stuff just takes time.”
Her strong regular season success carried into Ryerson’s playoff journey as she rose to the occasion in the team’s biggest game of the year, on the road against the Gee-Gees in a game that clinched their berth to the U Sports Final 8 tournament.
Ottawa was the heavy favourite to qualify for the tournament, but despite dealing with injuries to the roster for the majority of the year, Rye’s team—led by Robertson—had other plans. She dropped a monster 20 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and four steals to end the Gee-Gees season and earn Ryerson a spot in the tournament for the fourth time in six seasons.
“If we lost there that would’ve been the end of my college career,” Robertson said. “We played our hearts out, it was really one of the best feelings. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
With a trip to nationals and with a championship in sight, the team’s journey got cut short in a nail-biting quarter-finals loss to the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). Robertson’s university career was coming to an end.A
fter the loss to UPEI, coach Clarke couldn’t stop praising her point guard, who left everything on the court, dropping 10 of her 17 points in the fourth quarter as she tried to keep Ryerson’s season alive. “[Robertson] is probably the best team-first leader I’ve had at Ryerson,” Clarke said, noting that Robertson not only tries her best, but also brings out the best in the team.
“Having the opportunity to work with her and seeing those characteristics rub off on other players on the team has been a special thing.”
In just two short seasons at Ryerson, Robertson became a staple in the women’s basketball program. She scratched her name in the record books, breaking the record for assists in a single season set back in 1998—dishing out 138 assists while jumping to third all-time in assists in program history with 231.
Robertson was also named an Ontario University Athletics Third-Team All-Star at the end of her final year.
“Do your best on the basketball court, and have goals and go after them with all your heart, but it’s not always the be-all-end-all. There’s always tomorrow”
Now, expected to finish up her Master’s at Ryerson in the fall, Robertson plans to join coach Clarke and the Rams coaching staff in some capacity for next season.
“I guess we don’t really know [due to COVID-19], but hopefully there’s a season and I can stay on and learn from Carly, [Jessica Roque] and all of our coaches,” Robertson said.
It took some time, but in the end, Ryerson became home for Robertson. From playing at Vermont to almost giving up basketball, Robertson’s past five years as a student-athlete have given her the perspective and growth she needed to find herself.
“When I was a freshman, if I had five turnovers in a game that would ruin my week or my month. Now, I can drive on,” Robertson said. “There’s so much more to life than basketball. Do your best on the basketball court, and have goals and go after them with all your heart, but it’s not always the be-all-end-all. There’s always tomorrow.”