By Matt Johnson
The last 12 months have been a whirlwind for Carly Clarke and David DeAveiro, the head coaches of the Ryerson Rams women’s and men’s basketball teams.
The 2019-20 U Sports Final 8 was one of the last events in Canadian university sports to be played prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just four days after the Final 8 completed, the athletic scene went on an indefinite hiatus, leading to many questions about what would happen next for university athletes.
Ultimately, after months of speculation on what a U Sports season would look like for the 2020-21 season. National championships were officially cancelled, as was Ontario University Athletics (OUA) play.
For DeAveiro, the Rams men’s basketball roster will look drastically different from the one he initially envisioned he would coach when he was hired in April last year.
“The team that I thought I was going to have was the team that finished last year, because almost everyone was supposed to come back and play. That was a good team that was 16-6 in conference play. That team had a chance with everybody back to win now,” said DeAveiro.
“Once it was pretty clear that there wasn’t going to be a year, now you’re thinking about fifth-year guys. Are they going to come back and play? Or are they just going to say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to come back for a sixth year?’ You have to find out…then kind of go with the new recruiting plan for 2021.”
Two familiar names who decided they wouldn’t be coming back are Jayden Frederick, who turned pro following the cancellation of this past season, and Tanor Ngom, who transferred to Florida State University in July.
DeAveiro, who still talks to Ngom while he’s in the midst of his season with the Seminoles, noted he essentially had to re-recruit the big man when he was hired, as Ngom was set to inherit his third different head coach in three years.
“I think we’re trying to win now and rebuild at the same time, but we just don’t know. We don’t know until we play games and we get our guys on the floor”
As for Frederick, his departure was purely pandemic-related.
“Jayden was going to play before the season was cancelled. That’s when we sat down and said, ‘Jayden, do you want to do a master’s or do you want to start looking for a pro team?’” said DeAveiro.
Frederick decided that this was it for his career as a Ram, electing to sign with BC Mgzavrebi-Armia in the Georgian Super Liga after averaging 19.1 points-per-game in his second season with Ryerson.
Along with the departures of Frederick and Ngom, the future of 5’11” guard Tevaun Kokko is still very much up in the air.
“We got to see what’s happening with the guys that are here. A guy like Kokko, is Kokko going to want to come back or does he want to be a pro?” said DeAveiro. “Kokko is one of the best players in the country.”
With their decision looming, DeAveiro notes the team is looking to make two more additions for next year’s squad, with the first-year head coach optimally looking for transfers with two or three years of eligibility.
These transfers would join new players Tyler Sagl and Malik Kennedy—two Ontario natives joining the Rams following their time with NCAA Division I programs. However, despite the influx of stateside talent, DeAveiro believes that high school players initially heading south of the border is a trend he doesn’t expect to change any time soon.
“I think kids are always going to want to get to the United States. For a lot of them, it’s their goal. It’s their dream to play Division I,” said DeAveiro. “I think a lot of kids fall into that category where they have these dreams, the ambition, and they go and they try it out, but if it doesn’t work out, they come home. They always know that they can always come home and I think that’s important for these kids to know that.”
“But in some scenarios, although it’s a Division I scholarship or you’re playing in the United States, it may not be a better situation than playing at Ryerson. Ryerson can beat a lot of smaller division, mid-major schools,” he said.
That being said, DeAveiro noted the pandemic has definitely changed how he recruits.
“We’re going to try to make the best out of a scenario where we don’t have any precedents to follow,” he said. “I’ve never been in a pandemic. I never coached in a pandemic and I never recruited in a pandemic.”
While DeAveiro notes the challenges of recruiting at Ryerson, such as the cost of living in Toronto, he recognizes the work of his predecessor Roy Rana in establishing a top-end program in the nation.
“Roy did an amazing job in terms of building this program and the program’s reputation and so you find a lot of kids want to come to Ryerson because of how well they’ve done and the job that Roy did building this program,” DeAveiro said of the now Sacramento Kings assistant coach.
“I think there’s lots of factors that we’re not necessarily experiencing yet that might affect different decisions”
Like DeAveiro, Clarke continues to shape her squad on the women’s team. She brought in a pair of NCAA Division I transfers, Tiya Misir and Kaillie Hill, as well as Mikaela Dodig from the University of New Brunswick Reds, all of whom are Ontario natives.
While Clarke admits the pandemic has influenced some NCAA players to return home to Canada, she hasn’t seen massive shifts within the U Sports scene.
As for what’s to come, there are a lot of variables as to how COVID-19 will affect recruiting and transfer trends, she said.
“Different people are going to be hit financially. Do people want to stay closer to home to avoid travel? I think there’s lots of factors that we’re not necessarily experiencing yet that might affect different decisions,” said Clarke. “With this year not charging eligibility, there’s different athletes making decisions to come back.”
With 13 of 17 players on her roster coming from Ontario, Clarke says her recruiting tendencies are not likely to change, noting the abundance of players within the region and the ability to gain familiarity with them as they develop.
However, she said that after six-straight winning seasons dating back to 2014-15, prospective student-athletes from across Canada are taking notice of what Ryerson is building.
“We’re still looking for the best players that are the right fit for our program from across the country, so we haven’t switched that much yet, and we still get interest from players across the country too,” said Clarke.
“We want the right people and players that fit with our program and for whatever reason, we’ve had a lot of success with transfers”
Dodig is one example of that interest from players across the nation, as, after four years in Fredericton with the Reds, she elected to further her education by enrolling in Ryerson’s Masters of Science in Management, which Clarke acknowledges is a testament to the offerings of Ryerson.
“We want the right people and players that fit with our program and for whatever reason, we’ve had a lot of success with transfers. I think we’ve got amazing master’s programs that are a great opportunity for players to come to play their last years of eligibility,” said Clarke.
While Clarke found success bringing in the likes of Dodig, as well as Misir and Hall, she notes recruiting has been trickier to navigate compared to years prior.
“You can’t have face-to-face and visits for the most part right now, or, I mean, we can’t have any visits right now. So that’s a challenge that you have to navigate because certainly for us, our campus is a big selling point,” said Clarke.
Nonetheless, whenever the Rams will be able to get back in action, it’s clear their expectations remain as high as ever. After reaching the OUA Finals and U Sports Final 8 in 2019-20, Clarke will have her eyes on getting her program back to a national championship.
While Clarke has more clarity about what her squad will look like, DeAveiro is left uncertain. Roster turnover, his freshness to the program and roughly a year-and-a-half between games all cloud the outlook.
“I think we’re trying to win now and rebuild at the same time, but we just don’t know. We don’t know until we play games and we get our guys on the floor,” said DeAveiro.
“It’s going to be a neat process. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”