By Jack MacCool
The blue and gold bleachers usually inhabited by Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) students and fans are pushed into the wall. The four side baskets hang 10 feet above the court, far below their normal ceiling perches. And on the blue wall behind the basket, there’s empty space that will be filled by another U Sports national championship banner.
For the TMU women’s basketball team, the raising of the championship banner on Nov. 5 is not only a celebration of the incredible heights the team reached last season but the start of a new journey.
“I think we’re just excited for the season to start more than anything,” said TMU head coach and reigning U Sports and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Coach of the Year Carly Clarke. “We’ve been working toward November 5 and getting better. It should be an exciting weekend with all the celebrations around last year.”
Not many U Sports basketball programs can say they won a national championship, let alone say they went undefeated the entire season en route to hoisting the trophy. But for the Bold, the team wanted their 2022-23 pre-season to pick up right where last year left off in terms of difficulty.
“That was one of the reasons I came here—to win championships”
Clarke told The Eyeopener before the end of the pre-season that the team created a challenging schedule “by design,” in order to see how the team stacks up with difficult competition before beginning their OUA campaign.
“Everyone is starting to find their groove,” said Bold forward and championship returnee Kaillie Hall. “The pre-season was a good test to see where we are at and obviously continue to build off of that in the OUA.”
The team’s pre-season was a work-in-progress, as they dropped six of seven games, only beating Dalhousie University. Despite the results, the team isn’t having trouble putting the pre-season in the rearview mirror.
“We’re talking about just trying to get better all the time,” said Clarke. “We found moments where we are doing that consistently and that’s really what it’s all about and hopefully we’ll use [the losses] as motivation as well.”
Their pre-season concluded with the annual Darcel Wright Memorial Classic from Oct. 21 to 23, a tournament in which many of Canada’s top programs travel to TMU to play over the course of the weekend.
Although they went winless in the tournament, losing to the University of Victoria, University of Cape Breton and University of British Columbia (UBC), all three games TMU played were extremely close, losing by just 13 combined points in all three contests.
This is different from last season, not only because last year’s team was undefeated but because they also were extremely adept at closing out tight games.
The 2021-22 OUA playoffs and U Sports Final 8 National Championship provided perfect examples of this, as they won four of six games during that stretch by less than 10 points. This included two overtime wins over Brock University, one to win the OUA title and the other to qualify for the national final.
Clarke said this season’s Bold team needed to learn how to win close games before they could get back to the form they had last year.
This year’s roster has seen serious changeover since lifting the Bronze Baby trophy last April. Forward Rachel Farwell is the lone starter from last year’s championship team still with the program, but she’s joined by Hall and Eve Uwayesu as some of the key rotation players who are back with the team and taking on a larger leadership role.
Where they lack veterans, TMU has re-tooled with some tremendous young talent. Rookie Kait Nichols has been a great addition for the Bold this year, showing her tenacity and undying compete level throughout the pre-season. Another key member of the youth movement on the team is second-year guard Jayme Foreman.
“We’ve just been building and learning so much, especially from the older girls,” said Nichols. “I just can’t wait to get started with the season.”
Foreman only appeared in four games and spent the majority of last year behind more experienced players, but is set to be one of the more dynamic guards in the OUA. A lethal jumpshooter, Foreman had a strong pre-season, including a 20-point half against UBC in the Darcel Wright tournament.
She also ranked in the top five in all of U Sports in both three pointers made and three point field goal percentage through eight pre-season games played, something the team will rely heavily on during the regular season.
Though its roster may not be the same and its results have wavered, TMU remains true to the expectations every championship-calibre program sets for itself—win.
“We’re definitely a new team, and we have a lot to learn,” said Nichols. “We have the same goal at the end of the year and we’re just working towards that, building and just connecting as a team.”
Team culture has been a defining characteristic of the TMU program throughout the last decade and has been a leading factor in the team’s success. Incoming players and potential recruits know what to expect when they come to TMU.
“I’m super excited to see that banner go up,” said Hall. “That was one of the reasons I came here—to win championships.”
Though last season can be looked at as the pinnacle of the program’s achievements, Clarke doesn’t believe that it defines TMU’s culture.
“There’s people who have lived through the buildup to the championship and understand the habits, the compete level, some of those different things that it takes to be a great at this level”
“I would say it’s not just the culture of last season, it’s the culture of the last ten seasons of what we’ve been building,” said Clarke. “There’s people who have lived through the buildup to the championship and understand the habits, the compete level, some of those different things that it takes to be a great at this level.”
In a few days time, the 2022-23 OUA women’s basketball season will be underway, last year’s championship banner will be hung and players will be once again etching their names into brand new U Sports lore. The TMU women’s basketball team’s energy levels are high, their faces are painted with smiles and they are beyond excited about what the new season has in store for them.
But until then, they’ll use this practice time to get better every day and now, that comes by learning how to take a proper charge. It isn’t a star player or rookie who steps up first, but rather the reigning national coach of the year. Clarke steps into the key, absorbs a shoulder to the chest and lands on her back with her feet in the air—the perfect charge.
“Hopefully they’re starting to understand the level that’s required,” said Clarke. “Some of the sacrifices, both physically and mentally that are required to be amongst the best.”