Badgers, Rams: the battle for Halifax

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Sometimes the best rivalries in sports go beyond the athletes and the teams on the court, field or ice. The competitive nature between the two fan bases can be the hype and appeal between the rivalry. Examples of this are the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, Duke and North Carolina, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Finding a comparison to any of those within U Sports men’s basketball can seem almost impossible. The one that comes to mind for any Canadian hoops fan is the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gee’s, and their annual Capital Hoops matchup. The Ravens and Gee-Gee’s have headlined the OUA basketball scene for years, competing for first in their division and championships for about a decade.

However, things in the OUA scene began to change in 2009. The Ryerson Rams men’s basketball program moved on from head coach Glenn Taylor and hired Roy Rana — Taylor had a 12-10 record with the Rams in his final season.

Rana, at 40 years old, took over the Rams in hopes of taking the program to the national level. In his first season the team went 10-12, followed by 11-11 in 2010-2011 and a combined 44-20 over the next three seasons. In 2014-2015, he coached the Rams to a 17-2 record before taking a sabbatical the year after, but returned last year to coach the team to another 17-2 record and an OUA championship (back-to-back for the program).

Rana has also coached a couple of Canada’s top talents with the Rams. Aaron Best and Adika Peter-McNeilly, two Ram alums, joined team Canada for the FIBA qualifiers this past week. The duo headlined the Rams roster when the team won 17 games in ‘14-’15.

More importantly, the Rams and Rana have joined the Ravens and Gee-Gee’s as a consistent winner. Programs like Lakehead, Windsor, McMaster, Laurier and Toronto have all tried over the years, but have fallen off.

So, when Brock University hired Charles Kissi in 2014 as their new head coach — following his years as an assistant coach for the Rams women’s team – the goal for the Badgers was to become a consistent winner like the Ravens, Gee-Gee’s and Rams. Brock wanted to make their basketball program the equivalent of what football is considered at other schools: a team that sells out home games, but also wins year to year.

Kissi came in with a plan and executed it in five years to make the Badgers a national favourite – however, the Badgers have yet to win a championship under Kissi, and the hope is to change that this year.

The growth, nonetheless, has been significant for the Badgers. In Kissi’s first year, the Badgers finished with four wins and last in the OUA West division. The coach did bring in Dani Elgadi as his first recruit, and the forward went on to be named OUA rookie of the year for 2013-2014. The following year the Badgers increased their win total by three, with the addition of Johneil Simpson, the 2014-2015 OUA and CIS rookie of the year.

Kissi along with his two young talents in Elgadi and Simpson, began building a culture that wasn’t just about winning, but about longevity. The 2015-2016 season led to a 13-6 season, followed by a 15-4 record and an OUA bronze medal in 2016-2017.

Although the Badgers haven’t won anything, the program has stormed onto the national scene similar to what Rana and the Rams did a few years back. The programs have been able to dethrone the Gee-Gee’s as the second best in Ontario, and have even given the dynasty Ravens a run for their money – the Rams beat the Ravens the last two years to clinch the OUA title and the Badgers took Carleton to overtime earlier this season.

What has flown under the radar over the years, is the rivalry built between the Rams and Badgers. While many focus their attention on the cross-city battle between Ottawa and Carleton, the Rams and Badgers have had some of the most intriguing games over the years.

The rivalry between the Badgers and Rams began four seasons ago, in a home game for Brock. Although, the final score was 93-64 Rams, the game had more meaning than a final score. Brock’s gym was sold-out, and the team played 20 competitive minutes against the Rams before being blown out. At halftime the score was 42-38 Rams, and it was the first time in Kissi’s tenure that the Badgers could say they matched up with a National favourite.

The momentum for the Badgers carried over the following year, as the team would pickup an 92-83 victory over the Rams in exhibition play. The Badgers trailed at halftime, but pulled through with a strong second half. In regular season play that year, the Rams would stomp the Badgers 104-79 – what was important about this game was that it was the first time the Badgers had sent a fan bus to Ryerson as the rivalry grew.

As fast as Brock fans got excited to make the road trip, the Rams killed that excitement just as fast, blowing the Badgers out. However, it made the Badgers team want to get better and it also made Ryerson fans want to show up the Brock crowd in the future.

In 2016-2017, the Badgers would beat the Rams in preseason again but more importantly, the Badgers edged the Rams in regular season play in front of 3,018 people at the Meridian Centre – this included Ryerson sending a student-bus of their own.

Not only did the two programs become evenly matched, the fan bases held the mindset of wanting to be better than one another.

This season, in November, Brock upped the anti by sending five buses to Ryerson for the regular season matchup. It created an atmosphere that Canadian university sports isn’t used to, but the Badgers and Rams were ready to set new trends.

And that timeline is why Wednesday nights OUA Final Four matchup between the Badgers and Rams at Brock will be significant. It’s rumoured that the Rams will have about 150 students in attendance in St. Catharines – about 25 per cent of the Bob Davis Gym – creating another historic environment.

While the Badgers are having the greatest season in program history leading to their first 20-win season (21-3), the Rams have been inconsistent (17-6), going 2-5 against top OUA teams – yet, the semi-final game will be must-watch around the U Sports basketball world.

“Records mean nothing,” said Kissi. “Right now, they’re [undefeated] and so are we, its playoff time. Records don’t mean anything, it’s about who’s better on that day.”

The Rams have been to the national tournament in two consecutive years, while the Badgers are hopeful of making their first trip since 2008. Both teams are one win away from getting there with the other standing in their way.

“We just want to get to the national tournament. That’s all we care about right now, is one more game,” said Kissi when asked about the rivalry. “Our guys have earned the right to be one game away from a national tournament, and we are going to try to take advantage of it.”

The Rams come into the matchup having beaten Queen’s in the opening round of the OUA playoffs 103-79 and coming up big this past weekend against Ottawa, 77-69. The Badgers went up 40-8 against Laurier in their quarter-final game to win 91-73.

For the season, the Badgers rank second offensively scoring 86.1 points per game, while the Rams average 81.6 for sixth in the conference. The two teams are almost equally efficient from the field, Brock shooting 45.4 per cent and Ryerson at 43.1 per cent. Defensively, the Badgers allow 70 points per game for second in the OUA and Ryerson is fourth, allowing 73.3 per game.

Ryerson will need to stop the Badgers big three of Dani Elgadi, Cassidy Ryan and Johneil Simpson. Brock will need to stop the Rams big three of Manny Diressa, Myles Charis and Jean-Victor Mukama. However, both teams have enough depth to find scoring elsewhere.

It’s going to be a battle, a fight and one fun atmosphere on Wednesday when the game tips off at 7:30 p.m.

The Rams have found themselves among one of the best and most consistent programs in Canada. The Badgers have joined the pack, but need to prove to the country they can make the national tournament, and in the years to come, prove they can stay a consistent winner.

“We’re close, we know it. We just have to calm down and focus,” said Kissi.

This is a heavyweight rivalry that is here to stay. Brock. Ryerson. Two of the country’s best battling for a trip to Halifax.

 

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