Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry
Despite winning an OUA championship and making it all the way to the national championship game just over a year ago, the Brock Badgers women’s basketball team will look dramatically different whenever they next take the court.
The 2019-20 roster, which finished as the most successful team in program history, had a consistent seven-man rotation that led the way throughout the postseason. Only two of those seven — Sam Keltos and Jenneke Pilling — will be returning come 2021-22.
Between graduations, academics and, of course, the pandemic, the roster turnover came fast and furious for head coach Mike Rao and his staff. Initially, they were only looking to fill four spots; Melissa Tatti and Jessica Morris graduated last year, while both Eden Ferraro and Sofia Croce turned their attention to school rather than basketball.
“The girls on our team are as concerned with their academics as they are basketball, so a lot of the time that plays into it,” said Rao. “Both [Ferraro and Croce] are in Concurrent Education and had big years coming up. They’re both very academic students and I don’t know how much the pandemic year had to do with it, maybe if we would have started they would have still been here but I’m not sure.”
The cancelled 2020-21 season proved tricky for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that the 2021-22 season will see two recruiting classes being simultaneously introduced. The initial recruiting class for ’20-’21 was supposed to consist of Olivia Fiorruci, Alicia Higgins, Jessica Reid and Mackenzie Robinson. That group would, on paper, replace Tatti, Morris, Ferraro and Croce.
“Really it’s kind of a misnomer because I went to go replace four,” said Rao. “I thought we needed to replace four players and I went after four players who I thought were pretty good. What I didn’t count on was a lot of people reaching out. I guess because we had a lot of success [last season], everybody’s doing their homework and I saw some players who were really good, so my recruiting class just grew exponentially.”
The pandemic has undoubtedly played a big role in the construction of this roster, with Reid having to pull out because of issues relating to the pandemic, though Rao isn’t closing the door for a potential reunion down the line.
“Jessica didn’t really work out because of COVID-19,” said Rao. “She’s had some issues with some personal stuff and I think it was in her best interest to step away. She couldn’t really commit and I respect that because that happens. Now in the future, is there a chance for her to come back? Yeah, absolutely, I left the door open for her. But that’s what happens when you’re recruiting, there’s a lot more no’s than yeses.”
The roster for 2021-22 is far from being set — restrictions have still prevented the team from holding tryouts — but Rao does have a large contingent of players who will be vying for roster spots whenever they are able to conduct tryouts.
“There are 10 or so girls who are coming just to try out, who I think are all pretty good players,” said Rao. “My view is always, they reached out to me, they applied to Brock, they want to go to the school and then they did their research on us, so I owe them that time [to try out]. There’s a lot of girls coming in that have some good basketball experience and are going to make it very difficult in selecting next year’s team.”
There’s also the 2021-22 recruiting class to consider, one that includes a pair of OCAA transfers in Victoria Lawrence (from George Brown) and Theresa Brown (from Sheridan), plus a trio of incoming first-year players in Allison Addy, Maddi MacInnis and Audrey Ntetani.
Lawrence and Brown are both extremely established players who have made several OCAA All-Star teams; Brown leaves Sheridan as the programs’ all-time leading scorer. Both will have established roles with the team assuming they stay healthy. As for the incoming rookies, Rao says he is prepared to rely on them despite their relative inexperience.
“If they’re ready to play I’ll put them in the fire,” he said. “To me it’s sink or swim, so I think these first-year players will help us out. I don’t know completely what the team will look like, but let’s face it, I’ve got two returnees who have played appreciable minutes so [the first-years] are going to have to step in.”
One of the biggest names from that championship team in ’19-’20 that will also not be returning next year is Kristin Gallant. After three seasons with the Badgers that saw her finish as the 11th highest scorer in Badger history and sixth in career assists, Gallant finished up her degree this year and will be moving on from the team, despite still having two more years of eligibility.
“Kristin decided that she’s going to do a four-month program at George Brown next year,” said Rao. “She’s got great grades, she’s a high-level student and she wants to get on with her life. I commend her for that and I’m going to help her with that in whatever way I can.”
With Tatti and Gallant having moved on, the Badgers will be in need of a new backcourt for the first time in several years. While not making any decisions prematurely, Rao says there is a possibility of a committee approach for at least part of the year. Candidates include Lawrence, Ntetani, as well as Kennedy Chisholm, who played sparingly last season at just five minutes per game as she was stuck behind Tatti on the depth chart.
While the roster is not yet finalized, there is no shortage of players from whom Rao will be able to pick to round it out. He does not yet have a deadline to do so, as the OUA and U Sports have not yet formally announced what or when next season will be, but he is adamant the team will hold tryouts before making any final decisions.
“I would suspect by probably mid-October I’m going to have to put a roster together,” he said. “There’s definitely going to be tryouts, I promised too many kids that there would be and I’m not going back on my promise. The girls that are here now know that there’s going to be tryouts — like I just got a call today from (2019-20 reserve) Destiny Paquin and she wants to come back, which is good, but she kind of understands that there’s a lineup and hopefully she’s ready for that.”
Despite the immense amount of roster turnover — especially with three of the four best players from last season having moved on — Rao is far from phased; roster turnover in the OUA and U Sports in general is more of a norm than an outlier.
“I’ve been in the game for 40-odd years,” he said. “Turnover for me is second hand. It doesn’t awe me at all, I know what I have to do to meld this team. How long that will take, that’s the only thing I don’t know. But hopefully we can get back in the gym and I can do what I do.”
That hasn’t been especially easy as of late; right now the team is still doing virtual training and more individual workouts as opposed to full team workouts, though Rao says they’re just recently beginning to get back in the gym for more in-person activity. He hopes to get everyone back in the gym as soon as the university gives the green light.
“We have a lot of virtual stuff but we’re just getting back in the gym now,” he said. “Do I see a drop off? Absolutely. Are we where we should be? No, not even close. I thought that we would be in a better place, but I don’t think it’s just with our team, it’s everybody. These virtual tools just don’t provide the motivation, the wherewithal and the discipline that it takes to stay at a top level physically and mentally that being in person does. There’s no way.”
“As soon as [Brock] lets our recruits in, whenever that is — I’m hoping for earlier, but if it’s September it’s September — we’re going to have everyone in. As soon as I can make some tryouts, cut my team down, we’ll be better off.”
While not yet official, it’s looking increasingly likely that the 2021-22 regular season will begin sometime in January 2022, nearly two full years after the last OUA basketball game was played.
“I think the plan is for us to be on the court in October,” said Rao. “We’ll set our tryouts, have exhibition games, then we’ll start league play probably in January which will then culminate in at least an OUA championship. From what I know it’s at least going to be that. Now the league play will probably be more regional and it’s going to be a more condensed schedule because they have to look at the safety of the players as well as budgetary concerns. I think those two things will base their decision regarding the length of our schedule and where we go.”
The 2021-22 season will be Rao’s fourth year and third season as head coach of the program. His first season — 2018-19 — saw the team go from the fourth-worst in the OUA to one that came minutes away from upsetting a McMaster team that would go on to become national champions in the OUA playoffs. They brought nearly everybody back for 2019-20, added an All-Star in Keltos and wound up with a provincial championship and a national silver.
That was a two year process, a process that Rao, his staff and his players had to buy into in order for it to succeed. While the core of the team was extremely similar from 2018-19 to 2019-20 — with Keltos being the only major addition to the trio of Tatti, Gallant and Morris — the roster from 2017-18 to 2018-19 saw only three players who played significant minutes return, much like the situation this year. While it took some time, Rao was able to get an extremely new team to come together and more importantly, laid the foundation for what was to come in 2019-20.
“My first year when I took over, nobody believed me, but we started the process. Now it took us the year to get there and in my estimation, we started becoming a real good team — for what we had, which was not a top level team but a good team in 2019 — starting in mid-January. It took us four months to get there, but all of a sudden that team started going. We had a group of girls that bought in and we made some noise. We ran [McMaster] to the final minutes, so for me it’s good — it was a loss but it was also a win, because you could see the fruits of that labour continue on in the following year because we brought almost everyone back.”
“Jenneke and Eden were a little more seasoned and then the addition of Sam just brought us over the top. I just try to cultivate that environment and let the players play and we had some great great leaders like Tatti and Jess and Kristin and Sam — just solid citizens and great people — and when you have that you get results.”
A lot can change between now and October, when Rao and his staff will begin to finalize a roster and even more can change between now and January, when the OUA will aim to begin their next season. Vaccinations will undoubtedly play a key role into how viable all of this is, but for now, the program looks to be in a position to succeed whenever next season gets underway.