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The return to Fall 2021 basketball: The Battle of Alberta

By Aressana Challand, September 16 2021—

Seventeen months since the Dinos Men’s and Women’s basketball teams played the 2020 National Championships and a season of Zoom training later, the 2021-2022 basketball season couldn’t be more equipped for an exciting return. The two teams will greet the buzzer at Lethbridge College on Oct. 29-30 for their first conference game.

In fall of 2021, basketball returns to face-off in a Battle of Alberta-only league and a season like none other. New team dynamics are at play, with an extra year of eligibility, hybrid freshmen, six-year dinos and players entering their master’s degrees. Strong team culture is a centerpiece of the makeup of both teams as they aim for another victory lap. 

Reyna Crawford is one of the 2021-2022 team captains on the Dinos Women’s leadership team. She is continuing her journey at the University of Calgary after receiving her undergraduate degree in biomechanics this Spring. In the fall, she’ll be fulfilling her fifth year of eligibility — technically her sixth year as a Dino — to play her last season. 

“After being away from basketball for so long, I just wasn’t ready to have my last time on the court be on the court in Nationals back in 2020,” said Crawford.

Crawford described the 2021-2022 team and said, “There are not many still with us that played the 2020 Nationals in Ottawa. The four of us that remain, we want to prove that we’re better than what we did [in 2020]. As a new group, we want to reach our full potential and be the best for our new teammates. We’ll push ourselves knowing that it’s a different season and [that it’s] everyone’s game. We haven’t proven anything yet and so we have to prove it to ourselves first.” 

From September to November of 2020, the Dinos Women’s team had the opportunity to train in-person — “breaking the ice” as Crawford said — before months of Zoom training. Crawford sees the Battle of Alberta as a new challenge and said, “We’ll see the same teams quite a bit, so emphasizing that every moment matters, every practice matters — since we’ll be having more practices than games — and putting emphasis on every possession is important so nothing slips away. The Battle of Alberta has always been a bigger game amongst all sports at the University of Calgary. I think it will add fuel to the fire. We don’t want to drop a game.” 

At the end of summer, the Women’s team will begin training together on a more full-time basis. A confident role model for collaborative leadership, Crawford described that strategy is different during pre-season this year. 

“[Training] will be a lot of relationship-building,” said Crawford. “Having a strong foundation to set the standards of our culture before we even talk about tactics and x’s and o’s is our main focus to make sure we’re starting off on the right foot.” 

Head Coach, Damian Jennings, took a holistic approach to coach the Women’s team over Zoom. 

“The last thing I wanted to do on Zoom was [to] be the extra person my athletes saw through a laptop after all the time they spent on Zoom for class and calling their friends and family,” he said. “The thing I wanted to hold onto was our team energy and being careful about moments.” 

Jennings described Zoom training sessions as maintenance. 

“We have a science background as coaches — with an athlete-centred approach,” he said. “We are slightly cautious coming back to this season because we don’t want the increase in the volume of training to cause injury.”  

With 14 new players joining the team since the National Championships in 2020, the “six-year ripple effect” Jennings described has shaped the team since the start of last season. 

“Every team is slightly different in terms of how much of an impact COVID wrought on the team,” said Jennings. “You’ve got some schools where you have 10 to 11 new players and the ripple effect of COVID will hit in two, three years’ time when they decide if they want to play out the fifth — which has now become a sixth year of eligibility. We were a mature group back in March [2020], so we have more new players now. This season, Lethbridge has more of a core, mature group. We’ve always had tough games against Lethbridge, going on the road will be the first actual litmus change as I like to say.”

Jenning’s focus for this season has been building and maintaining a strong team culture. He recognizes that the family-like bonds of the team is a powerful strength that if nurtured correctly, is an off-court practice that will become an on-court success. 

“Every year, the standard that we’ve been able to create for ourselves has come from our team culture. A national title and conference banners are in front of us. We are competitive enough and talented enough to target those goals. We — the head team — recognize the 2021-2022 team has a right to be their own team,” said Jennings.   

Kamryn Deklerk, a second-year point guard, fulfilling her first year of eligibility in the fall, mirrors Jennings’ sentiments to the team she calls family. 

“I feel like I’ve gotten a year to connect with the team — now I feel that experience and familiarity will be a strength going onto the court,” said Deklerk, describing how she feels playing her first game in the fall.

Deklerk is most excited to reconnect in-person with the team and experience the atmosphere that university competition offers. Despite last year online, Deklerk gained confidence that is indicative of success as a first-year player. 

“I feel like I’ve settled into the role that I’ll have on the team. I’m glad that I’ve been able to discover that for myself,” she said. 

For Deklerk, the first game away will be a warm-up for conference games at the Jack Simpson gym. The Dinos Women’s team is returning with their well-known trademarks. 

“We like to play really fast. We’re definitely a transition-minded team,” said Deklerk. “I think that’s one of our greatest strengths. Defensively, our ability to play 90 feet of defense and press a lot will take other teams by surprise.” 

Returning to the Dinos Men’s team as a team captain for the 2021-2022 season, Ezeoha Santiago is a driven leader inspired to take his team to the next level with his sharp focus and vet experience. 

“For me, it’s about being able to bring my energy,” said Santiago when asked about the mindset he plans on bringing to the season. “You have to be locked in every second at U of C to experience all the opportunities of sport and academics with this program. I want to remind them [my team] of what it takes to be great 24/7.”    

Santiago finished the 2020 season tearing his ACL at the Ottawa National Championships. 

Santiago attributed his past season of recovery to building a fierce perspective on adaptability and a formidable passion to play with his team.

“I’m almost back to 100,” said Santiago. “I kind of wish COVID wasn’t a thing during my recovery. It was hard not having access to the weight room at certain points when I needed it during my rehab. If anything, I came back hungrier because basketball was taken away from me with my ACL injury and then again with COVID.”

A young group with “mature basketball minds,” Santiago added, “we bring a lot of athleticism, especially now that some guys who were first years last season have a year under their belt — they understand the processes of the team. We’re more experienced, more focused and excited to compete to win the conference championships.” 

Second-year point guard Noah Wharton embodies the confidence gained and experience earned that Santiago commended. 

Discussing his first year with the Dinos in 2020, he said, “first year, I struggled shooting a ball from the three-point line. This year, I’ve been trying to get into the gym anywhere I can. I’ve been working on it constantly and I’m excited to show everyone how much I’ve progressed.” 

The Men’s team will play their first conference game away at Lethbridge College at the end of Oct. 

“They’re a great team,” said Wharton on his previous games with Lethbridge. “I had some of my best games against them in my first year,” adding that, as a team, “we are all very competitive. We all have something to prove. There are guys on the team who have been in the gym now for over a year who want to prove that they still have it — and there’s the younger guys who want to prove they can be that guy. I feel like we all have something to prove and that competitiveness will bring us strong into the season.” 

Although last season’s training refuted a loss in Olympic weight lifting equipment, Head Coach Vanhooren looks forward to the Men’s redefined training infrastructure. Behind the laptop screens of every Zoom training session was a dedicated team of trainers taking advantage of the COVID situation to create a network of future training infrastructure. 

“We brought in new systems and videotaped every drill we did that was an individual skill and libraried it all — so we’ve got a system where we did a lot of PD work that normally we never have time to get done. Now we have a great database to utilize for the future,” said Vanhooren.

When asked how he helped his team stay motivated online, Vanhooren relayed the mental and physical wellness of athletes back to family. What was stunted by closed gyms and a lack of competition was time gained with loved ones last year. 

“Truthfully, I know my kids better,” he said. “Most people I don’t think realize how much time goes into coaching or how much time you’re on the road and those kinds of things. I had a whole year where I could be with my kids. I couldn’t appreciate that more.” 

Basketball will always transcend the court for Vanhooren as head coach. 

“Philosophically, my approach to coaching on the Men’s side has always been about building good, young men,” he said. “We do a lot of things in our program that are based on developing people, creating better relationships and understanding, building resumes and better futures. Building great young men upon graduation is the goal. If it’s about winning basketball then I’m in the wrong job. It’s a side effect of having good people.”  

Ultimately, this morality is the heart of the team. Although the focus couldn’t be on the game last year, it was on the relationships and community that make strong players. Vanhooren explained his team’s goal for the 2021-2022 season in one phrase: “Be committed to having what it takes to do what you want. Yes, we want to win, but it also relates to life and you have to be committed to it.” 

Vanhooren couldn’t be more ready to return to basketball and continue growing the relationships with his team. When Stage Two of Alberta’s Open for Summer plan began, the team started training in the fitness centre with small groups wearing masks. Now that Alberta has lifted COVID-19 protocols, the team is returning to consistency before the season. 

The Dinos Men’s basketball team will not be returning in fall with any of the fifth-year players of last season, leaving the team identity younger, but primed for more exciting basketball. 

“Our young group is talented,” Vanhooren said about his new team. “We have some unique players that have joined our roster that bring some fun diversity to the team. It will be fun to see what they’re capable of.” 

Returning with great talent, energy and an invigorated appreciation to play, the Dinos’ first conference game against Lethbridge College’s Kodiaks will reignite local rivalries zealously known as the Battle of Alberta. The season-long Battle of Alberta will test both teams’ cultures forged during COVID and strengthened over summer as they pave their own way towards an Alberta’s-best championship title. 

As U of C joins the Dinos Women’s and Men’s basketball teams through their Alberta expedition, what we can all remember, as Crawford said, is to “appreciate every moment of it. In a blink of an eye we were in the gym and then the next day we weren’t. Give it your all every practice and every day because the next day you might not have it… You don’t know what might happen, so whatever you’re doing, give it 100 per cent.”

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