With two nationally ranked teams, Brandon University Bobcats volleyball continues to eclipse basketball as the sport in the spotlight on campus these days.
But the Bobcats basketball teams are determined to restore some of that lost lustre to their programs this season.
For the Bobcats men’s basketball team, once a powerhouse program that won four national titles from 1987 to 1996, the benchmark for success ultimately comes down to making the playoffs for the first time in five years. For the BU women’s team, the first step is as simple as winning a Canada West conference game for the first time in four seasons.
Let’s start with the BU men’s program. The injury-plagued Bobcats went 6-16 and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year in 2012-13, something that hadn’t happened in more than 40 years, dating back to before legendary former coach Jerry Hemmings began his remarkable run at BU. A revolving door of coaches over the past decade brought mixed results, with the hiring of Gil Cheung in 2010 finally bringing some stability — but not a whole lot of success — to the program.
With starters Ali-Mounir Benabdelhak, Isaiah James and Emerick Ravier finally back to full health and nine veterans returning, this should be the Bobcats’ best team since going 13-9 in 2008-09 and making the playoffs under coach Keith Vassell. Vassell, a former all-Canadian and member of Brandon’s last national championship squad in 1996, was a link to the glory years of Bobcat basketball. But it was a whole lot easier to earn one of three playoff spots in a four-team Great Plains conference back then, than it is to secure one of eight spots in a 16-team Canada West league these days.
“A lot of things have changed,” said Cheung, whose team faces a brutal test right off the hop when they play their first six games against nationally ranked top-10 teams, starting with the fifth-ranked Victoria Vikes in tonight’s season opener at the Healthy Living Centre. “It’s no longer GPAC, it’s Canada West … and the first four teams we face are all in the top (eight) in the country. So things are not like they were in the ’80s, ’90s or early 2000s …
“We don’t have a banner up there and we don’t have national titles or all-Canadians right now, but you talk about pride. You watch these guys practise and you watch these guys in the community and I think any alumnus would be very proud of these guys right now.”
Cheung would love to lead that group into the playoffs this season and their 6-3 pre-season record shows plenty of promise.
“I think if you ask any team, that would be their goal, to reach the playoffs,” he said. “And I think everyone’s goal is the same, to win a national championship. But I think with us, before we can get to that big picture, there are a lot of little things beforehand. With our guys, (the playoffs) are so far down the road. … We are slowly getting better and we have a veteran group of guys and our goal is to improve each week and I think we are doing a pretty good job of that.”
Meanwhile, BU’s women’s basketball team — 0-22 last season — is also showing signs of improvement in their second season under coach Novell Thomas, going 6-4 in pre-season. That record included a pair of rare pre-season victories over CIS schools, Manitoba and Lakehead, that provided a huge psychological boost for players in a program that has suffered through a 67-game losing skid in the Canada West conference.
“I know for Jaynell (Gillett), Kaela (Cranston) and Steph (Haynes), especially Jaynell because she’s been here the longest, (beating CIS schools) was big for her,” Thomas said. “I know she was pretty much in tears at the end of the game because it finally happened.”
The next big step for a program that hit rock bottom will be winning a conference game for the first time since Feb. 5, 2010 when Brandon beat Calgary 75-66 at BU. The Bobcats’ five returning players have been bolstered by a class of eight new recruits, led by a pair of true impact players in former CIS all-Canadian Cassie Cooke and American junior college transfer Aleah Bridges who should help end the woeful winless skid this season.
You can’t overstate how big winning a conference game will be for the confidence of this young team.
“It will be huge; it’s just a matter of when it happens,” Thomas said. “But every game that we step into for conference play we will be prepared and ready to compete. … Our goal is just to be able to compete in every game and if we do that, we should be able to win some Canada West games.”
As simple as it sounds, it will be a monumental moment for the Bobcats and the first step on the long road back to respectability.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 1, 2013