Women’s talent on the court is at an all-time high across Canada at the university level and it’s on display this weekend at Ryerson University in Toronto where eight schools are competing for the Bronze Baby in the Final 8, the national basketball championship.
“Every team has stars all across the board and we’re noticing it more and more, having to scout other teams and noticing how all teams can win,” said Sarah Gates, a second-year guard from the 2019 OUA Champion McMaster Marauders.
“There’s never a game that’s set in stone, so it just shows that there’s talent everywhere.”
Part of the improvement in players is a shift in mentality, shedding any self-doubt and gaining confidence in their abilities.
“More and more women are noticing how talented they are and noticing that they can push themselves to their limits. They’re figuring out how much potential they really have, so I think it’s a realization kind of thing,” said Gates.
These student athletes as well as university coaches are taking it seriously, knowing now, a basketball career can go beyond post-secondary.
“I think we’re attracting athletes to stay in Canada that wouldn’t always stay,” said Carly Clarke, the head coach of the Ryerson Rams. “So there’s athletes who have been on our age-group national teams that are now staying and competing with university teams and that just raises the level.”
Clarke has been the head coach of the Ryerson women’s basketball team since June 2012, but she’s also a coach for Canada Basketball. Clarke led the Rams to a record setting season in 2015-16, tying a program-best with sixteen conference victories before winning the first OUA championship in school history.
For Clarke, being a member of a basketball program at the university level is a twelve-month-a-year job and the work required is non-negotiable.
Canadian universities are attracting women to stay north of the border as opposed to pursuing a career in an NCAA program and for Tenicha Gittens, head coach of the Concordia Stingers, when the athletes choose to stay in Canada, basketball can continue to grow.
“It’s the recognition that we do have good basketball here, because a lot of our good players used to just leave and go down south. Now, they recognize that if you go down south, there’s a lot of talent, the pools are a lot bigger, so there’s a lot more competition,” she said.
“It’s not that our better players are shying away from competition, but it’s like ‘I can have a great career staying north of the border and a great education’ because I think that’s very important too.”
With the level of play in university competition soaring, so too is the opportunity for Canadians to consider a professional career as a player, a coach, or as part of a team.
Today, four Canadian women play professionally in the WNBA, including Hamilton’s Kia Nurse who continues her domination as a member of the New York Liberty. A decade ago, just one woman from Canada played in the league.
“When I was growing up I wanted to be the first woman to play in the NBA, because I didn’t see any females playing basketball at a higher level. I just loved the game, but you never saw anybody going beyond high school, college, you never saw anyone playing professionally,” said Gittens.
Prior to being named head coach in July 2015, Gittens gained experience coaching in three Division 1 NCAA institutions in the U.S.
“I have my players coming to me now saying ‘coach, I think I can play pro’ and I love it. To me they’re going to do everything in their power to be able to to the next level and that can’t hurt you as an individual and as a team.”
Canada Basketball’s national women’s team is currently ranked fifth in the world but it was a gold medal victory at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto that was the catalyst for growth for the program. Clarke was in the stands, amongst a sold out crowd, watching the tournament at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.
“That was a huge moment for our women’s national team and they went on to qualify for the olympics and really gained some confidence, momentum from that tournament. It was so great to have it in Toronto and have lots of young girls and young players to witness that,” she said.
After back-to-back gold medal victories in 2015 and 2017 at the FIBA AmeriCup, formerly known as the FIBA Americas Championship, Canada’s status was on the rise on the world stage. But despite all the growth for Canadian women in basketball, there’s still work to be done.
“We’re in the mix. I mean the highest level is incredibly competitive. We finished seventh in the World Championships in September, which for us was a bit of a disappointing finish, but we won our pool, we beat France, we were competitive with Spain until the final quarter,” said Clarke.
“You know, we’re right there and the margin for difference now at that point is really, really small. So our goal is to medal at the next Olympics and we’re looking for ways to do that.”
Regardless of the outcome at the Final 8, the growth in women’s university basketball is a success. But the athletes are aware of the position they hold, not only to inspire one another to continue to play the game they love every day, but to empower the next generation of women to pick up the ball and pursue a career in the sport.
“If we can keep more girls involved in sports, because their participation does decline as they get older, I think it’s just better for everyone,” said Haley McDonald, a second-year guard with the 2019 AUS Champion Acadia Axewomen.
“You get a healthier lifestyle, they can set bigger goals for themselves and be more successful in a career if they have the skills that sports give them. So it’s amazing if I can help a child stay in sports longer.”
Gates said her position as a role model continues off the court. She meets young athletes at games and through social media, fielding questions about what it’s like to be a university athlete at McMaster.
She said this level of competition for women’s university teams is just the beginning and she’s glad people are taking notice of the national championship this weekend.
“It’s a big city and it’s falling on International Women’s Day,” said Gates.
“The fact that such a big weekend in women’s sports falls on such a big day for women, I think it’s another thing that keeps building attention and bringing in people to help inspire younger people to play sports.”