By Martin Cleary
The Carleton University Ravens basketball program is truly unique in the Canadian sports culture.
Winning a single national championship is an immense accomplishment, given all the challenges presented by the regular season and especially the playoffs.
But trying to comprehend how the Ravens have won an unfathomable combined 17 Canadian championships (16 for men and one for women) over the past 20 nationals before the start of the 2022-23 season is something reserved strictly for a select group of high-thinking sport specialists.
And the Ravens made that out-of-this-world task even more complicated, as well as even more celebratory, on Sunday, when their men’s and women’s teams swept the women’s and men’s U Sports basketball titles within about an hour of each other for the first time in their history.
After the No. 2 Ravens women’s team used discipline and poise to upset the No. 1 Queen’s University Gaels 71-59 for its second national title in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and the No. 3 Ravens men’s squad showed courage, character and confidence to win a thrilling 109-104 record-breaking, double-overtime victory against the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men in the men’s final in Halifax, Carleton University was elevated to another level of elitism in the sport.
Carleton became only the third university to capture the men’s and women’s national basketball championships in the same year, since the start of the men’s game in 1962-63 and the women’s in 1971-72.
The University of British Columbia Thunderettes under head coach Norm Vickery and the Thunderbirds with head coach Peter Mullins were the first women’s and men’s teams respectively to achieve that rare feat in 1972.
In the 1980s, university basketball belonged to the University of Victoria as the Vikes men’s team and the Vikettes women’s team under respective head coaches Ken and Kathy Shields had matching national titles in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1985.
“I’m not at all surprised,” Kathy Shields said in a phone interview Monday about Carleton being the last team standing in both the women’s and men’s U Sports championships.
Shields, an eight-time national champion as the Victoria women’s head coach, is good friends with Carleton head coach Dani Sinclair. She watched Sinclair play for Victoria and learn how to manage a team as an assistant and then a head coach at the university.
“Once she (Sinclair) got to Carleton (2020-21) as head coach and had a full-time mentor in Dave Smart, I knew she would flourish. She already had the intensity and fire and the offensive-game down. But with Dave instilling a defense, execution and accountability, she would get a championship team.”
Smart stepped down as the Carleton men’s head coach in 2019, after winning his 13th national title and accepted the job of director, basketball operations to develop the Ravens men’s and women’s programs and build a culture of excellence.
“His title is not about administration, like in the United States,” Shields added. “He’s a mentor for the men’s and women’s teams. There’s lots of practices, film sessions, teaching and coaching. He has helped both coaches (Sinclair and men’s head coach Taffe Charles) become great coaches.
“(Smart) instills details. It’s all about details and attention to details at practice. Probably, their practices were as intense as the games. You were ready to perform under the extreme pressure of the national championships.”
As Shields watched the women’s Final 8 championship on one television in her Victoria home and Ken followed the men’s final on another TV in another room (as U Sports made the unpopular move to have both national championship games butt heads) they totally understood how Carleton rose to greatness with matching men’s and women’s titles.
“We were similar to what they’re doing at Carleton,” Kathy Shields continued. “We were intense, had physical practices, lots of running, lots of accountability and lots of details. We were prepared and confident from our preparation.
“The two teams (Victoria’s men’s and women’s squads) were friends. We travelled together and played back-to-back games. Both teams were close.”
Unlike today, when the U Sports national men’s and women’s championships are staged on the same weekend, Kathy and Ken Shields saw all four of their matching women’s and men’s Canadian championships separated by one week.
“To win in the same year back then, we played the weekend before the men,” Kathy continued. “They (men) fed off us in a way. They knew we had won and we were all chomping, hoping for them and celebrating when they won.
“For Ken and I, it was special times. We travelled together (to games) as well as we helped each other. I had a huge advantage being married to a coach more experienced than me … who pushed me to get better and learn.”
While it’s believed Smart is the only director, basketball operations in the Canadian university system, the Shields relied on trying to be one step ahead of their opposition en route to four years of winning both men’s and women’s titles. Ken Shields finished with seven national titles from 1980 through 1986.
“For us, it was a matter of Ken and myself trying to prepare our teams better than other teams prepared,” Shields added.
“All the ingredients must come together for it (matching national titles) to happen – great players, teaching, and provide the physical, emotional and mental environment to go into battle for a national championship. There’s no secret format, except for preparation.”
The 2022-23 editions of the Carleton University Ravens were fully prepared by Sinclair, Charles and their teams of assistant coaches.
The Ravens men’s team, OUA East pennant winners at 18-4, was ranked No. 1 nationally for many weeks and occasionally encountered a few bumps in the regular season. The Ravens women’s team, OUA East runners-up at 19-3, slowly built its credibility throughout the season to become a top-three university and on one occasion the No. 1-ranked university team.
The Carleton women’s team won all three of its OUA playoff games, including a 70-57 decision over Queen’s University Gaels in the OUA’s Critelli Cup final. The Carleton men’s team reached the Wilson Cup final, were defeated by the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees 79-57, but qualified as the second OUA team for nationals.
At the U Sports nationals, both Carleton teams survived shaky quarterfinals – the men outlasted the Université du Québec à Montréal Citadins 73-71, and the women held back the host Cape Breton University Capers 56-51. But the Ravens’ resilience made them stronger the rest of the way.
A strong second and third quarter allowed the Carleton women to run past Saint Mary’s University Huskies 65-46 in the semifinals. The No. 3 Ravens men’s team shot an amazing 58.2 per cent from the field to hold back the No. 2 University of Ottawa Gee-Gees 81-75.
Third-year guard Kim Pocrnic led the women’s team with 17 points and seven assists against the Huskies. Connor Vreeken was outstanding with 27 points and nine rebounds, while first-team All-Canadian Aiden Warnholtz had 21 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
The women’s national final was a rematch of the OUA championship as Carleton defeated No. 2 Queen’s 71-59 for its second Canadian title. Carleton won its first U Sports championship in 2018.
Pocrnic, a first-team All-Canadian, sparked the Ravens with 20 points and eight assists, was named to the Final 8 All-Star team and was the tournament MVP. She was supported by Teresa Donato with 14 points, Buisa at 12 points, and Emma Kiesekamp with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Urban also had a 10-rebound effort.
Michelle Istead of Ottawa scored six points and had a pair of rebounds and assists in her final game with Queen’s. Julia Chadwick of Ottawa had six rebounds and two steals for Queen’s, but was unable to put the ball through the hoop.
The men’s gold-medal final was one of the best in U Sports basketball championship history. Carleton’s 109-104 victory was its fourth national title in a row, 12th in the past 13 championships and 17th overall.
St. Francis Xavier stormed into a 27-17 first-quarter lead and was still in control at halftime, 48-35. But Carleton came alive in the third quarter, cut the deficit to two points at 60-58 and won the fourth quarter at 24-22 to force overtime.
Warnholtz sent the game into overtime with a lunging, three-point basket with three seconds left in regulation to tie the game 82-82.
The Ravens’ starting five, which scored all but two of the team’s 109 points, managed a dozen points in the first, five-minute overtime, which ended 92-92. Vreeken led the way with a pair of three-point baskets.
In the second and final overtime period, Warnholtz and Vreeken stepped up with seven and six points respectively as the Ravens outscored the X-Men 15-10 for a 109-104 victory, which was the highest-scoring Final 8 final.
Warnholtz, Vreeken and Wazir Latiff finished with 23 points apiece, while Elliot Bailey counted 21 points and Grant Shephard added 17 points. Posting double-double efforts were Warnholtz, who added 11 assists, and Shephard, who also pulled down 12 rebounds.
In the men’s bronze-medal game, Ottawa defeated top-seeded University of Victoria Vikes 78-58 as Kevin Otoo scored 20 points and Josh Inkumsah added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
University of Alberta Pandas defeated Saint Mary’s 64-49 in the women’s bronze-medal game. St. Mary’s Marlo Steenbakkers of Ottawa played 19 minutes, scored 10 points and collected four rebounds.
COLLINDA JOSEPH WINS MIXED DOUBLES WHEELCHAIR CURLING WORLDS BRONZE
Team Canada’s Collinda Joseph of Stittsville and Dennis Thiessen of Sanford, MB., outscored China’s Meng Wang and Jianxin Chen 13-11 to win the bronze medal at the world mixed doubles wheelchair curling championship in Richmond, B.C.
Joseph and Thiessen won their pool with an 8-0 record, but lost its semifinal 7-6 to the United States team of Pam Wilson and David Samsa. The U.S. stole one in the eighth end for the win.
Canada led throughout the third-place match, scoring multiple points in each of four, odd-numbered ends – five in the first end, three in the third, three in the fifth and two in the seventh.
In the fours competition, Haitao Wang of China, the two-time Paralympic curling champion, defeated Canada’s Mark Ideson 5-2 in the gold-medal final.
“We couldn’t be prouder,” Joseph told Curling Canada. “To have two teams medal at one event on home soil in two different disciplines, it just demonstrates how good a program ours is.
“We came into the game going ‘we have nothing to lose.’ After last night (7-6 loss to the U.S.) putting so much pressure on ourselves, we just decided to stay loose and enjoy the moment and that’s what we did.”
OVCA RINKS SWEEP ONTARIO U21 CURLING FINALS
A pair of Ottawa Valley Curling Association teams posted 6-0 records to win the men’s and women’s gold medals at the Ontario U21 curling championship at the R.A. Centre for Curling Excellence.
Jayden King of the RCMP Curling Club defeated Landan Rooney of Mississauga’s Dixie Curling Club 8-5 in the men’s final. King stole three in the eighth and final end for the victory.
Tori Zemmelink of the Navan Curling Club used the hammer to score one in the eighth end for a 7-6 win over Jenny Madden of the Rideau Curling Club.
SILVER MEDAL FOR JASMINE LYONS AT NCAA NORDIC SKI CHAMPIONSHIPS
Nakkertok Nordic’s Jasmine Lyons, who has competed in two world championships this year, won the silver medal in the women’s five-kilometre freestyle in 12 minutes, 59.2 seconds for the University of New Hampshire during the NCAA nordic and alpine ski championships in Lake Placid, New York.
She also was sixth in the 20-kilometre classic in 1:02:05.3.
Nakkertok’s Luke Allan of Dartmouth College was 13th in the men’s 20-kilometre classic in 57:47.8 and helped The Big Green to the team title. He also placed 26th in the five-kilometre freestyle in 24:42.2.
LOCAL WRESTLERS EARN TWO GOLD, ONE BRONZE AT NATIONALS
National Capital Wrestling Club athletes won two gold and one bronze medals at the Canadian wrestling championships in Waterloo, ON.
Geneviève Morrison won four matches to capture the women’s senior 50-kilogram gold medal, while Kyler Keogh scored two wins for the men’s cadet 71-kilogram title. Keogh’s performance helped Ontario win the men’s cadet team award.
Peter Shannon had three wins, two byes and one loss and earned the bronze medal in the men’s senior 79-kilogram class.
Ayden Gilbert Parsons placed sixth in the women’s cadet 53-kilogram category.
CTA FALLS IN FINAL FOUR OF BASKETBALL PREP CIRCUIT CHAMPIONSHIP
Ottawa’s Canada TopFlight Academy reached the semi-final round of the Platinum Circuit’s championship weekend at the Durham Sportsplex before falling 93-89 to Pickering’s Cali Prep Academy.
Cali went on to win the final of the season-ending event for senior high school and prep teams 82-64 over Durham’s C.O.D.E.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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