A new era of women’s basketball

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Sports

Editor’s note: This version of this article originally appeared in the February 14 print issue of the Nugget. All statistics and information were correct at time of printing.

It’s been almost two years since the Ooks women’s team lifted the trophy at the CCAA National Championships in Nanaimo. The win had felt like a distant thought for these underdogs. But after scrapping their way to second in the North Division, they overcame the odds and scored their first national title in the program’s history. 

Things are different now. There are new names, new numbers and a lot of new faces.

After losing six players to graduation and long-time Head Coach Todd Warnick stepping down, the Ooks went into last season featuring a roster of first and second-year players—with eight players returning from the previous year’s championship squad. 

Kiera Lyons was named the new Head Coach to usher the Ooks women’s basketball team into a new era. Lyons—a NAIT alumna—previously worked as the Ooks strength and conditioning coach before being promoted to the team’s bench boss. 

The roster overhaul gave Lyons a unique opportunity: creating a new culture from scratch. 

“I wanted our culture to be one of positivity and competition, intensity, but I wanted the feeling in the team room, no matter if we won or we lost. I wanted that feeling to be united,” Lyons explained. “At the end of the year, that was my goal. It didn’t matter [about] wins and losses, it was, ‘how does my team feel?’ In the team room at the end of the day, like, do we love each other? Are we competing? Are we working hard?”

“We didn’t win a ton of games, but the ones that we did, we celebrated hard, we were very happy for each other. And those girls showed up every day, and they battled, day in and day out.”

And while the Ooks would go 5-15 under the guidance of Lyons last season and miss the playoffs, the 2023-24 season has brought a shifting tide.  

Under Lyons’ new system, one player has stood out amongst all others and emerged as a leader: guard Payton Neilson. 

A blonde woman wearing a basketball uniform jumps in the air after shooting the basketball. An opponent is reaching to block her shot.
Payton Neilson, #6, is one of the two remaining players from the 2022 team. Photo by NAIT Athletics

“Having a leader like Payton is amazing … she wants to win probably more than I do,” joked Lyons. “She works the hardest every single day. She went home for Christmas, and I talked to her parents, like I’ve never seen her work so hard over a Christmas break, she wants it so bad. So, having her being able to set that tone all year is amazing.”

In her third year with the program, Neilson is one of only two remaining players from the 2022 championship team. 

Averaging 11.6 points per game, the guard has significantly contributed to NAIT’s success this season. And while the Bachelor of Business Administration student is now flourishing with the Ooks basketball team, she never originally planned on playing the sport out of high school.

“I actually didn’t really think about playing basketball past high school,” Neilson said in an interview with the Nugget. “I was going to go to Edmonton for school because my sisters were there … I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for school.” 

“Ultimately, I just wanted to play basketball, so then I was like, ok, I’ll go to NAIT.”

After averaging just 11.7 minutes in her rookie year, Neilson blossomed into a core piece in the team’s rebuild, scoring the second-most points on the team and growing to play an average of 31.2 minutes a night as a sophomore. The expanded role for Neilson in her second year brought unique challenges, but it was something the guard learned to embrace.

“It was definitely a different role for me because I went from playing a decent amount of minutes in my rookie year, getting in every game … to play, basically, the whole game for my team,” explained Neilson. 

“We all knew we were gonna lose quite a few games … we knew we weren’t going to be the team that we were last year, obviously. So, I just kind of went into every game thinking how I can play my best game for myself and my team, win or lose, just be the best I can for my team.”

After overcoming the challenge of leading a young Ooks team through a rebuilding year and learning to lead the charge for the team offensively, this season has demonstrated Neilson’s best is something to be reckoned with. The Calgary, Alberta native has played 13 games this season and accumulated a whopping 151 points in blue and gold. But while her tenure with the Ooks has been one of highs and lows, Neilson is confident the team is heading in the right direction.

“We have a better record than last year, and games have felt not so hard to win. All games we won last year were like a grind [to] win,” she said. “If we just keep peaking before playoffs, we have a good chance.”

The team is in a good position to secure their first playoff spot since the 2021-22 season. They’re sitting in sixth in the North Division with a 7-9 record. The blue and gold are preparing for the final push before the playoffs, and while time will tell if it’s in reach this year, Lyons believes that one day the team will once again raise a trophy on the national stage. 

“Next year, I want to be an ACAC contender. I want us to be a bit of a force. You know, after this year, being young isn’t going to be an excuse,” Head Coach Lyons said. “The year after that I want to be going to nationals … I want to be a national contender, with [Payton Neilson] in her fifth year, [Sadie Nysetvold] in her fifth year and then, a bunch of girls in their fourth. I think that if we have the experience and the confidence, that will take us so far.”

A blonde female basketball payer crouches in a defensive stance. She holds the ball in her hands, and an opponent reaches out to block her upcoming shot.
Photo via NAIT Athletics

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