Perspective. It’s something in sports we tend to lose when the results on paper don’t meet expectations. For NAIT’s mens basketball coach Mike Connolly, however, perspective is exactly what he preached after the early end to his team’s season.
“I said I didn’t want this weekend to reflect what we did over the year. It’s unfortunate, they say you’re only as good as your last game but we did something pretty special by finishing 23-1.” Indeed, it was a special season for the Ooks. Nationally ranked in the Top 5 all year long, they lost just one game to Lakeland in the second half and even got a few wins in exhibition play against CIS schools. Fifth-year player Donny Moss won ACAC Player of the Year and he was joined on the All-Conference Team for the North Division by fellow fifthyear Ook Alvin Parker. The big man from the Bahamas averaged over 22 points per game, shot 50 per cent from the floor and had a solid average of nine rebounds in games. “Donny may be one of the most talented athletes I have had the opportunity to coach,” said Connolly. “He is constantly smiling and that positive nature rubs off on his teammates.” However, a championship at season’s end never came.
In the quarter-final round of the Conference tournament against Olds College, Moss was sidelined just a few minutes in with a pulled hamstring. After that, the Ooks weren’t the same, falling 97-104. “We just didn’t have the same defensive energy,” said Connolly. “And Olds shot the ball very well. We battled back but just couldn’t quite finish.” Despite the disappointment of losing the first game, the team played well in the next two games, defeating Lakeland 97-69 and losing a tight game to Red Deer (another elite team knocked out in the first round) 79-87. Parker led the tournament with 35 points and over six assists per game. As soon as the team landed back in Edmonton, Connolly had a group hungry for redemption. “The attitude was ‘let’s get ready for next year,’ and ‘when can we get going?’ That’s good to see, because I don’t want them to lose track of all the good things we did this year. Could we have done some things better? Yes but we live and learn and now we’ll come back with a vengeance next year.” Chances are the Ooks vengeance contains even more firepower than the current roster.
Despite losing Moss and Parker, the squad returns the main core of the roster and several local talents are committed to joining the team in the fall. This group is headlined by all-star guard and member of the 4A provincial championship team from Ross Sheppard, Mon Lueeth. The players are training in the offseason starting May 1. The schedule includes a detailed fitness program and participation in a summer league. “They all made a commitment to next year, so it’s our job as coaches to help them honour that commitment,” said Connolly. “We won’t have two superstars like we did this year but we’ll have even more chemistry and plenty of guys who can shoot and move the ball.” Mental toughness is going to improve. “I think the guys recognize that we weren’t as mentally tough as we needed to be and now they’re focused on that going into the fall.”