A philosophical question: if a championship basketball team returns the next season without most of it's starting lineup, does it still carry with it that unmistakable aura of a typical defending champion?
Paul Chiarenza, head coach of the Capilano University women's team, doesn't really know how to answer that question. "You want to and you don't," he says. But one thing he's sure about is that no one is taking away that banner hanging in the Capilano Sportsplex declaring them the 2010-11 provincial champions. And he's not going to stop feeling like a defending champion until someone else has a shiny new banner in hand.
"It's something that I was so thrilled about that I don't want to let it go until it's officially over," he says. "I like to consider us the champs."
The only problem is that only one of Capilano's fulltime starters is back this year, giving the Blues a very different look than they had when they won it all last year. But if the Blues are lamenting their lost stars, they sure aren't acting like it - they're already 3-0 in league play this season and ranked No. 9 in the country.
One of the big reasons for that fast start is Capilano's one link to last year's starting five. Jenna Ralston earned a place in Blues history last season when she hit the game-winning three pointer with three seconds left in the provincial final to give the Blues the title. The fifthyear forward, a former CIS player with the University of Manitoba, is the team's undisputed leader and captain this year.
"She's the heart and soul of this team," says Chiarenza. "She's so good at so many things - she blocks shots, she defends, she's so calm, she's a dead-eye shooter. . . . This is year No. 19 for me coaching overall including high school and college and I've never had a leader like her and I never will. She's the best leader I've ever had on a basketball team. On any given night she could score 30
but she's so comfortable facilitating and realizes the big picture. She's a coach on the floor. I could fall asleep and she'd be just fine taking things over. In fact we might even be better off."
Jenn Bodnar, Jessica Daigneault, and Jennafer Palma were also all key members of the team last season and they're fighting alongside Ralston to defend their crowns.
"All those players, they're our nucleus and they consider themselves defending champs," says Chiarenza.
Monica Starczynowski, a guard entering her fifth year with Capilano, was also a member of last year's squad but blew out a knee midway through the season. Chiarenza said the former allstar will hopefully be back near full speed by the New Year.
The biggest question hanging over the Blues entering this season was how were they going to make up for the loss of Jessica Franz, the departed all-Canadian centre who led the team in points and rebounds and was runner-up for national player of the year last season. The answer to that question is that no one player will replace her. Two, however, will do just fine. The combination of second-year forward Amber Pederson and firstyear forward Hayley Boulier has provided the same numbers that Franz did - or even better - while splitting her minutes.
Boulier, a 6-1 Windsor grad who grew up playing as a soccer goalie, has been a revelation, says Chiarenza.
"She's been unbelievable," he says. "I'm reluctant to say that she's way better than I thought she was going to be, because I knew she was a very skilled player, but she's a rookie. You know that rookies are going to make mistakes, and obviously she's not perfect out there but she's so aggressive, and what she does on the glass is so invaluable. At the rate she's going she'll be a walk-away for rookie of the year in this league. She's made us so dynamic because she's such a tough player to guard, she's so quick, so athletic - soccer goalie, right? She can jump and move."
The Blues are deep, says Chiarenza, getting contributions from other rookies as well as veterans who have stepped up their games. He calls Palma one of the premier point guards in the league and says that Bodnar is flying high after her strong playoff performance last year earned her an all-star nod.
"We have a lot of new faces on this team, we have rookies playing key minutes and we only returned one starter," says Chiarenza. "There's a learning curve. . . . We're still learning our system, we're learning what we do well but, pound for pound positionally, I think we're as good or better than we were last year."
With that outlook the Blues aren't lowering their expectations one bit, says Chiarenza.
"You're crazy if you don't think you want to try to win another banner," he says. "It's a bit of a rebuilding year but we've rebuilt with very good pieces. I think this team can win it again if everything comes together."
So much for philosophy - all questions now will be answered on the scoreboard.
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The Blues will put their undefeated record on the line when they host the University of Northern British Columbia Nov. 26 in their final home game before the holiday break. Game times Saturday are 6 p.m. for the women and 8 p.m. for the men at the Capilano Sportsplex.
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