In the lead up to the U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8 in Victoria (March 9-12), Canada West is taking a trip down memory lane, highlighting the conference's past national champions. In our latest feature, we reflect on the back-to-back national champion Manitoba Bisons, who captured the Bronze Baby in 1996 and 1997.
Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
So two decades later, the accomplishment is still as meaningful for the Manitoba Bisons teams that captured Canadian titles in 1996 and 1997 under the guidance of coach Coleen Dufresne.
"Every year, a team wins the national championship and it is incredible," says Jana Taylor, a Bisons player from 1995 to 1997. "But to be in the category of teams that were able to do it in back-to-back seasons is truly special. I think that it was 12 or 13 years before a women's basketball team was able to repeat again after we did.
"There was so much talent in Canadian women's basketball at that time and when I think back about the athletes that we were competing against, the fact that we were able to win, not just one, but two championships is a testament to the athleticism, determination and sheer will to win that was possessed by members of both the '95-'96 and '96-'97 teams."
In 1996, the Bisons beat Toronto in a classic championship final that went to overtime. Twelve months later, Manitoba defeated York, becoming at that time just the sixth school to win back-to-back Canadian women's university hoops titles.
"Trying to repeat was not an option; we were going to repeat," says Kyla Shore (nee Koskie), who played on both championship teams. "That was the mindset going in. "
Two-thirds of the 1995-96 lineup returned the following season. While the graduated players were missed, says Shore, it only meant the team had to work harder to fill those spots. Pride, she adds, is what made the rookies ready.
"We were successful because we all had a role and we committed to playing it to the best of our ability," Shore says. "We had stars, role players, dedicated trainers, amazing coaches and the unconditional support of our families. We took pride in the position we had and each practice or game our goal was to improve as a team, not as an individual ... The support and respect we had for each other made our team stronger and in the end is what won that final game. We knew what was needed to calm nerves; push through the struggles and to win."
In 1995-96, the Bisons went 13-2 in the regular season and defeated Winnipeg 2-1 in a best-of-three playoff series. At nationals in Quebec City, Manitoba beat Dalhousie and Western to reach the championship game.
The Bisons and Toronto engaged in a heart-stopping battle that needed an extra five minutes to decide a winner. Manitoba held on to edge the Varsity Blues, 74-70, in one of only three Canadian women's university basketball finals that have gone to overtime.
A year later, in Thunder Bay, the tournament didn't provide quite the same level of drama. After an 11-4 regular season and playoff triumphs over Winnipeg and Regina, Manitoba dominated at nationals, beating their its opponents – St. Francis Xavier, Western, and York – by an average of more than 16 points.
There are so many memories of the championship ... The game was so amazing to be a part of," Shore says. "I can't remember each play but I remember the excitement, nerves, pride and drive to win. Every time out was better than the last. Coleen was ready and had us so well prepared. It was a moment that I will never forget. "
While they made history by winning in consecutive seasons, the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Bisons were not the first Manitoba team to emerge triumphant from nationals. That honour belongs to the 1987-88 Bisons, who defeated Calgary in the national championship game.
"I don't remember thinking to myself, 'we won the first championship ever at U of Manitoba' after we won," says Jennifer George, who was named a First-Team All-Canadian in 1988. "That didn't seem important to me at the time. What was important to me was winning with the group of women whom I had spent hours and hours with ... being with my team, my friends.
"In hind-sight, there definitely is something very proud and special about being part of a team that captured the first ever championship for the University of Manitoba women's basketball team. I am very proud to be a part of that."
The common threads between all three titles are Dufresne, and Carol Ploen-Hosegood, who was a student-athlete in 1988 and an assistant coach with the back-to-back champs. All three teams were filled with talented individuals who excelled playing a style of quick transition and pressure defence.
Most importantly, says Dufresne, the players believed in each other.
"They became good friends and remain so today," says Dufresne, who coached the Bisons for 17 seasons between 1984 and 2001, winning the Peter Ennis Award as the top coach in Canadian university women's hoops in 1988 and 1998.
"I often describe so many of my players as some of the nicest people I know. They were all hard-working, motivated young women who would do anything asked of them to help the team be successful. I'm so very proud and privileged to have been a part of their journey and grateful that they were a part of mine."
Next up on the Road to the Final 8…the Regina Cougars (Thursday, March 2).
More on the U SPORTS Women's Basketball Final 8:
For the first time since 1993, the best women's basketball teams in Canada will converge on the University of Victoria for the U SPORTS Final 8 national championship tournament.
Watch Canada's brightest basketball stars compete for the national championship title at the new CARSA Performance Gym in Victoria from March 9-12.
Tournament packages are now on sale for the 11-game event at govikesgo.com/nationals.