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 final feature, we take a look at this year’s hosts, the Victoria Vikes.
Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - Y2K was no different than the late 20th century for the Victoria Vikes, who welcomed the new millennium by capturing the Bronze Baby for a record eighth time in a remarkable two-decade span under coach Kathy Shields.
But it wasn’t long before Canadian women’s university basketball’s most successful program found itself in foreign territory.
By the time the 2002-03 season had arrived the majority of players from the 2000 championship team had graduated, Shields had stepped down in 2001 to address health concerns, and in 2002 Victoria missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
“That caused all of us to look a little bit more inwardly and think, ‘OK, what do we want to get out of this’” says Dani Sinclair, co-captain of the 2002-03 Vikes.
“I distinctly remember early in the year, having a conversation walking out of practice with one of the other veteran players, saying, ‘Ok, above all else, we need to make sure we’re enjoying ourselves every day’ because we were pretty bogged down.
“It’s a great thing when you’re in a program where there’s so much history, but it can also be a burden, and I think there was a period early on in that season where maybe we felt that. There was pressure, and we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s just enjoy this and have fun.’”
Looking back, it’s probably safe to say the 2002-03 Vikes had as much fun as any Victoria women’s basketball team before or since.
And to this day, they still enjoy having won the ninth and most recent national title in Victoria women’s basketball history.
It’s also perhaps the most unlikely trophy in the Vikes’ case. From the soul-searching at the beginning of the season, to sitting in the middle of the standings at the holiday break, to facing elimination multiple times in the Canada West playoffs, to being underdogs in every game at the national championship, this wasn’t a Victoria squad that was included in discussions about winning it all.
Not even among themselves.
“It’s funny, I don’t think we really talked about it,” says Sinclair, who was a guard in her fourth year of eligibility. “It just really became more about the process without us consciously saying that.”
To fully appreciate the Vikes’ accomplishment, consider it came in the midst of 19 straight national championship wins by Canada West members, and that the conference started the 2002-03 season with seven teams ranked in the national Top 10.
“You looked ahead at your schedule and thought to yourself ‘Oh my gosh’,” Sinclair says. “You couldn’t look too far ahead because ... every weekend was going to be a battle and you understood that if you could make it out of Can West that you had a good shot to do something at nationals.”
Victoria hovered about .500 for the first several weeks of the Canada West schedule, and was a solid but unspectacular 7-5 after a dozen games. The first hints that they could contend for a championship didn’t come until they closed the regular season by winning seven of their last eight games.
“We started to really buy into some of those things - what creates excellence and how that all comes together - that we had heard talked about within the program before, that maybe we didn’t quite understand as a group,” says Sinclair.
With a record of 14-6, Victoria placed second in the Pacific Division and earned home advantage for a best-of-three quarter-final against Regina. The winner would advance to the Final Four and be within a single victory of qualifying for nationals. The loser’s season would be done.
“When I think about that year and that championship, that is the series that comes to light the most because of that,” Sinclair says.
Victoria opened the series with a 53-46 victory, but was crushed the next night, losing 63-36 to Regina in the second game.
The hours that followed, leading to Game 3, would come to define the Vikes.
“It’s such a quick turnaround to the third game, and I remember walking home that night (after Game 2) almost in tears and thinking ‘Holy cow, what did we just do?” Sinclair recalls.
“With how badly they beat us, I thought, ‘Ok we need to do something here’. So that next morning we met as a team and we didn’t talk about basketball. It was like the conversations we had at the beginning of the year, about making sure we were enjoying ourselves and focusing on the process.
Every member of the team was there, and we went to Tim Hortons down the road and just sat and ate breakfast, and it brought us together in a way.”
The Vikes would prevail 63-58, and their experience of staring death in the face and living to tell about it helped steel a resolve that would prove critical the next weekend at Final Four in Burnaby, B.C.
After dropping the semifinal 76-62 to Winnipeg, Victoria once again found itself in a do-or-die scenario, needing to win the bronze medal match-up, against Calgary, in order to qualify for nationals. And once again the Vikes rose to the occasion with a heart-stopping 56-55 triumph over the Dinos.
“We were a team that was pretty mentally tough from top to bottom,” says Sinclair. “Sometimes your team just has that ‘it’ factor and for us that was the case ... we just understood how to refocus and we had some good veteran leadership.”
A week and a half later, the Vikes touched down in Hamilton for nationals. Playing as the sixth seed, they upended No. 3 Memorial 72-64 in the quarter-final to set up a semifinal match with the second-seeded Laval Rouge et Or, who had plastered Victoria 70-40 in a pre-season tournament.
But that was in October. On this March night, Victoria would hold Laval to a record low for points, winning 60-30.
In less than five months, the Vikes had gone from losing by 30 to winning by 30.
“Sometimes that’s just luck: We were on that day and they weren’t,” Sinclair says. “But what we had gone through as a team in the few weeks leading up to that, and through the whole season, definitely helped develop some confidence going in.”
It seemed only fitting that Victoria’s opponent in the championship game would be a Canada West rival, and another team the Vikes had previously struggled against: the Winnipeg Wesmen.
“We knew they were going to be excited and motivated to play us in the final,” Sinclair says. “At that point, you only have a few hours to prepare. I distinctly remember I had no voice, I couldn’t even make a peep as the anthem was playing leading up to the final game. Everybody was just running on fumes at that point. But, the gym was packed, and as soon as the ball goes up, adrenaline helps you get through it.”
On the strength of another outstanding defensive effort, Victoria defeated Winnipeg 60-51. Vikes senior guard Lindsay Anderson was tournament named MVP, Sinclair was selected as an all-star, and Brian Cheng – who had worked as an assistant for Shields on two prior national championship teams – won his first title as head coach.
Today, Sinclair is in her fifth year as head coach of the Vikes, who will host the 2017 ArcelorMittal Dofasco U Sports Women's Basketball Final 8, March 9-12. While Sinclair’s team is in the unique position of being assured a spot in the tournament, she hopes they treat the journey much like the Vikes of 14 years ago.
“It’s a process, and you have to develop the habits every single day to create a championship mindset, a championship program, and a championship team,” Sinclair says.
“It’s much more than the abilities you develop skill-wise. We were incredibly connected as a group on and off the court, so it’s committing yourself to being the best team you can be, and there’s no guarantee that’s going to win you a championship, but you’re sure going to give yourself the opportunity if you do that.”
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.