It was a scenario that most athletes could only dream about. Battling in front of a sold-out hometown crowd for a national championship, and for some, the chance to walk away from their university careers as champions. For the Regina Cougars, they got to live out this dream.
From March 15-17, the University of Regina was home to eight teams from across the country that came to compete for the coveted bronze baby and bragging rights as the best team in the country.
For Regina, it was their second time hosting the tournament in four years.
Back in 2009, Regina lost to Simon Fraser 68-62 in the final, and this year, the Cougars were hoping to re-write that ending.
After two dominating wins against the No. 6 McGill Marlets and No. 2 Saint Mary’s Huskies, the Cougars had earned their ticket to the final once again, but this game would not have the storybook ending that they had hoped for.
After 40 minutes of action, the Cougars could not come back from a second quarter slump and went on to lose in the final game of the season by a score of 66-57 to the three-time champions, No.1 Windsor Lancers.
Although the loss was heartbreaking for every member of the team, it was especially difficult for seniors Lindsay Ledingham, Danielle Schmidt, Brittany Read, and Michelle Clark, who were suiting up for their final game in a Cougars uniform and were desperately hoping to go out on top.
“It’s really devastating,” said Cougars captain Ledingham after the game. “Just in the fact that it’s the last year for a lot of us and we just wanted to end it on a better note than this, but everyone played their hearts out and I couldn’t be more proud of my team.”
The Cougars went back and forth with the Lancers for the better part of the first quarter and trailed by just one point after 10 minutes, but shortly after that the game began to slip away from the Cougars grip.
“It got away from us in the second quarter without a doubt,” said Dave Taylor, who coached the Cougars to two previous CIS silver medals. “As soon as you let that team get up eight, 10, you’re in trouble. We let it get into double figures; we had to keep the game at 5.”
The Cougars’ impressive start against the No. 1 team seemed to vanish quickly in the second quarter as Windsor’s experience began to kick in.
Suddenly, the Cougars seemed timid and couldn’t convert close-range shots that they normally would, while Windsor seemed to be hitting everything at will – including an NBA length three-pointer.
An 11-point run late in the second quarter suddenly broadened the gap between the two teams from one to 12, as the Lancers took a 34-22 comfortable lead into the half.
“We’re playing very good teams and very balanced teams and that’s why they win multiple championships,” Taylor said. “Windsor can hurt you inside, they can hurt you on the perimeter, they have a veteran group and they can score in a multitude of ways.”
The Cougars came out of the break ready to battle back in the third, and fans were preparing themselves for a big quarter, but the crowd was quickly silenced as they watched their team struggle to keep their heads above water and within reach of Windsor.
For head coach Taylor, he watched as his team began to have problems dealing with a team that had upped their defence, and even though the Cougars worked tirelessly to regain the lead, it was never quite enough.
“The only thing that’s keeping me from totally breaking down right now is the memories that I’ve had with the girls for the last five years…I know that those memories and the friendships that I have made are what’s going to get me through this.” – Danielle Schmidt
“In the second half, we kept getting it to eight and we could never quite crack that,” he said. “That’s why Windsor has won three in a row; they responded every time.”
Second-year guard Kehlsie Crone made three lay-ups in the third to bring the game to within five points, but just as Regina seemed to be mounting a come back, Windsor responded.
The Lancers then went on a run of their own, which included scoring the final six points of the quarter to stretch their lead to a seemingly impossible 14 points.
For fifth-year guard Schmidt, it was frustrating to see the lead diminish, only to grow back once again.
“We know how we can play, so to end on that note was disappointing,” she said. “They were controlling the game, we weren’t, and that’s something we don’t usually do. We had many opportunities to come back and we didn’t do it.”
But the Cougars refused to give up without a fight. Even in the dying seconds of the third, they came to play.
“I think we all tried to have the mentality to leave it all on the court, because for many of us it was our last game and for others it was a great opportunity to leave everything on the court,” Ledingham said. “I thought we battled hard. We got it close there at the end but just ran out of time.”
Ledingham’s veteran presence was clear at the end of the game as she came through in the clutch like usual and scored a late three-pointer to put the Cougars within just four points with 1:27 seconds left to go. But, lady luck just wasn’t on the Cougars’ side, and the three-pointer by Ledingham would be the last points the Cougars would score in the game. The Huskies would go on to add five more insurance markers to officially knock off the Cougars.
As the final buzzer sounded, emotion began pouring out of the players, in particular the fifth years, whose time as members of the Regina Cougars officially came to an end.
“We have worked so hard for five years, all four of us, and to come up short is heartbreaking,” Read said.
As if the final score wasn’t punishment enough, the Cougars were then forced to endure an incredibly long banner ceremony for the top team, during which they had time to reflect on what exactly went wrong.
For fifth-year post Read, who had a record breaking night just one day before, she felt that the team wasn’t fully able to put the excitement of the previous night to rest, which ultimately cost them in the championship game.
“It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but after that high of last night, we kind of had to brush it off and know that we had another game ahead of us and I don’t know if we did that and we didn’t fully prepare,” she said. “We were like ‘oh it’s the number one Windsor,’ when we should have just attacked. We had nothing to lose and we didn’t play like that.”
But for the graduating players, even though it may not have been the outcome that they wanted in their final game, to have accomplished what they have in the past five years is truly something to be admired by both fans and fellow players.
For Crone, she has nothing but the best to say about her fellow teammates.
“I have learned so much from the graduating class,” she said. “Especially playing with Michelle, learning how to push the ball and get into certain spots, we play really well together. And Dani, defence with her, she is so amazingly good at defense so just watching and learning from her. And Lindsay’s leadership is unbelievable and how Brittany keeps pushing in practice and just doesn’t give up, I’m going to miss them.”
And, as the players pass the torch onto the next group of Cougars athletes, for this tight-knit group of so-called sisters, while they may not see each other everyday anymore, they will continue to remain a large part of each others lives.
“The only thing that’s keeping me from totally breaking down right now is the memories that I’ve had with the girls for the last five years,” said Schmidt after the game. “I’ve played with some of the best people I know and right now it doesn’t feel good at all, but I know that those memories and the friendships that I have made are what’s going to get me through this.”
Photo by Arthur Ward