By Woodard, Dale on January 3, 2020.
A trip to the final four, some new faces on the bench and a whole lot of hosting.
The past 12 months offered a bit of all these things as the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns athletics wrapped up 2019.
A trio of new coaches joined the Horns with Dave Waknuk losing his interim head coach title to become the head coach of the Pronghorns women’s basketball team, while Doug Paisley took the helm of the Horns women’s hockey team and James McKinnon took over as bench boss for the men’s basketball team.
Then there was the Pronghorns women’s basketball team reaching the Canada West final four Feb. 21-22 before bowing out in two close games to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in Saskatoon.
When that wasn’t happening, the Pronghorns played host to Canada West and national-calibre in hockey, rugby and swimming.
First up was the puck drop when as the Horns men’s hockey team hosted the 2019 Cavendish Farms University Cup March 14-17 at the Enmax Centre.
After finishing 9-20-2-0 in the regular season and losing out in two games to the Calgary Dinos in the opening round of the Canada West playoffs, the host Pronghorns only made it one game into the tournament, losing 7-1 on opening day to the defending USPORTS champion and eventual finalist Alberta Golden Bears.
The Golden Bears advanced to the gold medal game, but a repeat USPORTS title wasn’t in the cards as the University of New Brunswick Reds won 4-2 to reclaim the national title they won in 2017.
The host’s appearance was limited to one game, but Pronghorns executive director Ken McInnes said the University Cup helped put Lethbridge on the university hockey map.
“It brought some of the best hockey Lethbridge has probably seen in a while,” said McInnes. “Even the lead up to the events, the games we had an early-January (against Alberta) in January at the Enmax Centre brought the college and the university together and that was a party.
“We hoped to go a little bit further, but you always do, but I think the teams that came here loved Lethbridge and loved the way they were hosted. The Enmax Centre and their team was stupendous. That is a facility that really lends itself to the UCup. It’s just the right size and with all of the upgrades it’s everything that you would expect.”
In mid-October, it was the Pronghorns women’s rugby team’s turn to play the role of host of the Canada West Championship at the University of Lethbridge Stadium Oct. 18-20.
“The weather was great for this year’s Canada West,” said McInnes. “We had some great rugby teams come in and we saw some really good rugby being played. It always amazes me how tough those athletes are. They’ll play in anything.”
It wasn’t the outing the Pronghorns were hoping for, though, as the hosts dropped an 8-7 heartbreaker to the Calgary Dinos in the semifinals as Calgary won on a penalty kick in the final seconds of the game.
The Pronghorns then lost 51-14 to the Victoria Vikes in the third-place game on the final day.
“Our ladies played well,” said McInnes. “We were agonizingly close to going to nationals. There wasn’t much time left and that was just a tough call. We give the referees the whistle and in fairness, it was a penalty. It’s just what happens and the U of C took advantage of it and played tight. But I was so impressed with how we played the University of Calgary. They’re a good team this year and our women’s rugby team played them to a standstill. So it was fantastic.”
Earlier in the season the Horns reclaimed the Suggitt Cup with a pair of wins over the Alberta Pandas.
As well, the Pronghorns teams from 2006 to 2011 also made the Canada West Hall of Fame.
The teams won three straight CIS Championships from 2007-09, six straight Canada West Championships from 2006-11 and went 13-0 in 2009.
Later in the year, the Canada West Swimming Championship put on the laps at the Max Bell pool, Nov. 22-24.
History was made among the hosts as the 4×100 free relay team of Tom Utas, Chris Alexander, Raine Arden and Adam Stromberg won the first ever relay silver medal in program history Nov. 23.
“Quite frankly, those guys just willed it. It was plain and simple,” said McInnes. “They were not going to be denied and they were going to find a way to get onto the podium. Adam swam a great final leg, but all four of them swam really well.”
Alexander also won the bronze medal in the 50m backstroke.
The Pronghorns venue was also a popular one among the swimmers.
“The Max Bell is an old pool, but it still has a lot of character to it,” said McInnes. “A lot of the swimmers were really pumped to be here because it’s considered a fast pool. There were a lot of meet records set and we said about seven or eight Pronghorn swim records. Tricia Fair had a great competition. Considering she’s doing her practicum in nursing, she’s really balancing an ugly schedule. They did really well.”
When the Pronghorns weren’t hosting events, they were doing well at other locations.
The Pronghorns women’s basketball team went on a playoff run that just fell short of a Canada West Championship berth.
After a 15-10 regular season, the Pronghorns hosted a playoff play-in game, defeating the Manitoba Bisons 99-60 Feb. 8 at the 1st Choice Savings Centre.
That sent the team to Edmonton the following weekend to face the Alberta Pandas in the quarter-finals.
The Horns kept their season going with a sweep of the Pandas with 90-66 and 67-60 wins to reach the Canada West final four for the first time since 1995.
But the Cinderella season ended there as the Huskies swept the Pronghorns in two games.
“It was really satisfying to see them compared to where they were in 2015,” said McInnes. “It’s a credit to (former head coach) Dave Adams and Dave Waknuk for stepping in. They played really well and kept gaining momentum the whole year culminating in the playoffs. I think they gave Saskatchewan a great run for their money. I thought they might be able to beat them. They were deeper on the bench and I think that made the difference and a couple of their players started hitting some big points when they needed to.”
In track and field, Sandra LaTrace won her third long jump title at the USPORTS Nationals at the beginning of March in Edmonton.
“So she has done really well,” said McInnes. “She won the 60m sprint, which doesn’t get duplicated very often. I still remember her 60m race at the Canada West. She maybe didn’t have the best start she could’ve had, but she absolutely stayed within the race, reeled in the person out front and won it And continued it at USPORTS. She’s just an amazing student athlete.”
The Pronghorns women’s soccer team went 1-7-6 and earned a play-in game against the UBC Thunderbirds Oct. 25 in Saskatoon, losing 1-0.
“That was one of the best soccer games I’ve seen,” said McInnes. “We had our chances. UBC was strong, but you could tell they were getting nervous. They were pretty free with where they were shooting from and by the end of the game there was a lot of trying to set up the perfect pass to get the goal. So it was a great game. We had chances a couple of times.”
The past year saw Paisley, Waknuk and McKinnon join the coaching ranks.
Waknuk takes over for Adams on the women’s basketball team, while McKinnon takes on the interim title for the men’s team after the departure of Mike Hansen.
In the midst of harassment allegations, the Pronghorns parted ways with former women’s hockey coach Michelle Janus in late January.
Parry Shockey took over as interim coach for the rest of the season before Paisley was named coach in the off-season.
“Sort of the story of 2019 has been new coaches,” said McInnes. “But Dave has just done an amazing job with them. He has a great touch on the court and has a good touch in practice. We just battled through some injuries, we don’t have a very deep bench. So any injury is back at this level. But it’s really big for us right now, so it will be nice to be healthy going into the second semester.
“James is doing a great job with a thin squad again. I think for them and it’s going to be the story of if they can stay focused and I think James does a really good job with that. If they catch lightning in a bottle, they can go. They play a lot of fast basketball. James says ‘I coach defence and sooner or later they’ll start playing it.'”
Paisley brings a local presence to the Pronghorns.
“He has that great balance of being demanding, but also understanding the history and some of the stuff the team has gone through,” said McInnes. “It’s also really a credit to the players to say that the past is the past and let’s move on. I think Doug and his coaching staff have done a really good job keeping the focus and they’re right in the hunt.”
The women’s team is 7-8-0-1 at the break and in sixth place in the Canada West.
The men are also in sixth place at 5-10-1-0.
“2020 is going to be an interesting year,” said McInnes. “On the competitive field I think we’re going to see women’s hockey and will make the playoffs this year. In men’s hockey, I think they will be there and I think they believe they’re going to get to the playoffs. If the injuries don’t bite the women they’ll go deep.”
However, there will be challenges away from the rink and the court in 2020 as well.
“It’s going to be all on the budget side this year,” said McInnes. “I suspect that will be the conversation in 2020. It’s not going to be pretty, but we’ll find a way through it. We’re optimistic.”
Pronghorns basketball and hockey teams resume Canada West play tonight. See stories on Page B1.
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