The night before the 2010 national championship game, Chantal Vallée’s Windsor Lancers changed their pre-game routine. The team usually has a meeting one night before each game, but thinking they had prepared themselves enough, they decided to do something different and skipped the meeting.
The next day, something else happened that Vallée and the Lancers weren’t used to.
Granted, they were playing against the Simon Fraser Clan, who won their fourth title in six years. But it was also the Lancers’ first loss in almost two months, and Vallée still ponders what effect skipping that meeting had on their championship-game performance.
“I can’t help but wonder if keeping our routine, something as simple as that, might have helped us to focus a bit more,” said Vallée, now in her sixth year as Windsor’s head coach, in a phone interview over the holidays.
“It may have made us feel as though we were just happy to be there as opposed to wanting to win.”
While that game is in the past, there’s a big difference between last year’s team and its current version. Against the Clan, they were the underdogs. Now, with their gold-medal nemesis gone to the NCAA and another year of experience under their belts, the Lancers have had to assume the role of the favourite to not only return to the title game, but win the Bronze Baby.
The Lancers were ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history earlier this year, have held on to that rank for most of the year, and with a strong core of talented and experienced players, have arguably more firepower than any other CIS team.
For Vallée, it’s a nice acknowledgement, but is subordinate to the many challenges of the CIS season.
“We don’t talk about being the frontrunner. Those are just numbers on a piece of paper,” said the Windsor bench boss.
Regardless of whether they want to think of themselves as frontrunners, it’s also a role the Lancers have struggled to master so far.
They’ve dealt with a scourge of injuries and sicknesses, having to dress just seven players on more than a few occasions and no more than 10 in the 2010 portion of the schedule. They’ve also been beaten twice by teams in their own conference, including a recent 57-54 loss to No. 5 Western. As it would seem, there’s a learning curve to being the favourite.
“I think it’s easier to be the underdog, from experience ... there’s always less pressure, and you’d always rather be chasing and trying to get [the No. 1 team],” said Vallée.
After this week, being No. 1 isn't even a legitimate concern for the Lancers. They fell to No. 2 behind Saskatchewan in the most recent edition of the top-10 poll.
Of course, a couple of losses don’t mean this is a team that can’t win a title. Working players who have missed games back into the lineup takes time, especially with the kind of talent the Lancers have. Windsor boasts three sublimely skilled forwards 6’2” or taller in Raelyn Prince, Iva Peklova and Jessica Clemençon, and it’s a challenge for Vallée to get them all to play in rhythm.
“Being as competitive as [Prince, Peklova and Clemençon] are, I would expect there will be some players who have a harder time with their roles,” said Vallée, noting that it’s a good problem to have and her players understand that.
“To my players’ credit, they’re just wonderful to be coached, and even though it might not always be easy for them, I think they’ll accept their roles really well and keep moving toward the team’s goals.”
At 8-2, the Lancers trail the Mustangs by one game for top spot in the OUA West, and are tied with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks. They’re 3-2 overall against top-10 teams this year, and while they’ve shown flashes of brilliance, are still short of the frontrunner status set before them by Simon Fraser.
Windsor is also the host team of the CIS Final 8 this year, and Vallée hopes her squad will be reaching their peak performance when the tournament takes place in the spring.
“It’s certainly exciting. You couldn’t ask for a better story,” the coach says of a chance to play for a national title on their home floor.
Of course, that title is a long way from now, both in terms of time and the improvements the Lancers will need to show to live up to the ranking they’ve held for most of the year. However, when March comes around, it will be Windsor’s third appearance in as many seasons, and Vallée hopes her team has learned from past experience.
“Of course [a title is] the goal, and has been since we didn’t win it last year. The fact that we went all the way to the final helps us feel like what it’s like to be there.”
The Lancers have a long way to go and a lot of opponents to climb over. But while it’s their first appearance potentially as favourites, Vallée and her team are hoping that the third time’s a charm.
On whether she knew Clemençon, a native of France and the 2009-10 CIS Rookie of the Year, would be as good as she is: "I knew I was recruiting a National Team player, so I was expecting her to be very good... but her being Rookie of the Year is not something I expected or even thought about. I was just really pleased she was on our team for that."
On how she recruited Clemençon to Windsor: "I got a call from the International Office saying there was a French student applying to Windsor who had basketball on her resumé. I googled her right away, found out who she was and called her—immediately. Being French-speaking myself, we hit it off right away. It was in the bag."
On recruiting, and replacing recently graduated point guards Dranadia Roc and Shavaun Reaney: "They were great players... Miah-Marie Langlois has done an absolutely terrific job leading the team as a point guard, as well as [Guelph transfer] Morgan Jean. You need at least two of those good point guards per team, and we'd like to keep playing at the level as the same ones before us."