At basketball practices at SFU, our coach always put out a paper schedule before we started. Mostly, it was for his benefit: he had each drill timed to the minute, and as well as we could (unless we were royally screwing up and needed extra time for punishments) we always stuck to the predetermined times. As well as times, of course, this sheet also listed the drills we were going to do, and they were usually of great variety: post breakdown drills; free throw pyramids; defensive shell; screen and roll repeats. For the most part, these schedules calmed us: like toddlers, or bus stations, we required a definitive routine to calm our simple minds and deep-rooted superstitions. By knowing what we were up against, we could mentally prepare for it -- at least for the most part. With some drills, knowing they were coming just made the pain hurt even worse.
There were few of these aforementioned "death drills", but the ones that existed were both terrifying and painfully familiar. The recurring theme? You screw up, you don't stop. In fact, you screw up, you start from the beginning, and you have to do the whole sequence over again -- perfectly! -- or... well, actually, there was no "or". You screwed up, you started again, simple as that. You kept screwing up? You kept going. The longest individual turn, in my memory at least, was nearly 15 minutes. 15 minutes, you think? Oh, that's not that hard. Fifteen minutes is nothing. Ha! I shake my head at you. And again, I say, ha! These drills were awful; they were like death sentences even before you made a mistake. And there were two of them that were the absolute worst, at least in majority opinion: three man weave touch the sideline (eek), and post gauntlet (double eek).
Three man weave touch the sideline started out, as most would think, with a three man weave -- but there was a catch. As a group of three, you needed to make three passes -- no more, no less -- in each single length of the court. As well, before you caught the ball, you had to touch the sideline; then, without travelling, you had to dribble once and then pass the ball. Oh, and on top of that: no layup could be missed, and no rebound off said layups could ever touch the ground. Once again: the ball bounces four times, no more and no less: three on the ground, and once off the backboard. There is no travelling, and each player must touch the opposite sideline between each pass they make. So, for an individual player, it went like this: rebound, dribble, pass to outlet, sprint to touch right sideline; catch pass, dribble, score layup, touch opposite sideline; catch pass, dribble, pass, touch opposite sideline; repeat process for desired number of times. Usually this meant five down and backs -- i.e. ten perfect layup sequences -- which, of course, could be easily screwed up by things like travelling, missing layups or rebounds, not running hard enough, or not talking (the last two of which were completely arbitrary decisions made by a coach). Needless to say, it was hell.
Perhaps the only drill worse than this was post gauntlet. It pitted three posts (i.e. three people of relatively equal stature -- all positions had to participate), with one sub, at each hoop in the gym, with one ball in each group. There was no travelling and no fouling allowed (although the second rule was flagrantly ignored, to the great pleasure of "this will toughen them up"-mentality coaches) and the clock usually ran for somewhere around the ten minute range. When the whistle went, it was a violent cacophony of one-on-one-on-one: you scored however you could, and as frequently as you could, through two mauling defenders with the same grudge as you. As soon as one person scored three baskets, they switched out for the sub on the sideline, and were granted a brief (usually only a few seconds' worth) break while the new threesome continued to battle it out. It was a brutal drill, and not just for the physicality -- bloody noses and black eyes abounded -- but the most painful part was when you just could not score. You see, it was a vicious cycle: if you couldn't score three baskets, you had to stay in the drill; and if you had to stay in the drill, you were stuck playing against fresher people for round after round after round, until eventually you were so tired that you could barely lift your arms to land a layup without any defenders at all.
Needless to say, while I have many fond memories of varsity basketball, I consider neither of these drills among them. In fact, were it possible, I would try to obliterate them from my memory -- as it is, I'm stuck with the painful mental trauma of 6AM training camp and that cursed practice plan.
Now, long-winded that this diatribe may seem to be, it has a point: you see, these drills, and this mentality, is in my opinion a strong parallel to the top 4 teams (okay, I'm still considering Regina 4th. I'm allowed to. It's how I feel). Look at it this way: Western and Windsor (#2 and #3) are the two giants of the East, while Regina and Saskatchewan are the juggernauts of the West. The Cougars and the Huskies play each other -- a lot -- as do the Mustangs and the Lancers. They're in the same conferences -- it happens. So, think of it like this: in practice, there are drills that come around on a fairly regular basis that you absolutely cannot stand. Why? Because they are difficult, and draining, and they get the adrenaline ringing in your ears like a bad caffeine trip, and though you know you'll be better for having done them you can't help but wish sometimes that they'd just go away so you didn't have to face them again. Saskatchewan playing Regina is like three man weave touch the sideline: with Brittany Read out, these teams have relied more on their speed and basic panache in competition with one another than they have in (at least in my opinion) any recent years previous. And Windsor and Western? As the colour commentators from Wednesday so artfully put it, Western's Matteke Hutzler is "a one-woman wrecking ball", while Windsor's Jessica Clemençon is a posting powerhouse of her own.
In both the Western and the Eastern matchup, these teams have faced each other numerous times, each taken wins off one another, and (as I'm sure the players will agree) enter more agitated and leave more drained than most any other contest in their respective leagues. Why? Well, first of all, they're all in the top 4 (like I said, I'm keeping Regina there -- their OT split with Winnipeg on Saturday is just not a substantial enough loss for me to change my mind). And the second thing? It's the crisis of recognition. The rivalry is there, simply put, because they see each other often. Familiarity breeds contempt, remember; and in the sporting world, contempt leads to knuckle-biting games like this one.
In fact, if I had it my way, I would throw all four teams into one enormous grudge match (perhaps in a dusty underground fighting pit, just for dramatic effect), dangle the bronze baby just out of reach, then toss them a single basketball and let them have at 'er. The last team standing gets to keep it (and full fight coverage on pay per view!). Seriously, though? While I still put Regina at a solid 4th out of 4, I have no doubt that any of this upper quad could take the title on a good day. After all, on a good day, each of these teams has done big things. In fact, in the season so far, not one of these teams has fallen below sixth in the coaches' rankings -- and even then, it was only week 1 and 2, in which Saskatchewan was placed in that spot by a preseason vote and took an extra week to work themselves out of it.
So, my advice to all you betting types out there? Put good money on these four. No, I am most certainly not discounting the obvious strength of other teams in the top ten -- I'm just saying that as far as consistency goes, you really can't go wrong here (as, so far, neither can they). Further points in their favour? Not one of these teams is winless -- a fact that might at first seem detrimental but in fact aids them more so than if they had remained an undefeated squad. Why? Without a loss, you can't truly understand the taste of defeat, and so wins are (subconsciously or not) held in lower regard as a result. As for these groups, though? They've traded wins and losses with each other as easily as preschoolers trade the common cold -- arguably, however, with more than a few extra elbows and hard-hipped boxouts. And so, when the national tournament finally does arrive, you can not only expect these four to be in it --
--you can expect me to be watching it, too. And with some popcorn and 3D glasses, I think, because this year's going to be INTENSE.