Year in review: 10 memorable #USports stories from 2016

It is folly personified to believe one can make a definitive list of the 10 best moments in U Sport in 2016.

Here, though, is what comes clearly to mind when one tries to recapture moments that exemplified what the spirit of university sport. People who are focused on high performance but also want to keep some space for personal growth that often gets more compromised in the corporatized NCAA. People who know the social value of sport, of representation. It's hard to reduce all of that to 10 bullet points, but at least we know the greatest U Sport moment of the year was not a press conference.

(Yes, really. Someone thinks that.)

Here's a list:

  • Ryerson winning the OUA basketball titles minutes apart and Saskatchewan winning their first Bronze Baby. There is little that matches the pride around a basketball team when a school finally scales the summit, i.e., gets out the ladder to cut down the nets for the first time.

    Coach Lisa Thomaidis' Saskatchewan Huskies finally got to that point, as Laura Dally and all their veterans slowly chiseled away at Ryerson's revolve in the national women's final.

    A week earlier, Ryerson went from zero OUA basketball titles to two in a matter of minutes. The men's Rams defeated Carleton in the Wilson Cup; the women's team won their title on Ottawa's floor. Seeing the newfound Ram pride, as someone who remembered when Ryerson was just kind of, well, half-there in the OUA, was a revelation.
  • Conference Championship Saturday in football involved three three-point games. The antepenultimate week of the season is often the most exciting, since it involves league finals between teams which know each other inside and out. It's also the first trophy game, so there's no fallback "at least we got the ..." rationalizations for a loss.

    For only the second time, Laval had to go to Montréal for the Dunsmore Cup. With everything on the line, third and goal on the Carabins' three-yard line with 27 seconds left, the Rouge et Or morphed into Boise State to get the ball in the end zone, running a direct snap reverse pass that resulted in wide receiver Jonathan Breton Robert throwing the decisive touchdown to quarterback Hugo Richard. That gave Laval a three-point win.

    And "Western was up 40-19" became, in the U Sports universe, "The Warriors were ahead 3-1." Laurier scored four times in the final nine minutes in one of the best Yates Cups games in a recent history. Calgary and UBC didn't stop scoring touchdowns until the following Monday in the Hardy Cup.
  • A record regular-season crowd for the Panda Game in Ottawa. More than 23,000 attended the annual grudge match between the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees. The game is a model for how university sport can reach casual fans when they have reason to feel invested in the outcome, if only for one Saturday per season. Carleton all-Canadian kick returner Tunde Adeleke had one of his OUA record-tying five punt return touchdowns during the win.
  • Bishop's receiving permission to play football in Atlantic University Sport.  In football, as well as other sports, there is a tug-of-war over between the conferences and U Sports HQ. The former is protective of their myriad bailiwicks. The latter is all about the big picture, even if it means missing some micro nuts-and-bolts.

    Ultimately, the Gaiters moving to a football league of fellow primarily undergraduate schools, while staying in RSEQ for everything else, is a watershed in the latter gaining ascendancy. Instead of getting bogged down in (stay with me) governance and protocols, pragmatism won the day. That creates optimism that in years to come, there will be more changes that benefit te greater good of more competitive football at the local and national levels.
  • UNB hockey alumna Sylvia Dooley won a seven-year court battle to have the Varsity Reds program restored to varsity status. Given the growth of female hockey at every level, it was incredibly short-sighted by the University of New Brunswick to drop their team in 2008. One can only presume that former player Dooley got a lot of backlash over taking on the powers-that-be. The spirit of sport was definitely at her back and it turns out the letter of law supports her, too.

    In March, the province's Labour Board found that UNB did not have a case for dropping the team and engaged in "permissive stereotyping" when it said the affected hockey players could just go play another sport. While the reinstatement has been dragged out, the women's hockey Varsity Reds will be coming back in 2018-19.
  • The emergence of some small schools! UOIT Ridgebacks women's soccer earned the Oshawa school's first OUA championship and CIS/U Sports bronze medal, a major milestone for a member that only joined in 2004.

    Both the Ontario championship and national bronze involved 1-0 decisions against Queen's, with 'keeper Helen Frampton showing the way with clean sheets.

    That was something to share with the people, not naming names but there are some in the Vancouver basketball community, who kvetch about letting in former CCAA members. Some of the smaller partners showed they can get it done. Thompson Rivers made the men's basketball Final 8 for the first time. Mount Royal and UOIT are players in men's hockey. Get used to it.
  • Canada, with eight U Sports alumnae on the roster, capturing the bronze in the inaugural Olympic women's rugby sevens event. Canada's standing in women's rugby attests to the fact that progressive attitudes won the day, maybe not quickly enough but quicker than in a lot of places, with establishing women's contact sports such as hockey, rugby and wrestling. Somehow our underfunded system is able to accommodate the will of the sportspeople, eh.
  • David Onyemata going directly from playing for the Manitoba Bisons to appearing in every regular-season game for the NFL's New Orleans Saints. The defensive lineman became the first Manitoban drafted in April and, far from toiling on the practice squad as a rookie, earned enough trust from coaches to play regularly.

    Meantime, McGill alumnus Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is on track to start at guard in the NFL playoffs with Kansas City.
  • University of Toronto's Kylie Masse capturing an Olympic swimming bronze medal in 100-metre backstroke, as a current student-athlete.

    Masse's development arc was somewhat like Penny Oleksiak's in that she wasn't on the national team for the 2015 Pan Am Games and was thus off the radar of the 'amateur sports experts for two weeks every other other' media. However, there was a harbinger when she won a gold at the 2015 Universiade. A BLG Award-worthy season with U of T under Linda Kiefer and Byron MacDonald also cleared the way for her to dominate at the Olympic trials before getting on the podium in Rio.

    Masse being third (well, tied for third) in the world shows how good the training environment for world-class swimmers in Canada. Most of our individual medalists in the pool over the last two decades -- Hilary Caldwell, Ryan Cochrane, Brent Hayden, to name a few -- stayed in Canada for their post-secondary years.
  • Calgary Dinos alumna Erica Wiebe winning an Olympic gold medal in wrestling.
    The best all-purpose analogy for tracking a wrestler is it's like watching a pitcher work on a no-hitter in a scoreless game, since the margin for error is so small. Wiebe, of Stittsville, Ont., won four matches in a row in Rio, topped off by winning the gold medal match against Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan.

    Through a friend, I was fortunate enough to see Wiebe wrestle at the Canada Cup international meet in late June in Guelph. Even to novice eyes -- I was probably the only person in the Sleeman Centre who wasn't a wrestler, even though the event was free to the public --  her rugged grace and a controlled killer instinct were evident as she rolled through her matches. I left thinking maybe there was something special in store in Rio. There was just no idea how special. 
There was much more, of course. Volleyball, for instance, has always been a blind spot, but it's evident play in Canada is at a very high level, as evidenced by the men's national team competing in the Olympics. McMaster is also challenging defending NCAA champion Ohio State to a match. That could be huge. 
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  1. If whomever wrote up that Top 10 list for USport penned that list to generate discussion, then I applaud them! However, to rebrand in the middle of the season was extremely short sighted and rather STUPID and will become a case study on how not to roll out a rebrand for the fine business schools in this vast land of ours!!