It is always the little things that bring you back.
It is a string of two games that becomes 10, as headlines report on win after win with building optimism. It is a few extra spectators rolling into Burridge Gym, eager to see what all the fuss is about but cautiously managing their expectations; whispers in the nezzanine that maybe this is the year, hushed only by the nervousness of weathered fans still reeling from playoff heartbreak.
For anyone in the McMaster basketball community, there is something about these unspoken moments that signals the dawn of something much greater. But there is also something about the air that surrounds this year’s women’s basketball team that feels oddly familiar. A sense that maybe, just maybe…
We have seen this before.
The year was 2008. Iron Man had just hit theatres, Barack Obama was set to become president of the United States, and most of today’s current Marauders were still shooting hoops during recess in their local elementary schools.
But here at Mac a storm was brewing, as a group of seniors had one more shot to claim what had so far eluded them: a Canadian Interuniversity Sports national title. Leading the way was fourth-year guard Lindsay Degroot, the First-Team All-Canadian and eventual Ontario University Athletics Athlete of the Year who was averaging 18.8 points and just shy of 11 rebounds per game. By her side was third-year player Taylor Smith, who chipped in 12.6 points per game while shooting 40 per cent from beyond the arc.
On the defensive side of the ball the Marauders had a stroke of luck welcoming fifth-year transfer Rachel Hart to the lineup after four successful years with the Manitoba Bisons. Hart was a defensive phenom, whose 134 rebounds and 53 steals during the regular season would go on to earn her CIS defensive player of the year. Add in the stellar play of OUA All-Star post Chiara Rocca and the ‘08 Marauders were ready for a winning playoff run.
Flash forward to 2016, and the similarities are striking.
The scoring prowess of Lindsay Degroot has been replaced by current all-star senior Danielle Boiago, a First-Team All-Canadian and McMaster all-time leading scorer who has been averaging 19.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. By her side is third-year forward Linnaea Harper, who has added 12.8 points per game while shooting 35 per cent from the three-point line, just shy of the mark set by Smith.
This year’s Mac women have also benefitted from the play of a standout transfer in Vanessa Pickard, who switched to McMaster for her final two years of eligibility and rounds out the top three in scoring, despite missing the first half of the season to injury. With OUA All-Star Clare Kenney in the post, you couldn’t help but think this year’s team was destined to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps.
“We had so much depth on our team it was crazy,” said 2008 guard Cari te Boekhorst. “If someone was having a bad game, there was someone on our bench that could fill it. Yeah we had our all-stars, but there were always so many people we could rely on. It was one of our strengths”
Roaring out of the gate the 2008 Marauders went 21-1 en route to an OUA championship. The only dent in their perfect season came in the form of a late loss to the Western Mustangs, a tough game reminiscent of this team’s early loss to OUA rival Carleton.
“I remember losing to Western,” said 2008 player Rachel Hart. “It was near the end of the season, it was our first loss. You sort of give your head a shake… but when you come from a successful program you are used to that; you expect to win. It is not necessarily going to put more pressure on you than you already put on yourself.”
Managing that pressure will become increasingly important for this year’s Mac squad. Ranked first in the University Sports national top ten for more than half the season, the women have yet to fall out of the top three in the country, floating around the same position that the team did in ‘08.
“Being number one, you have a lot of expectations,” said te Boekhorst. “You have them from your coaches, your teammates, your friends… but psychologically, they shouldn’t be putting a huge amount of pressure on themselves because they are ranked in the top three. Regardless they have to be modest and know that the tournament can go to anyone, but confident enough to know they can take it.”
Rankings aside, the latter half of the season will pose no shortage of challenges for this year’s team. With three games left to cap the year the Mac woman still have games to contend with, with OUA rivals Queen’s, Carleton and Windsor all set to play spoiler come playoff time.
“[For these] last games, they have to focus on themselves,” said Hart. “Play their own game, keep working as a unit, and do what they can day to day.”
“As an alumna, this year’s team [has had] an extraordinary season so far,” said 2008 guard Taylor Smith. “We are all so proud of what they have accomplished… but as one of the top teams in the country they need to understand that everyone they play will bring their A-game to McMaster. [They can’t] take a night off.”
Those words ring true more than ever after a heartbreaking loss to Queen’s at home. Trailing for most of the game the Marauders ended up dropping a 70-68 contest that saw Boiago put up her second lowest scoring game of the season, while the team gave up 24 points on turnovers alone.
For all their strengths, it is not just the depth and versatility that both teams are known for. The majority of their offensive production still rests on the shoulder of a few veteran players, which while effective in most games will always be called into question after close loses. Particularly when star players fail to hit the staggering numbers to which fans are accustomed.
“Whether people agree with it or not, I would always put [the end of a game] on us,” said Hart. “With the amount of experience we had… we needed to be able to get it done. We were all seniors, we knew who our best scorers were, and we should be able to out-play who we needed to.”
There is also one other element that separates these teams from other Marauder teams. Often overlooked but never to be underestimated, togetherness will always be a special part of what it means to be a part of women’s basketball at McMaster.
“Looking back, we did have a lot of strengths,” said te Boekhorst. “[We had] experience, [we had] a lot of people that came from winning backgrounds, depth for sure, but we were also just a tight knit group. We fed off of each-other, we respected each other, we knew how to motivate and encourage each other… you see that in this team.”
“Being number one, you have a lot of expectations, you have them from your coaches, your teammates, your friends… but psychologically, they shouldn’t be putting a huge amount of pressure on themselves because they are ranked in the top three.”
Cari te Boekhorst
2008 women’s basketball guard
So how can they turn around and capitalize on the traits that fans have come to expect from the Mac women?
“They have to be able to establish themselves early and stick to their game-plan,” said Hart. “They are a team that can get out and run, so controlling the game from the beginning becomes important. Tough [defense], one shot only, you can’t let them score and set up where they are waiting for you on the other side of the court. But they know that, and they know it’s never one person’s job to stop another team’s best player, it’s a group mentality. That’s the game [I know] they can play”
The team of 2008 never did win that elusive CIS championship. An injury to Degroot in the semi-final set up a devastating loss to the number two ranked University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. But the team battled back in last day of tournament play to bring home a bronze medal against the Laval Rogue et Or in an 83-79 thriller.
The same Laval team that currently sits number one in the national rankings.
So can fans hold out hope for a déjà vu rematch? Perhaps, but sometimes even sports don’t write themselves that well.
For now, all they can do is trace the narratives of past and present. Two teams crafted from the same pieces — natural scoring ability, defensive work ethic and a deep bench. Both born from local talent, but honed from years of hard-earned experience.
Yet one key difference remains. While the triumphs and heartbreak of ‘08 remain written in the record books, the fate of this year’s team has yet to be sealed. And they have history to learn from.
“If I could tell the team one thing… it would be to stay positive,” said te Boekhorst. “If you have a bad game, if you have a bad quarter, if you have a bad shot, keep your chin up. Stay positive with yourself and with each other… and remember it is the team that will get through everything together.”
“Going into the playoffs, expect to be down at some point,” said Hart. “You didn’t get to where you are by not facing adversity; I know you are used to it. To have such high expectations means every other team gets to play as the underdog, playing loose with nothing to lose. Having the confidence to stick together whether you are up or down, and the patience to let go of the things you can’t control, that will go a long way.”
“Count on what has worked all season,” said Smith. “You can’t look farther than one day at a time.”
Maybe. But when the spectators become fans and the whispers become chants, it doesn’t always hurt to look a few games back.