For the vast majority of Canadian Interuniversity Sport athletes, their university career is the final stage of their serious sporting life. Sure, there will be recreational leagues, pick-up games and being a spare body at practices for other teams. But none of those compare as a level competition.
In professional sports, athletes struggle to figure out when their careers are really over. Steve Nash has battled the decision in Grantland’s one-of-a-kind documentary series, The Finish Line. Student-athletes are giving an end date. You get five years of eligibility and that’s it. There is some leeway; you can redshirt a year or take time off to rehabilitate from injury.
Liz Burns, Vanessa Bonomo and Hailey Milligan are three players on McMaster’s women’s basketball team who have seen their five years of CIS action expire. They rebuilt the culture for Mac basketball, emphasizing a family feel and doing away with alienating traditions like rookie duties. The trio leaves the program better than they found it, and they leave with three distinctly different mindsets.
Burns, a Hamilton native, says that the half-decade flew by.
“It went too fast. I remember coming in for summer camps in my first year … you remember all of it and it goes by so quickly. That’s what [the seniors] kept reiterating to the girls when we were done in Windsor – enjoy every second of it,” said Burns. McMaster ended the season with a playoff loss to the eventual CIS champions, the Windsor Lancers.
In conversation, Burns seems to be battling two opposite emotions. She knows that it’s over, and she misses being around the team. All three players said that it’s hard to really grasp what they no longer have until September, when they are no longer doing lifts in the Pulse or co-ordinating scrimmages in the Burridge Gym. While talking at the OUA Final Four near the end of February, Burns said the feeling of being done had not hit yet. The basketball season can hardly be called a season – starting in September, the team has pre-season testing, practices, lifts and tournaments. The team consumes your life, for better or worse. Once the season ends, players turn to spend more time with family and non-basketball friends who they have not had much time for since the summer. Factor in schoolwork and possibly a job, there is no true “break.”
There’s a palpable sense of acceptance that appears to come with the end of a career, though.
“I don’t have to do anything that I don’t necessarily want to do. There’s goods and bads to that, for sure,” said Burns. “I don’t know if the end brings a sense of relief, or that it’s just a change. You have an opportunity to reassess and figure out ‘OK what am I going to want to do with my life? Where do I want to have my new focus?’”
And for the fifth-year senior, that new focus is to be determined. Burns plans to take a year off from school to work and travel. An MBA is a goal of hers, but the specifics of where she wants to study her focuses are something she plans to figure out in the upcoming year.
An abundance of free time will give Burns the opportunity to try out different things. She will still play basketball, whether that’s pick-up with teammates or with friends made in the rabid Hamilton basketball community, but Burns says she has time to try new sports like beach volleyball or play golf with her father.
With all these plans and ideas for her post-varsity life, it can seem like Burns was ready to move on. In reality, the Economics graduate is completely satisfied with how she spent the past five years.
“I wouldn’t change anything for the world. This has been the best five years of my life, hands down,” said Burns.
Even though her time is finished as a university basketball player, there are still lessons learned through the sport that will stay with her well beyond her collegiate career. Burns believes sport is a metaphor for life, and she’ll apply the skill sets gained in athletics to other areas of life.
Around half the weekends for a varsity basketball player incorporate some sort of travel. Distance varies; McMaster competes with teams like Brock who are only a 45-minute bus ride away, but also have to take a trip to Thunder Bay, Ont., every other year. Between travel, school work, practice and having any semblance of a social life, athletes have less time for self-reflection than the typical undergraduate student, which is part of the reason Burns is taking a year off.
For Vanessa Bonomo, her five years with Mac only confirmed the passion she had for hoops. She echoed Burns’ enjoyment of free time, but said she coaches an under-12 rep basketball team in Dundas. Over the past weekend, Bonomo headed to Michigan with the team.
The point guard said that she found the change of pace from all basketball, all the time, to virtually no playing responsibilities different than what she expected.
“It was a lot easier than I thought. Obviously, it’s different not having somewhere to be, but you do fill up the time pretty quickly with having a chance to see your family more or seeing friends that aren’t on the basketball team,” said Bonomo.
For the past two seasons, Bonomo was co-captain for the squad. She says that the fact her career is over has not really hit her yet, but for a different reason than her teammate, Burns.
“I’ve still been scrimmaging with the girls a little bit, but I think the feeling will hit in September, when we can’t put on that jersey anymore,” said Bonomo.
Basketball-wise, she is not finished. Bonomo wants to still play, and says that being from Hamilton gives her the opportunity to play in a lot of leagues to get the competition. There will be a drop off in the level of play between recreational leagues and the OUA West, which was the strongest conference in the country this year, but Bonomo says the competition is what she will miss the most. When your options are between “lower competition” or “not playing at all”, it is a fairly easy decision.
While talking via phone on March 19, the point guard changed her tune slightly. Up until this point in the conversation, it seemed like Bonomo was not really ready to hang up the Maroon and Grey. But, after being asked about the previously mentioned Steve Nash documentary, the fifth-year offered some brutal honesty.
“Five years kind of drains you. By the end of this year, I had given it everything I had,” said the co-captain. That is not to say other players did not give the maximum amount of effort, but doing it for five straight years can take a mental and physical toll.
She admits that in a few more weeks, she may be itching to do lifts and get back into basketball mode, but for right now, Bonomo is accepting the reality.
The collective group of Marauders departing the program leaves a leadership hole, but Bonomo may be the most significant loss. A point guard is instrumental to running a team’s offense, dictating tempo and finding the right players at the right time.
But Bonomo goes beyond that. In a crucial regular season game at Wilfrid Laurier University, the fifth-year played 39 minutes. That amount of playing time is impressive enough, except Bonomo slept for the entire trip through bumpy roads, on a school bus instead of a coach bus. As the team pulled up to the school, Bonomo rushed off the bus for fear of being sick. Head coach Theresa Burns said that her point guard had hardly slept the night before and was battling the flu. Bonomo said she was going to play anyways.
She does everything a team needs a leader to do. Bonomo talked at length about how her recruiting class made a conscious effort, with the guidance of Coach Burns, to create a more welcoming locker room. The guard says that it’s that the team was not welcoming before, but questioned how a rookie is expected to perform well in a completely fresh environment while also taking on the menial duties given to first-year players.
Part of the duties of a leader is to ensure there is someone else ready to take the reigns. Bonomo is confident that there will be no noticeable change in the department.
“The best example [of change] is making the scrimmage teams. For the past three years, I divided up the teams. But now, I’ve taken a back role and let other people step up like Rachael [Holmes] and Isabel [Ormond]. They are ready to be in the leadership position,” said Bonomo.
After graduating with a degree in Life Sciences, the fifth-year will be heading to Conestoga College for respiratory therapy. Bonomo expects to still be around the team and aims to come back to McMaster to catch the weekend games whenever she can. Before heading off, she’s planned a month-long trip to Australia to “get some travelling done.” She said that going to Thunder Bay does not really count as travel when asked about it in the interview.
From a long-term perspective, the under-12 girls coach wants to remain around the McMaster program and hopes to join the coaching staff eventually. Bonomo is eager to learn about the other side of the program – the side players don’t get to see.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Hailey Milligan, McMaster’s all-time leading rebounder. Milligan led the country in rebounds per game, finished fourth in field goal percentage and seventh in scoring per game. She was not voted in as an All-Canadian (which is frankly, a joke), but received the Sylvia Sweeney award – an award recognizing excellence in academics, basketball and community involvement. If Milligan had to choose between the two, she would take the Sweeney award without a second’s hesitation.
The first-time McMaster winner is one of the few CIS athletes who has an opportunity to play their sport at a professional level.
“I’m looking into Europe right now. I’ve been talking with a few different sports agencies and putting together film for my player profile. My coaches have been very helpful in terms of giving me the right questions to ask and what to expect. I would definitely say Europe is my number one option right now,” said Milligan.
It’s hard for the graduating post player to wrap her head around the fact that she will not be representing the Marauders next year, but she still has close ties with the team. Milligan has been granted permission to continue practicing and working out with the squad and she prepares to play overseas. There was a well-earned two-week break following the playoff loss for the player who finished second in minutes played per game, but now, Milligan is back in the weight room.
“I’m doing hot yoga, cross training and a lot of spin classes. I’m trying to give my body a break from the physicality, but still improving my cardio,” Milligan said.
The women’s program had great chemistry this year, and Milligan played a big role in that. Without a doubt, she was the most demonstrative player on the court, celebrating and-one plays of her teammates just as emphatically as her own. But Milligan’s impact expanded well beyond the hardwood, and what she accomplished at McMaster is not something measureable like points or rebounds.
A trip to the east Hamilton would alter the way Milligan viewed her role as a Marauder.
“I was introduced to a situation at the Hamilton Boys and Girls club in the east end, and I really saw a need – a need for a McMaster connection, a need for strong female athletes, a need for basketball. The vehicle of sport can do so much. I just kind of ran with it,” Milligan said. She says without the support of her coaches and teammates, building that connection would not have been possible.
Part of the inspiration to create change was based on her childhood. In her own words, Milligan grew up in an unfortunate situation. Her background was rough, her family falling to pieces. Yet, she was still successful and instead of sitting back and being content with her accomplishments, Milligan decided to use her story to inspire others.
A departure to Europe is a number of months away, but the English graduate knows she will have to say good-bye to the group she has invested a lot of time and energy into.
“It’s tough. Knowing I’ll leave the youth I work with and won’t really be back until Christmas is just tough. But I’ll still be involved, just in a different capacity,” the Brantford, Ont. native said.
Milligan has to gear up for Europe, and the transition can be especially hard if expectations are not set up properly. Taylor Chiarot, a former Marauder, is a close friend of Milligan’s and the two have discussed what the realities are when playing professional basketball overseas. McMaster’s coaching staff has also been able to guide the two-time OUA first-team All-Star.
Between the three players are three very different storylines. One has been able to use her university playing career as a launching pad to get paid to play, another has confirmed her love for the game and wants to get into coaching, while the last enjoyed every second of her hoops career but is eager to see where her life heads next. CIS careers are finite, but that doesn’t mean the possibilities are. In Liz Burns, Vanessa Bonomo and Hailey Milligan are representations of three potential paths an athlete can take. What they all share is complete satisfaction.