By Thomas Becker
It's been awhile since the word contender has been associated with the UPEI women's basketball team. But after last season's surprising 11-9 record they've earned it.
"The hope and dream is to win a championship," said head coach Greg Gould.
And with the core five of Jenna Mae Ellsworth (reigning AUS Rookie of the Year), Karla Yepez, Carolina Del Santo, Jane McLaughlin and Kiera Rigby returning for another crack at it, they'll have every opportunity to bring a championship back to the Island for the first time since 1998.
The formidable five match up well against any starting five in the league and are pivotal to the team's success, having averaged 54.7 of the 62.5 points per game in 2016-17.
Retaining Rigby for her fifth season was as big a move as any for the Panthers as she led the team in scoring a year ago with 13.9 points per game. But her greatest strength is the much-needed leadership she provides for such a young nucleus.
"I think she realized you only have this opportunity once in life and she knew we had a good season last year," said Gould of his fifth-year forward. "I think she was excited to return for her final year and we're glad she decided to come back."
While the starters are expected to carry the heavy load, the team will only transition from pretender to contender if the bench play improves.
To help spell the starters, Gould recruited several rookies who he believes can make an immediate impact. Lauren Fleming, Annabelle Charron and Reese Baxendale have all played valuable minutes off the bench during the pre-season and will be counted on again when the games count for real. Baxendale in particular has been a key contributor, filling in for Ellsworth, who recently finished the season with the university's soccer team.
"We have high expectations for out first year players and I think they're in a position to contribute right away for us," Gould said.
The Panthers were noticeably improved in the second half of the season, going 8-4 during that stretch and they're hoping to continue that progression come Nov. 3 when they kick off the new season against the Saint Mary's Huskies.
"Because this league is so competitive, you have find ways to win close games, especially on the road."
In order to claim the ultimate prize, the Panthers also have to be more consistent. Last year they succeeded in beating every team in the league, but they also lost to every team (other than the Dalhousie Tigers).
"There are no easy games, but we know if we play our best basketball then we can beat anyone in this league," Gould said. "To be a team that's going to win a championship, we're going to have to be consistent. That's what it comes down to."
And it starts at practice and the habits they form there. To this point, the team has seen the court 52 times since the start of training camp, working as a cohesive unit to achieve that one goal.
Now it's time to put all that hard work to the test and see where they stack up.
"A lot of the preparation is done, now it's about execution."