By Thomas Becker
The hardest thing to do in sports is to win a championship.
The UPEI Panthers know that struggle all too well, having felt the heartbreak in back-to-back seasons.
But this team is neither dwelling on the past nor looking in the future. Instead, they're focused on the now and how they can be better today and each day after that.
"We're a team that focuses on the day to day things we need to do in order to achieve our goals," said the versatile veteran Karla Yepez. "We're aware of the championship expectations, but right now we aren't thinking about that."
That's music to head coach Matt Gamblin's ears, as he's been preaching that message since he's come aboard a year ago.
"We can only control what's in front of us now," he said. "If you're focused on something you can't control, you're just wasting your energy."
There's no question, the Panthers are a talented bunch with an experienced core and they'll likely get a shot at redemption once again when March roles around.
"As a team we have certain expectations for ourselves and those are the ones we intend to meet," Yepez said. "We try to set bar really high, both individually and as a team, and we're aware of the responsibility that comes with it."
That talented bunch begins with three-time all-star Jenna Mae Ellsworth, who's the engine that drives the offence. She's joined by running mate, Reese Baxendale, and together they form arguably the best backcourt in the conference with their combined 30 points per game.
The league's top defence is anchored again by all-star Carolina Del Santo, who'll go for an unprecedented third Defensive Player of the Year Award. The fourth-year centre broke the AUS single-season rebound record with 265 boards, while averaging 2.4 blocks a game last season. Her unique skillset allows the defence around her to play more aggressively knowing they have the best help defender on their side.
While the individual accolades are great, this team refuses to rest on their laurels knowing they have work to do to get where they want.
"It's a new year and anything can happen.The mindset is to be better and work harder every time we step on the court," said Ellsworth, who also enters her fourth year. "It comes down to who wants it more from start to finish."
Gamblin knows he has a strong group of women and in the offseason he made sure to bring in likeminded people who fit the hardworking, resilient reputation the team has earned.
Lauren Rainford is one of seven recruits who have impressed in the preseason and may have locked up a position in the starting lineup with her scoring ability. Outside of veteran reserves Lauren Fleming and Annabelle Charron, the bench is very young and it's uncertain what the rotation will look like. But regardless of minute distribution, Gamblin expects everyone to embrace their role and be a star in it.
"We try to recruit people who will add to our culture and have a gritty attitude and a willingness to get better," he said.
Even though they're making a big leap to the AUS, the rookies have been a welcome addition by the veterans, who have been refueled by their energy.
"They have worked hard throughout preseason and look like they're ready to make an immediate impact," Ellsworth said. "They're a great group of women and push us every single day in practice."
There's a lot to like about how this team is constructed and their calm, professional approach to the year ahead, but one burning question remains: is this the year it ends in ecstasy or heartbreak again.
"Everyone has to be willing to buy in and work hard every day, whether it's at practice or in a game," Ellsworth said. "Championships aren't won overnight, it's a process."
Tickets are on sale now. Home opener is Friday, Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. >>> gopanthersgo.ca/tickets