THE Wesmen have more Wesmen Classic titles than any other team, but it's been seven years since they last won the basketball tournament that bears their name.
Last year, the men's squad fell 84-67 to Lakehead University in the final, and as they prepare to host the annual holiday tournament, the bitter taste of that loss still lingers.
"We gotta get a win this year," fifth-year Wesmen forward Steven Wesley said at a press conference on Monday. "We're really motivated. We feel we have a good team this year... coming up one game short (last year), we don't like that. So we're motivated, we should do well."
The men's university championship, which runs from Dec. 27-30 at the U of W's Duckworth Centre is the tournament's top prize, the longest running Canadian tournament of its kind. This will be the 47th edition of the Wesmen Classic, founded by then-coach Vic Pruden back in 1967. At first, they called it the Golden Boy, and they couldn't have foreseen how long its life would unfold. "One hopes," Pruden said.
Today, Pruden is the past-chair of the Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame, which is being honoured at this year's event. But in 1967 he was a second-year Wesmen coach when he decided to launch the tournament with just four teams. One of them was McMaster, and it was the first time a western university had hosted a school from the east. That was a big deal. "Now it's taken for granted," Pruden said, but at the time the geography seemed a little more daunting.
Over the years, the Wesmen Classic thrived. They played in the U of W's Riddell Hall, then at the Winnipeg Arena and the Winnipeg Convention Centre, until the Duckworth Centre was ready. There were thousands of fans, lots of hype, even national TV time to highlight all the homegrown talent.
"It was really the top tournament," Pruden said. "It was a real showcase, because you had teams from every part of Canada."
Things change, and the Wesmen Classic has settled in since then, but the sheer longevity of it has transformed it from simple tournament into a tradition. A reunion, even, for old basketball hands and long-time fans.
"It leaves me with a good feeling that the tournament is still going on," Pruden said. "I come every year. It's like a meeting place. You see people you don't see, except at the Wesmen Classic. It's a great experience for me."
This year, eight teams will battle for the top spot, including six Canadian teams: the Wesmen, University of Manitoba Bisons, Brandon University Bobcats, University of Regina Cougars, University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and Lakeland College Rustlers. Two American squads round out the field, including the Valley City State University Vikings and the Dickinson State University Bluehawks.
The Wesmen Classic also features an eight-team high school varsity boys' tournament, which will feature the three-time defending champion Garden City Fighting Gophers, as well as the Mennonite Brethren Hawks, Oak Park Raiders, Kelvin Clippers, John Taylor Pipers, Maples Marauders, Sturgeon Heights Huskies and the University of Winnipeg Collegiate team. That too will run from Dec. 27-30.
Leading up to the main events, there will also be a junior varsity high school tournament and a tournament for inner-city girls' teams, while a bevy of games and skills competitions is slated for the tournament week. All the details are up at Wesmen.ca, and the main tournament games will be broadcast live on their website.