The call came without warning. For Tanya McKay, a basketball coach stuck in the middle of a pandemic, it was like Christmas in January.
Keylyn Filewich, a 6-1 all-Canadian forward from the University of British Columbia, wanted McKay to know she was looking at her playing options and the University of Winnipeg women were at the top of her list.
"I did reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m just letting you know, obviously with COVID and everything, I’ve been granted another year and I’m graduating so I could be a grad transfer without having to sit out and what are your thoughts on me coming to your team? Would you have a spot for me?’" said Filewich.
McKay’s response was an emphatic yes.
Entering her 25th season as head of the program, she was enthusiastic about the possibilty of adding a homegrown talent such as Filewich. Yet nothing was finalized.
The 23-year-old applied for entrance into U of W’s masters in management program and the wait began.
"Anytime an all-Canadian reaches out and wants to play your program, you’re definitely not going to turn them down," said McKay Wednesday. "She’s established herself as one of the best players in the country — scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, (percentage) from the free-throw line, she’s a presence in the paint. Who wouldn’t want to have her in their program?"
While Filewich pondered her options (she had offers to play professionally in Germany), she also agonized about having to tell her old UBC teammates about leaving. But everything about the move to Winnipeg seemed to fall into place. After graduating from UBC with a bachelor of science with a biology major, academics were a crucial piece.
"I was looking for a one-year Masters in management (program) and the masters in management at U of W just seemed like a perfect fit," said Filewich, who hopes to turn pro in 2022 and also get a start in a career in pharmaceutical and medical sales. "I’ll get a lot of good business experience, as well as the one-year program so I can come in and play and graduate within the same year and then go play professionally, hopefully after (that)."
Two other factors also helped seal the deal. McKay had added another all-Canadian transfer, guard Kyanna Giles, prior to the 2019-20 season and UBC head coach Deb Huband retired after 27 years on the job.
In April, UBC hired former York University coach Erin McAleenan as Huband’s replacement; Filewich had hoped UBC assistant coach Carrie Watts would get the job.
"I think that was the hardest part of it all and why my decision took so long," said Filewich. "Because I didn’t want to let people down and I’ve built such amazing friendships with all the people there and especially my head coach leaving. I think it was hard, really hard on the girls."
Filewich’s return to her hometown was music to the ears of all-star forward Faith Hezakiah, who herself was granted an additional year of eligibility after fracturing a bone in her left knee two games into 2019-20.
"She is going to just add so many incredible options for us," said Hezakiah. "Her being in the post, being very vocal, big and her knowledge and her skills are just going to open so much for the perimeter players to work around her. So it’s very exciting."
In fact, McKay will have three current or former Canada West all-stars (Filewich, Giles and Hezakiah) at her disposal when play opens in fall.
"That’s pretty exciting," said McKay. "And then you add (guard) Anna Kernaghan, who’s a rookie all-Canadian and the core group that has been together now for three, four years, it’s a very, very good combination of kids."
Giles, a Sisler grad who has faced Filewich many times at the high school and college level, is well acquainted with the Vincent Massey grad’s skill set. The two were teammates, along with Hezekiah, on the storied U17 provincial team that won a national championship six years ago. Interestingly, McKay was the coach of that squad.
"Honestly, I think we can win national championship with our squad," said Giles. "I really believe it. I believe so much in this team. I think we can do good things. Throughout COVID and everything, the girls are still training, we’re still connected, everyone’s still motivated to play. With this addition, I mean the sky’s our limit."
Giles, who suffered a torn ACL and a partially torn MCL in her right knee during her last game for the University of Regina, hasn’t played a game in a Wesmen uniform. However, she’s declared herself healthy and has already taken a leadership role, encouraging new recruits to supplement what she hopes will result in a national championship.
The U of W women haven’t reached the national tournament since 2011.
"We’re still recruiting," said McKay. "I have the same coaching staff, we’ve all worked hard together. We have a great relationship with our core group and having kids like Faith and Kyanna and Keylyn, Anna and (guard) Robyn (Boulanger) — they’re driven and they want to win. And so, it’s our job as coaches to do our best to assemble the best team we can."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.