The seriousness of their intent should be clear by now.
The University of Winnipeg’s women’s basketball team is chasing the program’s first national championship in almost 30 years. The Wesmen have gone 15 games without a loss, sit 8-0 in conference play and are ranked No. 5 in the most recent U Sports rankings.
On Monday afternoon, much like they have for the past three weeks, they practised wearing medical masks.
It’s not simply done.
"Basically, we’re just all in the mindset that we will do whatever we have to, as long as we can continue practising together and playing together," said fifth-year forward Keylyn Filewich.
"It’s super difficult and especially now that we have to wear medical masks all the time. As soon as they get wet, they’re not beneficial, right? So we’re having to change those out a lot of the time."
Almost two years into the pandemic, veteran guard Kyanna Giles admits it’s easy to be frustrated by the stay-safe routine.
A fourth-year education student, she was excused from Monday’s practice because of a classroom conflict.
She has other duties, too, including a c0ule of part-time jobs she juggles with the team commitments and the practice teaching load at a local middle school.
All things considered, staying healthy can be a precarious balancing act.
"You think that you’re staying safe but when you practise with other girls who have different bubbles and then people go to work — like I work at a group home (and Footlocker) — it’s just trying to stay on your toes and trying to avoid certain things," said Giles.
"But at the end of the day, if you get sick, you get sick, and then you isolate and miss out on stuff. It’s gonna be hard for a lot of teams and a lot of people."
Giles said she has remained free of COVID-19 but welcomed the extended holiday break, which allowed her plenty of time to refresh and prepare for a challenging second half.
"January’s gonna go by so fast and then February hits and then there’s playoffs at the end of February so I looking forward to that," she said. "Our goal is to win a national championship, so that’s what is keeping me motivated."
First up for Winnipeg is a home-and-home series with the cross-town rival Manitoba Bisons, beginning Friday at the Duckworth Centre.
The unranked Bisons are improving and should be a good tune-up for a much-anticipated showdown with the top-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies, who visit Duckworth Centre on Jan. 28-29.
The defending national champs, who are 8-0 in conference play, host the Wesmen for a two-game set Feb. 18-19.
"We’ve been doing a good job staying in the now — that’s kind of been our mantra," said Wesmen head coach Tanya McKay. "I know they’re excited to play (Saskatchewan). We get to play them four times — two at home and two away. It’s going to be a battle for first and that series will be very exciting. But they also know how important this weekend coming up is and our focus right now is on Friday (against Manitoba)."
The prospect of facing Saskatchewan again intensely personal for Filewich.
In 2020, Filewich and the UBC Thunderbirds led after three quarters but dropped a heart-breaking 76-72 decision to the Huskies in the Canada West semifinal. The T-birds were eliminated and Saskatchewan went on to its second national title in five years.
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"That game has stuck with me for a really long time," said Filewich, who transferred to the U of W later that year. "And one that I had to live with not only through the whole off-season, but then we didn’t play last year so I had to live with it for an extended period of time. There’s a lot of excitement with these games, especially when they’re the reigning national champions, they have an amazing coach and an amazing program that they’ve built. They have strong players (but) I think we match up fairly nicely with them."
However, Filewich hasn’t forgotten about the Bisons.
"It’s something that we all get excited for because it’s a cross-town rival," she said of the weekend series. "A lot of the girls know a lot of the girls on the other team. There’s friendships, there’s enemies, there’s everything. You can’t look too far past them. I mean, they had some really great games against Sask. before the break, so they’re getting better, just like we’re getting better."
Officials from both schools are expected to announce soon whether spectators will be allowed at weekend games.
Mike Sawatzky Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
With Lisa Thomaidis in charge, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies are all about winning.
Since taking charge of the school’s women’s basketball program in 1998-99, Thomaidis has coached the Huskies to two nationals titles and seven Canada West crowns. In addition, Saskatchewan has qualified for the national tournament in 12 of the last 13 seasons under her leadership.
The No. 1-ranked Huskies will face the No. 5 Winnipeg Wesmen four times over the course of the next six weeks in games that will likely set the table for the conference playoffs and national championship.
“I think there’s a there’s a high level of expectation here,” said Thomaidis by phone from Saskatoon Monday. “I think our players just know that we expect to be in the big games, we expect to get everyone’s best effort when we go on the floor and so that won’t be anything new. They’ll be looking forward to that game against Winnipeg and I’m sure Winnipeg has got their eyes on us as well. It should be should be a great matchup.”
How do the squads compare?
“Both teams have legit quality post play, both teams can score from the perimeter — good athleticism,” said Thomaidis. “I’d say Winnpeg has a little bit more offensive firepower than we do at this point. I mean, you’ve got (Kyanna) Giles, you’ve got (Keylyn) Filewich, you’ve got (Faith) Hezekiah; so many scorers and so many players who can create one-on-one.
“We’re just built a little bit different. We’re a little bit less reliant on the one-on-one play, a little bit more around team play and ball movement. We’re not as explosive as they are.”