Andy Sparks has coached the women's basketball squad to the top of the OUA East ahead of the Capital Hoops Classic this season. Photo: Parker Townes.
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Women’s basketball coach talks Cap Hoops, team’s success this season

Winners of 15 of their last 16 games as of this publication, the women’s basketball team currently sits tied atop the Ontario University Athletics’ eastern division with a 16-2 record.

Little over a week ahead of the 2019 Capital Hoops Classic on Feb. 1, the team’s biggest regular season game, the Fulcrum sat down with head coach Andy Sparks to discuss his team’s success on and off the court, and what his team will need to do to beat Carleton next week.

The Fulcrum (F) : First of all, your team has had a good year, you guys are tied for first in the OUA and ranked sixth nationally. What has been the key to your team’s success this year?

Andy Sparks (AS) : I think we’ve been explosive this year. We’re leading the country in terms of offensive transitions, so from the perspective of an entertaining style of play, we’re playing a fun style to watch—we’re getting up and down the floor and we’ve had solid play from Player One to Player 12 on our roster. Our top five are all among the leaders in the country in their individual position-centred statistical categories. So I’d say we’re a balanced team. We haven’t played in a lot of close games, so one of our challenges before the end of the year will be to find out if we’re a team that’s capable of winning tight games. So we’re hoping we get those games in the games coming up. Of course it all depends on if our opposition plays well against us. But all in all, I’d say we’re a team with a lot of potential.

F: You bring up your top five, who is a player in your mind that’s just taken her game to a whole new level this year?

AS: Well probably all of the first five have had good seasons up to this point. But I think Sarah Besselink—our sixth-year player this year but fifth of eligibility—I think she’s leading the country or very close to leading in offensive statistical categories. On the other hand, Brooklynn McAlear-Fanus is an up-tempo point guard that does a fantastic job for us at the point. Amélie Hachey is shooting 50 per cent from the three-point line this year, and that’s first in Ontario. Angela Ribarich is leading Ontario in offensive field goal percentage and we’re getting good contribution from our leading scorer Brigitte Lefebvre-Okankwu. So like I mention, our five starters have all been great for us.

F: Are there players that you feel may be unsung heroes on your team?

AS: We have some people who are more defensive specialists. I’d throw three players into that category. I think Jennifer Crowe, who started as a starter at the beginning of the season but now comes off the bench—I think has made our team better, and she’s succeeded in every role. Anne Carr is more of our hustle player and does a great job for us. She’s started the last couple of games to give us that better defensive mindset. Finally, Aliisa Heiskanen comes in and kind of shuts teams down defensively and closes games.

F: So you guys dropped your first meeting this year with Carleton 58-56 at home. Heading into Capital Hoops, what do you think is the key for your team to beat Carleton and secure yourself a first-round bye in the playoffs?

AS: So first of all, Carleton will always be tough to beat because they are the number one team defensively in the country, and as we know defence wins you championships. It also means that from a coaching perspective, when everything comes into play, if someone can stop someone else, it changes the game and that’s what they did against us the first time around. We did open up to a 10-point lead in that game but it wasn’t enough to put them away. I have the utmost respect for Carleton and it’s deserved, and we’re going to try to play our style—right now we have every chance to win that game.

F: You guys are now ranked sixth nationally. We all know how stacked the OUA is with McMaster, Carleton, Ryerson, and of course you guys. What does your team have to work on to get to the nationals and get through a hard playoff tree?

AS: With our full lineup this year, we’ve only lost three games. One to Carleton, one to Ryerson, and one exhibition against Laval. The Carleton game was a two-point game—both the other games were tight until the end, so really the key for us is how do we execute down the stretch? We’ve made a conscious effort to improve on the defensive end of the floor, because in a way since we’ve been strong offensively, we’ve kind of negated our defence a little bit. So we’ve put a push on things on that side of the court. You know, we’re second offensively in the country, fifth defensively, so we’re pretty balanced—but we’d like to get better at defence without taking away from our offensive game.

F: Looking forward, your starting lineup and bench are made up of a lot of fourth and fifth-year players. How do you plan on replacing those players and how has recruiting been going to make sure this window of opportunity is extended past this year and maybe next year?

AS: We don’t ever want a down year. We’re graduating three this year from our 16-woman roster. We’re recruiting hard, and we have three or four top-level recruits that are in the works right now, and if we can sign them, there won’t be any drop-off for the program. We also have backups right now who will be pushing and ready to be starters next year and that’s exactly what you want. They’re not going to be first-year players, and that’s what you want typically, and I mean the key to being successful—which we have been in the last 10 years here—is to have good turnover and bringing on young players.

F: So in the last two years, the Gee-Gees have had lots of success with their female programs. If we think about the women’s soccer team and the rugby team, their programs have won national championships and are second to none in their development. I think it’s fair to say that your team is getting there. Why do you think the university has had so much success in the women’s side of things?

AS: I think it’s been this way since I’ve been here—we’re very proud of that. If you look at the history of our volleyball team, they’re not as strong this year, but their standard is excellence. The same thing is true of our soccer program, obviously winning nationals on home turf this year, and if you look at rugby since Jen (Boyd) arrived, the women’s rugby teams have gone to the top of the country. You know we’ve had had a .750 winning percentage in the last 10 years. I think it’s a reflection of all those programs, and the university supporting our women’s sports programs, and not being seen at all as second-class citizens from our university Sports Services’ perspective. This is a place where there’s enough history now that our women’s programs—we can stand and go and look at a recruit and say: ‘look, this is who we are as a university, this is how we support our women’s athletics, and this is the results we have to prove the support we’ve had from behind the scenes.’ So I just think it’s a spiralling snowball that builds and keeps building and is at the point where it is.