by Michael Sun, The Charlatan
Paul Falco and the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks returned to the scene of one of their most memorable victories at Carleton last weekend. They almost pulled off another.
Falco, the Laurier head coach in his 12th season with the team, saw former Ravens women’s head coach Taffe Charles (now the Carleton men’s coach). The two of them talked about the Golden Hawks double-overtime win in 2014 in the OUA Bronze Medal game that sent Laurier to nationals.
This past Saturday, the Golden Hawks came into the Ravens Nest and showed signs of perhaps why they’re on that path again. After losing to the second-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees, 87-50, the night before, Laurier pushed the fourth-ranked Ravens to the limit. When Laurier guard Brianna Iannazzo’s last second drive resulted in a turnover, Carleton escaped with a 60-59 win.
“That was a tough loss,” Falco said. “I felt the girls deserved a little better. We competed really hard and didn’t get rewarded.” His thoughts were echoed by the team’s leading scorer.
“I thought we fought hard the whole way through,” Iannazzo said. “Carleton’s always a tough team, nationally ranked, so I think it was really important for us to come out and give our maximum effort.”
Falco pointed out how after putting together a good first half against the Gee-Gees before falling behind. His players stuck to the game plan for a full 40 against the Ravens. “I was pleased with the way we bounced back,” he noted. Falco called the weekend a great learning experience.
“What you see in those teams in those top teams is the consistency both in effort and in focus, so that’s something that we’re learning,” he added. “We’ve shown we can play with those teams but we haven’t shown we can do it for an extended period and not lose focus.”
They’ve also left an impression on their opponents as well. “They’re a good team,” Ravens forward Alyssa Cerino said. “They fight. They move the ball pretty well. They have some good posts. I think their height definitely helped them.”
Three days later, they came back after trailing most of the game on the road against the York Lions to prevail 52-51. They showed that fight Cerino mentioned but this time, they closed out the win.
Falco’s teams in the past have reached Nationals in 2011 and 2014, among the best in the OUA. After a challenging 2018-19, having to deal with many key departures, this year’s team seems ready to take the next step – led by their leaders.
In 2014, Nicole Morrison was a rookie when the Golden Hawks beat Carleton and reached nationals. Four years later, the Hamilton guard departed as their all-time leading scorer. Her void was felt as part of a notable graduating class of veterans.
In her place, a core of then third-year players had to step up and did just that. They came into Laurier together in 2016 and have grown ever since.
Iannazzo was the point guard from Thornhill who saw a jump in minutes, points and responsibility. Tayania Siwek-Smith was the shot-blocker, their top defensive post player. Guard Rachel Woodburn was coming off her first appearance in the OUA all-star game in 2018. Forward Jill Condron would take another step forward in her career before her first all-star game nod.
“They had three or four veterans before the year before that, they could rely on,” Falco said. “Now you feel the weight on your shoulders…they had to be there day in, day out. They couldn’t take a day off and have a senior ahead of them pick up the slack.” He remembers there being growing pains along the way.
They finished 9-15 before losing to the Brock Badgers in the first round of the playoffs.
It led to a sense of togetherness along the way. “Last year, when we were young, we knew we had to really band together as a team,” Condron noted. “There were no veterans that we’re going to be able to carry us through. We needed to work as a unit so now we still have that mindset.” They’ve learned to rely on their teammates, to have everyone fill their roles. Now, they’re the veterans.
Their games and roles grew from before but, just as important, so did their leadership over the past year. They stayed in Waterloo during the offseason, committed to strength and conditioning as well as leading by example for the younger players.
“Being hard working and understanding that what they do in practice is going to directly influence the younger players on our team,” Falco pointed out. He added that Iannazzo and Condron, the team’s captains, have done a good job combining vocal leadership – “you do need to be a strong communication team to be successful” – with leading by example and working hard.
Condron’s journey to this point has been unlikely, symbolic perhaps of the team’s growth. The Oakville native from Holy Trinity secondary school was far from being heavily recruited, according to Falco. In her first year, she averaged just over three points-per-game. In her second, it jumped to 6.6.
Now she’s one of the leading scorers and go to players. She led the team with 12.7 points-per-game last season and has 9.9 this season so far. Condron scored the team’s last six straight points to seal the win against York.
“You’d have to ask her but she probably didn’t think she’d be filling the role for us [back then],” Falco noted. “Part of that was having belief in her own game and confidence and she’s steadily grown in that area and she’s used different strategies to help with that and she’s become a very effective OUA player.”
Passion and work ethic were the driving forces for her improvement. Falco remembers seeing her in high school as a player with raw skills but potential and physical ability. “She had a passion to compete,” he added.
Falco calls her one of the team’s hardest workers “12 months of the year.” Her hard work was rewarded with her first OUA all-star appearance in May. She’s called her time at Laurier “a really awesome experience” so far. Now, she’s one of the province’s best players.
There’s potential to keep growing. Bringing back most of the group from last year – sisters Hunter and Skye Johns having left – provides stability and continuity.
Falco sees the togetherness in this group, reminding him of his past Laurier teams that reached nationals.
“If you can get twelve people all playing for each other and put the team ahead of themselves, then you can really play at a higher level than what your skill set is,” he pointed out. Their next step is to find the consistent focus to accomplish the game plan every time, according to him.
Their performance against Carleton provided them the confidence to go up against the best, according to Iannazzo. “We have to believe we can do it every night,” she noted.
“I think we can beat any team in our league but we’re not there yet,” Falco said. “I think we need to have a little bit more belief in ourselves.” He said the team is learning “how good we can be when we put it together.” They did against Carleton.
Their height is an advantage Falco and the coaching staff is still trying to maximize. Defensively, they’ve used a mix of man and zone defence. Offensively, they’re looking to get more inside looks and maximize rebounding, according to Falco.
Siwek-Smith and Condron are joined by Brock transfer Stephanie Findlay, who redshirted last year as well as Kate Moran. If Condron’s path to success was unlikely, Moran’s journey to playing for Laurier once seemed impossible.
A local centre from Waterloo, Moran once had high hopes for basketball. She made the Canadian U-16 team for the 2015 FIBA Americas – as a 14 year-old. Then, the injuries hit. First a knee injury in 2016 playing for the Tri-County Thunder (JUEL) led to surgery to reattach a large piece of cartilage. Then, a year later, she suffered setbacks after realizing the surgery was only partly successful.
She was told her playing career was over given a ridge in her knee and decided to step away from the game. For a while, it was. Moran committed to Laurier and went through another surgery, not being able to play last season as an injury redshirt. She did play though this preseason – at last.
Falco calls the work she’s put in with her recovery “incredible” given the “mind-boggling” amount of time she put in with physio, strength training and other activities. Moran’s also worked with sports psychologists for the mental side of her recovery.
She’s still working her way into a bigger and bigger role, according to Falco, but she played her “best weekend so far” against the Ravens and Gee-Gees. Moran had 11 points and five rebounds against Carleton in 19 minutes of action. She also had the game-winning block against York in the dying seconds to preserve the victory.
“The biggest thing I’m happy with is just to see her play the game again because I know how much it means to her and she’s had the game taken away from her due to injury,” Falco said.
Basketball is now back for her.
There’s excitement about the potential this team has and what it could be, according to Condron. Iannazzo said she’s looking forward to getting better each game. Falco said the goal is to take positives from their performance against Carleton and build from it. They showed signs of that by beating York.
Unfortunately, Woodburn limped off with an ankle injury against Carleton that has sidelined her. She’s a key part of the team’s long term picture.
“Where can we get better in terms of getting the most out of our group,” Falco said of the long view. “Can we find areas that we’re not tapping into?” That’s an ongoing process for the players and the coaching staff.
Falco’s seen the past examples of his teams with the togetherness, chemistry and continuity. The skilled and veteran leaders as well. Just remember 2014 for example and that glorious overtime thriller at the Ravens Nest. The pieces are becoming more and more apparent in this year’s group as well.
Perhaps the road back to OUA and national glory will lead them back to Ottawa, where another memorable moment can be forged.
– M. Sun