Imbalance of power

Ahead of this weekend’s homestand against Ottawa and Carleton, the Journal profiles teams at opposite ends of the spectrum: Queen’s two toughest opponents and the scrappy expansion club trying to compete

The Gaels haven’t beaten Carleton or Ottawa in the last five seasons.
The Gaels haven’t beaten Carleton or Ottawa in the last five seasons.
Queen’s lost 83-76 to Algoma last month in Sault Ste. Marie, but rebounded with a 90-85 win over the Thunderbirds on Friday in Kingston.
Queen’s lost 83-76 to Algoma last month in Sault Ste. Marie, but rebounded with a 90-85 win over the Thunderbirds on Friday in Kingston.

Carleton and Ottawa: The Elite

A Raven has perched itself atop the men’s basketball standings, making it nearly impossible for Queen’s to bring home a championship.

The nationally top-ranked Carleton Ravens have been the dominant force in Canadian university basketball for the last decade, capturing eight of the past 10 CIS titles and seven provincial championships in that same span.

The Gaels (9-9) will host Carleton (18-0) and the second-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees (16-2) at home this weekend.

Since the OUA split into East and West divisions three seasons ago, Queen’s has been grouped with the Ravens. Carleton has finished first in the East every year, losing only one game in that time period.

Since the start of the 2011-12 season, the Gaels and the Ravens have met five times, with Carleton winning each game by at least 32 points.

Still, Gaels head coach Steph Barrie doesn’t believe being in a division with a dominant team like Carleton is entirely negative for his program.

“Having Carleton in the OUA can only have one effect. It pushes programs to be better, to raise the bar,” Barrie told the Journal via e-mail. “It forces programs to maximize what they have, to be the best they can be.”

Barrie said comparing the two programs is difficult because the Gaels’ focus is on what Queen’s can offer, instead of what other schools do with their programs.

“Each university has its challenges and its assets,” he said. “We only look at ours and try to maximize our strengths.”

While Carleton is the traditional powerhouse in the OUA East, it isn’t the only one. Both Ottawa and the Ryerson Rams sit among the top six teams in CIS rankings, making it even more difficult for Queen’s to reach the next level.

Former Gaels assistant coach Geoff Smith said the Gaels having to face squads like Carleton and Ottawa is akin to “putting the political prisoners in the lion’s den.”

One of the major reasons Queen’s and the East’s other teams have fallen behind the Ravens, Gee-Gees and Rams, according to Smith, is that those three universities are able to recruit the highest calibre of players.

“Carleton has a talent pool at this point,” Smith said. “Ryerson and Ottawa are chasing them closely and no other team is within hailing distance.

“If you want to change that, the only way … is to strengthen your recruiting system.”

A retired Queen’s history professor, Smith said the disparity between the upper-level clubs and the rest of the OUA East gives teams like Queen’s a reason to elevate their game.

“You can look at it and say ‘oh my goodness, there’s no chance,’ and in a way that’s true — there is no chance,” he said. “On the other hand, what happens if Queen’s scores an upset? One of these days that’s going to happen and people will say, ‘wow.’”

That upset could happen, Smith said, if the Gaels avoid making costly mistakes and play consistently for an entire game.

With the Nipissing Lakers set to join the OUA in men’s basketball next season, divisional realignment will take place. The OUA hasn’t announced official details, but it’s likely Queen’s will stay in the same division as Carleton and Ottawa, due to the schools’ proximity to each other.

For now, the Gaels will continue battling in a division that offers a far tougher path than its western counterpart, thanks to the trio of Carleton, Ottawa and Ryerson.

“To be honest with you, there are two divisions in this OUA East,” Smith said. “One consists of those three teams, and then everyone else.”

Sean Sutherland

Algoma: The Newcomer

When your shortest road trip involves a 300-kilometre bus ride, you get used to life on the road.

That’s the reality for the Algoma Thunderbirds, the newest member of the OUA. Based out of Sault Ste. Marie, Algoma joined Ontario’s top intercollegiate sports league in 2013 after 12 years in the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA).

In their inaugural season, the Thunderbirds fielded men’s and women’s teams in basketball, soccer, cross-country running, curling, Nordic skiing and wrestling.

“I think our biggest challenge has been to expand to six sports with gender equity when we have traditionally been competing with four teams,” said Mark Kontulainen, Algoma’s athletics and recreation director.

Joining the OUA involves a very detailed process. Schools must make a formal presentation to league representatives, which involves submitting a feasibility study and operating budget, and conducting an on-site tour of the university’s athletic facilities.

Algoma organized a task force comprised of current students, alumni, faculty and high school athletic heads to ensure their proposal to the OUA was approved.

Even though they’re the OUA’s second-most remote team — only the Lakehead Thunderwolves in Thunder Bay are further north — the massive travel schedule has been the smallest burden on Algoma’s transition.

Previously being a member of the OCAA has made them experts at travel organization.

“We like to consider ourselves ‘road warriors’ and we are used to all the travel,” Kontulainen said. “We also think that the travel distance to Sault Ste. Marie may be a home advantage for us as some teams may not be used to the longer trips.”

As can be expected with an expansion team at any level, there have been some growing pains.

Neither Thunderbirds soccer team was able to record a win in OUA action this season, while the women’s basketball team sits last in the OUA East at 0-18.

Men’s basketball has had some success in the ultra-competitive East division, which includes nationally-ranked Carleton, Ottawa and Ryerson. They’re currently 4-14, posting a decent 3-6 home record, including an 83-76 home victory over Queen’s on Jan. 18.

Head coach Thomas Cory said competing against the country’s best is a daunting task.

“We just try and compete — that’s the biggest thing,” Cory said. “Every play, every game, we try and give our best … and win a quarter, win five minutes, win a possession.”

Cory has an excellent track record in his eight seasons with Algoma basketball. He coached the Thunderbirds to three OCAA provincial championships and captured a silver medal in 2008.

Despite having a significant core of third-year players, all of Algoma’s players are rookies when it comes to playing at the university level.

“I think one of our biggest struggles is having the players get comfortable with the league,” Cory said. “Yeah, it’s still basketball, but it’s a different style.”

Being unfamiliar with teams and cities has posed the biggest problem for the Thunderbirds. Scouting reports are scarce, so much of their season has been spent learning the different styles of each team and what their players are capable of.

The Thunderbirds didn’t fare well in their first visit to Queen’s, falling 90-85 to the Gaels last Friday. With four games remaining, they’re five wins behind the Gaels (9-9), who occupy the OUA’s sixth and final playoff spot.

Cory believes familiarity and experience with the OUA lifestyle will eventually bring positive results.

“In our first year, we’ve learned a lot,” he said. “We know [success] is going to be very difficult, but we’re optimistic.

“We’re only a few pieces away from really making a playoff push.”

Josh Burton

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