Ooks women’s basketball team scores polytechnic’s first national championship in a women’s league sport
In spring 2022, at the national women’s basketball championships in Nanaimo, B.C., the NAIT Ooks were not the team to beat.
Statistically speaking, they had no business being there at all. They’d finished the regular season with eight wins and eight losses. Despite clawing their way to the gold-medal game in the preceding provincial finals, they lost by 25 points to the year’s top team, Lakeland College.
A wildcard draw would make them participants at the nationals. But, in what NAIT Athletics manager Jordan Richey calls a “Cinderella story,” much more would make them true contenders. The usual sports clichés hold: they had heart; energy; enthusiasm; drive; they had that physically impossible extra 10%.
But, just as importantly, they had a somewhat ironic advantage in that no one, other than themselves, cared much about how they performed, and so underestimated them. But it bound the young women together and took them to a fairy-tale, gold-medal win over Victoria Island University, upsetting the favourite on their home turf, in overtime, no less.
Here, graduating players and team veterans Hallie Watt (Magnetic Resonance ’22) and Katherine McDougall (Bachelor of Technology ’22, Alternative Energy Technology ’19), along with Richey, share their perspectives on the historic victory.
The final moments
Hallie Watt: The bleachers were packed to the rafters, full of people. And we're playing against the home team, so it was in opposition to us. It was unreal.
When we actually won, I think all of us were just in pure shock. We had a big group hug and we were all crying. We don't know how we pulled it off but we did.
Jordan Richey: We got into overtime, and then our girls just kept playing. The host team kind of froze up a little bit. I was sitting in the corner of the gym thinking, What is happening?
The girls didn't even understand what they had done when they won. This was NAIT's first-ever league sports national championship [in women’s athletics]. It was quite a big deal.
A winning combination (despite a lot of losing)
Katherine McDougall: We had [a combination] of first-year players or those in their final year. All the first years, they're just excited to play, and I don't think they took losses too seriously.
[But] the seniors took it pretty seriously. We were ready to bring everyone back together, work the rookies in and get them to buy in. So that combination really helped.
Watt: We all got along really well. Even when we lost, it wasn't like we were pointing fingers at teammates.
It was just like, “We're just not playing the best that we can right now.” We never really got too negative.
Richey: I've never seen such a close-knit team. They were always talking in the van on the way to [games], never arguing, singing songs. They were a true family.
The gift of no expectations
Watt: We didn't really have any pressure on us, and I think that helped a lot with nationals. We went into it not even having won provincials! So we went in to just play our hardest and stay together the entire time.
McDougall: The thing that we said before every game is that we have nothing to lose at this point [and] everything to gain. That's what you can tell yourself in that position, when you're coming in as an underdog.
We're just happy to be there playing and having an extended season. We got to play more games, we got to play some new teams. So we were just looking forward to that.
But then …
McDougall: It didn’t really hit me, or any of us, until the morning of the championship game, or maybe even going into the semifinal game – we were like, “Oh, we could take this all the way. We can actually do this.”
Watt: Even from the very beginning, I was like, “This is the best NAIT team I've been on.” Then our season had some bumps in the road where we had injuries and stuff, so we didn’t do as well as I thought we would have done. But we knew that we could be great.
So it was never like, “Oh, we're not that good, we're not going to win.” It was like, “Oh, we can win. We don’t have the pressure on us like the other teams do.”
McDougall: [Toward the end] I was thinking, “We owe this to ourselves. We just have to win now. It'd be such a shame to go this far, have a comeback season and not just finish the job.”
Richey: They just made shots that I've never seen them do. Talk about peaking at the right time. It was phenomenal.
Medals and memories
Richey: The girls are going to cherish these memories for the rest of their lives. This is what sports are all about – this is why we do these things.
Watt: It was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I still don't exactly know how we managed to pull it off, but it happened and it feels incredible. To have been able to make a small part of history at a school that I love is amazing.
It's sad to close the door on this part of my life, but I'm grateful for the way that my career ended. And I'm very grateful for the teammates and coaches that I got to experience it with.
McDougall: I still get excited about it. I'm just so happy that that was how we finished the season. It’s just all happy memories. It’s one of those things that’s going to stick with me for a really long time.
The 2021-22 season was head coach Todd Warnick’s last with the team (he moved on to a coaching position at Thompson Rivers University) but he made a lasting impression by leading the team to a championship based, in part, on relatively simple guidance that can be applied on court and off.
“Before every game [Todd would say], ‘It's not about the other team. It's about us,’” says t Watt. “He was right. You can scout a team to make sure you know who their best players are, but at the end of the day, it's about you. If you think you can do it, it’s a lot easier than worrying about the other team.”