Bennett’s Breakdown: Living up to Tradition

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Jan 30, 2015

By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

Legacy – does it lift you or haunt you? What about tradition – does it tie you together or bind you to the past?

Those are the questions facing the University of Victoria Vikes men’s basketball program which is currently in a state of transition both on and off the court. The team is literally leaning on its experience as only seven players returned from a year ago, with eight new faces going through the paces as Vikes for the first time. Going into the weekend, UVic is tied for the fewest losses on the season in the Canada West Pioneers Division with four, in contrast to its impressive 10 wins.

As the Vikes look to recapture past glory, they are left trying to find a way to carve out their own unique place in CIS basketball lore.

On the horizon is a new, unique place to play. This year’s team will be the last in the storied McKinnon Gym. It’s a bittersweet time. With the closing of the McKinnon doors comes the opening of the 70-million dollar Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities. “CARSA” will be the largest facility of its kind in Canada and will rival many athletics buildings in the NCAA. These are things that were said about the Vikes program once upon a time.

Old Vikes have been even more present at games this year, being honoured in ceremonies acknowledging the contributions on the very basketball floor that is named after the legendary Ken and Kathy Shields. A four-time CIS coach of the year, Ken Shields, who coached both the University of Victoria and later the men’s national program to prominence, is the most identifiable figure from UVic’s record run of seven straight CIS (then CIAU) championships and overall dominance in the 1980’s.

Yet, it’s the play on the floor of late that has locals not just reminiscing but comparing these Vikes to the dynasty teams from the 80‘s. You get a sense that the program is slowly building back to prominence. Victoria finished sixth at nationals in 2013 and then fourth a year ago. If they get out of a very competitive Can West, a podium finish in 2015 isn’t out of the question.

The sustained success that is a third consecutive Final 8 berth would be affirmation that the current squad is following the blueprint Ken Shields set according to guard Reiner Theil; “To get back to consistently vying for a national championship would be a testament to the culture that has been ingrained in UVic Basketball. To represent the program and be a part of such a long-lasting legacy of excellence is remarkable and something to be very proud of on a personal level.”

That past, in the form of a strong alumni base, is helping the future foundation of the program by fostering great experiences. In the offseason last summer the team embarked on a tour in Japan taking on the Japanese University All-Star team – a trip made possible due to strong alumni support.

Team captain Chris McLaughlin felt that the fiscal benefits were one of many. “Ken Shields was also a large part of the Japan trip. We learned a lot about Ken on that trip and the impact he has had on the international stage,” he said. “It was great to be able to travel with him and get to know him on a more personal level. He also comes to all of our home games and it’s a great feeling to know he still supports the program to this day.”

Current head coach Craig Beaucamp, in his 12th season at the helm, admits the constant exposure to the alumni is by design. “We try to talk about the history as much as we can. We have an active alumni that we are very proud of. It is important that they have opportunities to engage with our current players,” he said. “The banners provide us a constant reminder of what was before us. Phil Ohl is our alumni chair and also an assistant coach. He provides a link between our current program and our alumni.”

Although the comparisons are largely unfair given the current relative parity in CIS basketball, the team embraces the constant rehashing of the past. Fourth-year point guard Marcus Tibbs, a US transfer in his second season with the team, puts it bluntly, “They are still talked about often because they have done legendary things. It makes you want to get a banner in the gym that can solidify history of our own”.

T heil, a fourth-year senior who plays like a coach on the floor, takes inspiration from both the former great players and their coach. “Ken Shields as a coach along with UVic’s great players Pasquale, Kazanowski, Parris, etc., are highly regarded and recognized as the cultural backbone of our basketball program,” he said. “Little needs to be said as we see these names on the floor and walls of McKinnon gym every time we practice and play.”

Tibbs’ focus when thinking of the past is constantly on how it can propel the program towards the not-too-distant future because of the talent they presently have. “It’s definitely a special feeling but it would make it even better if we were able to put a banner up before we close it for good,” he said.

McLaughlin is the sole fifth-year senior who won’t see the fruits of his labour as a Vike bear out at CARSA. The 6-foot-10 post has literally carried the Vikes this year as the team leader in minutes played and rebounds grabbed, and understandably wants the run at McKinnon to carry on as long as possible. “The atmosphere in the gym when the stands are full will stick with me the rest of my life. Being the last year for McKinnon, we are going to be trying our hardest to make sure we get as many games there are possible, focusing on hosting and winning the Canada West final,” he said.

McLaughlin might play a big role in the CARSA building after all. He could be there as an alum at a future banner ceremony celebrating the 2015 team, just like so many ceremonies he’s watched as a player in McKinnon. The Victoria Vikes program is spring boarding to the future based on the strength of its vets – both current and former.

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

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