After strong start in new league, Cougars look for success next season

The 2012-2013 season provided optimism for Mount Royal University’s varsity sports teams.

MRU’s basketball, volleyball, hockey and soccer teams had won at least one championship every year except for five in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference since 1964. The school was also honored as the most successful athletic college in Canada.

This season, it was time for a new challenge, so MRU’s varsity teams made the jump to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport league.

Derek Hulak of the Saskatchewan Huskies scores on Justin Cote of the MRU Cougars. Cote faced the third most shots-per-game at 33.13 in the Cougars first season in the CIS.

Photo by Landon Wesley

The coaches and players were expecting to play in a more competitive league with higher caliber players and tougher teams, and the Cougars had a rough time adjusting to the additional travel and playing against more competitive opponents.

Jean Laforest, head coach of the men’s hockey team that finished 7-19-2, said he knew it would be a tough transition, but the team gained a lot of valuable experience.

Laforest said: “You look at the statistics and you might think we’re disappointed, but that’s not the case. The first year is always a process. I think we had a successful year and it was a good transition and everyone experienced a really positive and competitive season from our end.”

The results

Transferring to the CIS meant more time had to be made for game preparation. Unlike with college games in the past, teams could no longer expect to just show up and win.

This infographic shows the standings of the MRU Cougars last season in the ACAC compared to their first in the CIS.

Infographic created by Dan MacKenzie

Mount Royal’s eight teams had a combined record of 53-114-7 this season, with only the women’s volleyball team making it to the post-season.

Last year in the ACAC, every Cougars team made it to the post-season, and only the men’s soccer team didn’t receive a medal at provincials.

Despite the losing record, MRU’s sports information coordinator, Kyle Henry, saw the first season in CIS as a learning experience for all of the athletes.

“I think they will be better prepared for next season, knowing the challenges they faced, the travel schedule and what the demands are like,” Henry said.

Tino Fusco, head coach of the women’s soccer team, said he looks forward to seeing what his team learned this year and how they will apply those lessons next season. The team finished with a 1-7-4 record.

“We learned a lot about playing every match to our best ability,” Fusco said. “We were competitive in all but one match from my perspective.”

Canada West Comparison

Transferring to CIS from the college level has never been an easy move for any team, historically.

Brandon Miller of the MRU Cougars defends a University of British Columbia forward in a game where UBC won 2-0. The men’s soccer team struggled this year, finishing ninth out of 11 in Canada West.

Photo by Neil Hilts

Thompson Rivers University and the University of the Fraser Valley jumped to the CIS and Canada West in 2005 and 2006, respectively, but did not commit to four different sports like MRU did.

The results were similar in the first year for both schools, so judging by those outcomes, MRU did not underachieve.

Each team at UFV and TRU finished in the bottom five or lower of the conference, as seven of MRU’s eight teams also did, and ended up not qualifying for a single playoff position.

Success story

The women’s volleyball team was the only MRU team with a winning record, finishing the regular season with 16 wins — accounting for 33 per cent of all MRU team wins. They continued their success in the post-season, making it all the way to the final four in the Canada West playoffs.

It came as a bit of a surprise to first-year volleyball player and Canada West rookie of the year, Carolyn O’Dwyer, that her team was the only MRU club to make the post-season.

“For our first season, getting fourth was pretty unexpected,” she said. “Overall, it was a really good season, especially for my first year. It definitely exceeded my expectations.”

O’Dwyer’s head coach, Sandra Lamb, credited her team’s willingness to buy in and work hard every day as reasons for the team’s remarkable season.

“Our team had a lot of leadership,” said Lamb. “And a well-established core of players and talented rookies who came in and provided a lot of depth.”

O’Dwyer was happy with the year, but said she feels the team can build on its success.

She noted: “We are returning every single player. I think most teams will lose a few players, so we will definitely build on last season’s success. We were happy with fourth, but it would have been really nice to have made nationals.”

High expectations

Karla Karch, athletic director at MRU, stressed how well the student athletes were doing in school, despite the increased travel and commitment to their teams.

“We’ve never been a department that has been okay with status quo,” she said. “We knew it was going to be a jump; now we know what to expect. We needed to review our year and take what we learned to improve for next year.”

Having been a powerhouse in college sports for the majority of their tenure, the Cougars are almost expected to finish near the top, no matter what level of competition.

Sports information coordinator Henry noticed a lot of growth from athletes who weren’t sure what to expect from CIS competition.

“The fact that our teams are winning games and not getting blown out creates a lot of optimism,” Henry said. “Sometimes you just have to go through those battles and take those losses to get to the next step.”

The coaches agree with Henry’s sentiments, and suggest that in a few years, they will be competing in playoffs, and hopefully nationals.

Men’s hockey coach Laforest added: “We definitely want to be as successful as we were in the ACAC. It’s not going to happen at the turn of a dime. We have to make sure that we take the appropriate steps. Next year, our goal is to make playoffs.”

nhilts@cjournal.ca
lwesley@cjournal.ca