Written By: John Short
All things considered, the 2017-18 men's basketball season was a good one for the NAIT Ooks.
The good news is that next year is likely to be even better. Head coach Mike Connolly predicted in a year-end conversation that only one key member, versatile Brady McKay, will not return in the fall.
"We haven't completed our one-on-one conversations with players yet – it's still early – but unless there are some surprises, we'll have most of our top veterans back with another year of experience."
The list includes guard Wyatt Beaver, who already has played four seasons. Among those also expected to return are Jackson Jacob, Jamal Hinds and Samson Cleare, who provided offense, defence and excitement on a regular basis.
Jacob led the Ooks in points and energy after rejoining the squad during the season. His absence was an honourable one: "He spent some time working with the Bahamas national team," said his coach.
"You could see the benefit he got from that experience."
Given Connolly's career success in 26 years of top-level coaching – most of it at Medicine Hat, Keyano and NAIT in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference, his words must be heard with respect. Extra perspective was collected during the last three seasons as bench boss of the Ooks: a national title in 2016 followed by an incredible rush of injuries in 2017 and a fourth-place finish in league playoffs several days (a few weeks?) ago.
Leaving the ACAC finals without at least a medal was something of a surprise, he admitted. "We were playing just about our best basketball going into the playoffs. But we lost that one-point game (80-79 to the SAIT Trojans) and that changed the picture."
In their next game, seeking a bronze medal, the Ooks lost a close one to the Concordia Thunder.
"Missing the medal was disappointing, of course," said Connolly, "but I thought all season that almost anybody could win the championship. Top to bottom, there is good parity throughout the ACAC. Any team can beat anybody else on a given day."
This reality leads to automatic questions about adding future strength to the solid current roster. Connolly's pleasure in peering toward the future was obvious.
"We've got plans with some kids from Ottawa," he said, "and there are some good Edmonton high school players that we'll have a long look at. The one thing I know is that they'll come to NAIT as students and basketball players and they'll represent themselves, their families and the school, as well as our other student-athletes, do."
2017-2018 Award Winners
Rookie Of The Year – Sheldon Hausch
Leadership – Samson Cleare
Silver Torch (MVP) – Brady MacKay