High expectations

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

Every coach has their little habits, those traits that are ever-present and tell-tale signs of just what kind of bench boss they might be.

Don Horwood is no exception. The kingpin of the University of Alberta Golden Bears basketball team has a yearly ritual - as opposed to gamenight one of berating anyone wearing stripes and a whistle. Each and every season Horwood enters the new campaign declaring that his troop will be a national title contender and just as often, he'll tout that this edition will be more exciting to watch than the last.

From time to time, it can be a difficult line to swallow from the coach, but he has to be given his due for not only being a through-and-through, true-blue believer in his club but for getting that same team, more often than not, far into the Canada West playoffs and off to the CIS Final 10 tournament.

But there's a fine line between hype and running on at the mouth.

"For the last 10 or 12 years, it's been warranted. Only one or two years did we not have a legitimate shot at winning," said Horwood, who begins his 23rd year on the Bears' bench tonight when the regular season gets underway against division-rival Saskatchewan (8:15 p.m., Main Gym).

"My expectations again are that we will be very close to being the top team in the country."

Horwood has good pieces in this puzzle. He's got a returning All-Canadian in Phil Sudol, who should have a quality fifth-year senior season provided he can stay healthy - a major question in the last two years. In fact, Horwood has so much faith in this team that he grades them a cut above his last title team - the 2002 Bears that won the whole thing.

"Sudol was an All-Canadian and so was Robbie Valpreda," Horwood explained.

"Scott Gordon is a better offensive player than Reuben Hall. Ryan Baldry was a great leader and I think James Hudson can be that guy. I think Dean Whalen is a better pure shooter than Stephen Parker.

"The only question mark is in 2002 we had Phil Scherer and I don't know which guard will be that guy this year."

This could finally be the year that sees Whalen break out of his shell. A former All-Canadian out of the B.C. college ranks, Whalen's progress has been stymied the past two seasons. He was either pigeonholed as a bench player in support of starting guards or had difficulty fitting into Horwood's offensive scheme, but as a fifth-year senior it's now Whalen's turn to lead the charge.

"My first two years I didn't have as much freedom as I do now," said Whalen.

"The first two years I was here I was actually pretty depressed coming from the University of Northern B.C. where I led Canada in scoring and then I wasn't playing. I didn't really realize how the program worked, but now it's great to be in the position I'm in."

As for the year ahead, Whalen, who had 32 points in a pre-season tournament tilt against Concordia University, agrees with Horwood about the talent base in the Bears' possession. Yet all that talent hasn't provided the Bears with any particularly satisfying results from the exhibition losses against Carleton and Victoria that left many unfulfilled feelings.

"Our chemistry is a little shaky player-wise right now. We haven't got it together yet," Horwood said.

"We're not playing yet at the pace I want to be at. We have to get on the same page execution-wise and in work ethic."

There's no doubt that plenty of game and practice time is there before the Bears make their trip into the playoffs, but finding the right chemistry is something better achieved sooner rather than later.

"We have all the ingredients together to make it to the promised land but every player on every team will say that," said Whalen.

"The difference between saying that now and in March is commitment. You can have all the skills and potential to get to the promised land but most teams in the country are pretty decent and have a shot. It all depends on how hard you work to get there. At the end of the year, we'll all know what happened but it's a mystery now."

PIGSKIN PROGNOSIS: Tomorrow's wrapup of the regular season in Canada West football doesn't carry a lot of significant meaning in the standings as far as the Golden Bears are concerned.

The 7-1 and fifth-ranked Bears can't catch Saskatchewan for tops in the conference but they will wind up second and host one of the semifinals and the UBC Thunderbirds, their opponent tomorrow, will likely made a followup trip here in a week for the playoffs.

There will be some special meaning to the game, however, as the Bears will honour their five graduating fifth-year seniors - quarterback Darryl Salmon, wide receiver Andrew Ginther, rush end Darren Balderson, kicker Beau Filkowski and offensive lineman Chuck Pelc.

Salmon has been the top dog of the bunch with a 17-5 record as a starter and a school record of 43 touchdown passes against just 18 interceptions.

He is also the only passer in Bears' history with a 2-to-1 TD-interception ratio.

The lanky field general came into the year with potential Hec Crighton Trophy nominee written all over him and while he failed to put the stats that would see him contend for the honour of top player in the nation, he has remained a major factor in the Bears' positive year.

"Darryl has given us a chance to win in every game he has ever been in," said head coach Jerry Friesen. "He has a calming, mature presence and has been a leader both on and off the field for us."

Ginther, one of Salmon's favourite targets, is an All-Canadian candidate again this season and is only five catches short of the school record of 136 held by former Edmonton Eskimos Bryan Fryer and Marc Tobert.

The T-Birds come to Edmonton on a down note after five of their players were suspended by the team after getting into a fight with member of the UBC basketball team at a campus bar last weekend. Not among that group is former Edmonton Huskie standout and ex-Bear Chris Ciezki.


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