Mon, September 23, 2013

Canadian women's hoops team has earned world's respect

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Canada's women's basketball team celebrates qualifying for the London Olympics.

TORONTO - Allison McNeill has come a long way since she got to ride on the town fire truck after her high school team, the Salmon Arm Jewels, won the British Columbia championship back in 1976 and 1977.

McNeill went on to star with the University of Oregon as a player, then as a coach, before moving on to a successful coaching career at Simon Fraser University for 13 years. In 2002, she was named the head coach of the Canadian women’s national team.

During her time with Team Canada, McNeill has seen her side rise from perennial afterthoughts in international play to a team that has become so highly respected that national powerhouses from Europe and Asia regularly seek out games against Canada to prepare for big tournaments like the Olympic Games. Leading up to next week’s London Olympics, Canada has an exhibition game scheduled against the highly ranked Czech Republic team — a game put together at the request of the Czechs. What a difference a few years makes. Not only is the Canadian team helping prepare other teams for the Olympics, they’re going to the Games themselves — thanks to a dramatic victory over Japan — on Canada Day no less — at the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in Ankara, Turkey, marking the first time a Canadian team has qualified for the Olympics since 2000. For McNeill and three of her most senior players — Teresa Gabriele, Chelsea Aubry and Kim Smith — qualifying for London after missing out in 2004 and 2008 is sweet redemption.

“Those three were with me when we would take a team to Europe and we’d be losing by 40 and all we thought about was who we would be subbing in, because there was no strategy,” said McNeill, of her early days coaching the nats. “We couldn’t play with (the top teams). There was no hope. But they (Gabriele, Aubry and Smith) stuck through it, and good for them.

“I think other teams really respect how we play now,” McNeill said. “But it’s got it’s down side, because were not really sneaking up on anybody anymore.”

Gabriele, 33, is the only member of the current team ever to play at an Olympics, having been a member of the 2000 Olympic team. Aubry has been on the national team for 11 years and Smith for 10. So earning a berth to London for all of them is a dream come true.

“Everyone says you dream of this as a child, but when you start to play on the national team it becomes more of a goal than a dream,” Kitchener native Aubry said. “I had set a lot of goals for myself in basketball and this was the only goal that I hadn’t attained. So when it actually happened, it was quite unreal. The other thing that made it more special was my parents were in Turkey with me, and they’ve been through more of a rollercoaster ride than I have because I have more control over it. So it was nice to share it with them.”

Aubry plays pro ball for the Bendigo Spirit of the Australian League. Some of her teammates on the national team play pro, some don’t, but none are making big bread, except for Gabriele, who makes a ton of bread ... in the literal sense. Unlike Aubry and others on Team Canada, Gabriele does not play pro ball in Europe or Australia. When not touring with the national team, Gabriele spends her days working for her parent’s bread company, Canada Bread, back home in Mission, B.C. And when she’s not working, she’s training.

“I get up at (3:45) in the morning, I go to Walmart to fix things up a little bit, and then I go to Costco and shelve bread for a couple of hours and then I go back to Walmart and shelve bread for a few more hours. I’m usually done my morning shift by about 10 and then I go do my workout,” Gabriele said. “And then in the afternoon I go back and do bread for about another hour or so.”

After working and training all day, Gabriele’s in bed by 7 or 8 p.m. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle. It’s all about work ethic, and it’s the same way with the Canadian national team. Canada doesn’t blow anybody out of the water in international play. Instead, they grind teams down with defensive play and hard work.”

“We have to play as a team,” McNeill said. “We’re not going to throw out 12 of the best athletes in the world and beat you one-on-one. We have to do it with brain power, being smart and executing.”

Canada opens the Olympic tournament on July 28 against Russia, and then play preliminary games against Great Britain, France, Brazil and Australia. All, except the Brits, are ranked higher than Canada.

“It’s a tough pool,” McNeill said. “We do know we’re underdogs. But we’re not going to lay down for anybody. We’re going to play hard and we think if we can play well, we can make that final eight.”