It's hard to believe that the defining moments for a year's worth of work and effort could be just a few games. But that's what most sports teams experience and that's what the Dinos men's basketball team experienced this weekend when they flew out to Ottawa to take part in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Final 8 tournament for the first time since 2004.
The tournament started promising for the Dinos, with a 76-67 win over the Concordia University Stingers in the quarterfinals, and ended suddenly, with a 79-74 loss to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the semis Saturday. For Dinos head coach Dan Vanhooren, not reaching their ultimate goal of a CIS championship does not mean that this year was unsuccessful.
"There's no question," Vanhooren said a day after the loss, "All the guys can do is look in the mirror and ask themselves, did they put their best effort forward. The only answer to that is yes. . . . Just because a shot doesn't fall here or there doesn't mean we're not good enough."
"We basically came down to one possession with UBC," he continues. "We beat them in the Canada West championship. We're as good as anybody here, it's just whether or not the shots go in or they don't go in. And they just didn't happen to fall yesterday."
The Dinos were in a weird situation this year after being incredibly successful last year during the regular season and falling short in the playoffs. The team finished 18-4 last year and won all of their regular season home games, only to flame out spectacularly in two disappointing home playoff games during the Canada West final four. A 77-69 heartbreaker to the T-Birds cost them the chance of a guaranteed spot in Ottawa last year and a 97-83 loss to the Brandon University Bobcats shut the door on a slim chance of making it in as a wildcard.
Despite those losses, Vanhooren said the Dinos walked in to this season looking to the future.
"Last year's in the past," he said. "One of things we needed to do coming here and certainly the lesson that we learned from the past season is just that. There are things that are history and there are things that are in the future. . . This year's team, even if you look at the games in B.C., they really took away that pressure from the previous year, because our guys performed in the final four."
This year the Dinos finished the season on top of their division for a second year in a row with a 17-5 record and followed that up with a successful playoff run, claiming the Canada West championship with a win over the T-Birds.
Though they couldn't duplicate that result against UBC on Saturday, the players walked off the court proud of their efforts and their accomplishments. They also had high expectations of the future.
"I think coach Vanhooren is a great recruiter and I think he's the best recruiter in Canada West," said fifth-year forward Henry Bekkering, who leaves the Dinos after two electrifying, dunk-filled seasons. "He brings the best talent every year and next year we have some good guys coming in, plus we have our whole team back. I totally expect our team to be back in this position next year."
Bekkering is the only Dino on the squad who can't come back, and though Vanhooren understands he will be hard to replace-- he led the Dinos in scoring this season with 20.2 points per game and last season with 21-- he has a lot of confidence in his core group.
"To lose anybody with his capabilities is a big loss," said Vanhooren. "We're going to have to find a way to change what we do and replace what he does with numbers he puts up. The one thing that I've come to understand from coaching for a few years, no matter how many great players you have, other ones come along. Other guys step up."
One of those players might be second-year guard Tyler Fidler. He took a big leap this year as a starter after having a fantastic season as the Dinos' sixth man last year and being named to the CIS all-rookie team. He led the team in scoring and was named the MVP of the Dinos' semi-final match-up with the T-Birds.
"As a second-year kid to be here, and to experience what he did last year and this year, going forward he's only going to be a leader for us," said Vanhooren. "He'll be better next year than he was this year."
In the end for Vanhooren, it's not about wins and losses. It's not about basketball. It's about teaching kids and giving them different opportunities to learn.
"It has a lot more to do with the guys," he said. "It helps me stay young, I gotta say, I really enjoy being around them, but in addition to that, the whole goal of this is to make them better people. Every opportunity we have to do that, we will. Yesterday, we took them to the parliament building. Most of our guys hadn't been there before. That's just a great experience for them. Out west, we don't have the same kind of history around us."