MacKinnon: University of Alberta athletics programs not content with just being there
Golden Bears, Pandas teams ‘strive to win’, across-the-board strength at nationals approaches new high
EDMONTON - Ian Reade will be 30,000 feet in the air heading east early Thursday morning, and that’s no metaphor for the emotional state of the University of Alberta’s athletic director.
Reade will be off to Quebec to watch the men’s and women’s volleyball teams compete at the Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) national championships in Quebec City and Sherbrooke, respectively, the first stops in a lengthy parade of Alberta teams to nationals.
It’s the 18th appearance at CIS nationals for the men and 12th straight. The Pandas will be competing at nationals for the 18th time in the last 21 years.
They will have plenty of company. This week’s CIS rankings has the Bears hockey team ranked No. 1, and the same for the Bears and Pandas wrestling teams.
The Bears swim team checks in at No. 6, the Pandas track team is at No. 9, and the Pandas basketball and swim teams both sit at No. 10.
“In terms of teams in the top 10, I don’t think we’ve ever been better than this,” Reade said. “Certainly our wrestling program, our swimming program, the ones that haven’t been as successful (have emerged).”
The wrestling teams, fresh from winning the Canada West championship in Edmonton two weeks ago, will be at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., grappling for national titles.
The Golden Bears hockey team, also ranked No. 1 in Canada, has already punched its ticket to nationals in Saskatoon from March 14-17. Their series against Saskatchewan for the Canada West championship this weekend is an important tune-up, another chapter in a fierce rivalry and important for bragging rights, but that’s all.
The U of A now is a curling powerhouse, led by Brendan Bottcher, who won the Alberta, Canadian and world junior titles last year, along with the inaugural CIS national title. Kelsey Rocque’s women’s team will compete at CIS nationals this year, also, having dominated the CIS Western championships.
Meanwhile, the Pandas basketball team can qualify for nationals at the Canada West Final Four tournament at University of Calgary this weekend. Oh, and the University of Alberta will play host to the CIS track and field nationals at the Butterdome from March 7-9.
“I do think that our across-the-board strength is as good now as it has ever been in our history.” Reade said. “But conversion rates are another thing.
“We’re going to get to nationals, but then you’ve got to win. Being there is nice but winning is what we want to do. Other schools strive to be there; we strive to win.”
Reade knows something about that. On his first watch as U of A athletic director, from 1993-2001, Pandas and Golden Bears teams won 21 national championships.
To challenge for championships, you need quality coaching, a centrepiece of Reade’s approach, then and now.
Since re-taking the helm at U of A in April 2011, Reade has hired Ian Herbers to coach the Bears hockey team, Barnaby Craddock to lead the men’s basketball team, promoted Owen Dawkins to head the wrestling program, installed Wes Moerman as coach of the totally remodelled track and field program, hired former Eskimos offensive line bulwark Chris Morris to revive the stumbling football program.
Reade has restructured the track program, top to bottom, with surprising early returns. The women’s team will enter nationals the ninth-ranked team there.
“We’re in a big transition in that program,” Reade said. “We’ve torn it apart and put it back together again.”
Working with Athletics Canada and Own the Podium, Reade has fused the university’s track and field program with the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre, a legacy piece from the 2001 World Championships in Athletics that had been a stand-alone entity housed at Foote Field, but otherwise unconnected to the U of A track team.
That has enabled Reade to employ five full-time coaches who can train athletes on flexible schedules, rather than volunteer coaches, who were available only after 5 p.m.
The number of track athletes has shrunk from about 100 to 60, as some athletes walked away from the program as the coaching staff changed.
Reade is nothing if not a risk-taker, but choosing to play host to track nationals this year was bold, even by his standards.
“We have the best indoor track facility in Canada,” Reade said. “And I wanted athletes we’re trying to recruit, I wanted Athletics Canada, I wanted our legacy board see us host a national championship in that building as we’re trying to build the program.
“Maybe we won’t be winning the championship, but a big part of hosting ... was to help us to self-assess where we are with athletes, with coaches, with event-hosting, with sponsorship, all of it.”
Reade reckons the track program won’t be able to challenge for a national title for three or four years, as it matures. But for volleyball, hockey, basketball and, now, the emergent wrestling program, the expectations are more immediate.
“If everything went perfectly, we could win five national championships,” Reade said. “If everything goes bad, we could be just a bunch of guys (who got) there.”
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