RODE: Harrison a natural to direct Red Deer Polytechnic Queens basketball

You just never know whose name may come up when looking at applications for a head coaching position at any level.

So it shouldn’t have been a big surprise to see one of the winningest coaches in Alberta Colleges Athletic Association women’s basketball history among the applicants for the RDP Queens basketball head coaching position.

Avery Harrison, who has three national championships on his resume, was a natural to take over the Queens from interim head coach Ed Major.

Major replaced Mandy Botham, who resigned during the Christmas break.

While Major can take a bow for leading the Queens into the playoffs, he had to take a back seat to Avery’s experience.

Harrison has coached 35 years in the ACAC — 23 as head coach — on both the men’s and women’s side.

As a head coach, he’s won five ACAC gold, three silver and five bronze to go with three CCAA gold and two silver.

Avery, who last coached the Olds Broncos in the 2019-20 season, watched the Queens play on several occasions last season so when the position came up he had it in the back of his mind.

“As a free agent last year I watched a lot of games and I did get the itch to be back on the court,” he said.

“I couldn’t commit as an interim coach (here) because I was with the Olds High School team and didn’t want to leave them, but when the full-time position came up I was thinking I should apply. My daughters told me I’m a coach and that’s where I should be and I decided I would.

“I know a lot of the players and I think the team has a lot of potential.”

The Queens have a solid core returning and Major did the majority of the recruiting before his contract was up.

“Ed did a good job and left a list of the players. I’ve seen it, now it’s a matter of contacting them,” said Harrison, who had a meeting with the returning players earlier this week.

Of the veterans, team scoring leaders Amy Szymanek (15.1 points-per-game and 9.4 rebounds), Sophie Melin (12.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 3.3 assists) and Lauren France (10.7 ppg) should all be returning along with Heena Sidhu and Janai Hubert, who Harrison is looking forward to working with.

“I think Janai has a lot of potential and I’m excited to see where she can go,” he said.

One area the Queens needed to upgrade was experience at point guard.

He indicated Sandra Garcia-Bernal, who was one of the premier point guards in the ACAC two years ago, may return. He also has a line on a point guard out of the States.

Harrison likes some of the things he saw from the team last season.

“We’ll keep some of their defences, but we’ll work on some little things like breakdowns fundamentally … see where we can be more effective and see where some of the players can be more effective in doing certain little details like footwork. When you have proper footwork it makes things a lot easier.

“We’ll also work on expectations of the players … what leadership looks like and what they need to do out there.

“We want to build a culture of winning and playing with intensity.

“It’s been a long time since Red Deer won, not since Pat Rawlusyk was here. She had tough teams to play against. I was in the stands watching when she last won, now I’d like to watch again but this time on the bench.”

Harrison was born in Olds and grew up in Carstairs. He first got involved in coaching at a high school in Carstairs after he broke his leg.

“After a year of coaching I loved it and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

After getting his physical education degree from the University of Calgary he joined veteran coach Phil Allan with the SAIT Trojans men’s team in 1983.

“Working with Phil was a great learning experience,” he said. “You learned something all the time … I couldn’t have asked for a better education then spending time with him.”

Avery switched to the Trojans women’s program in 1988 and took over as head coach in 1990. He coached the Trojans for six years before a disagreement with SAIT left him on the sidelines.

“I stayed on as a teacher, but we had a disagreement when it came to coaching,” he said.

When the Mount Royal College athletic department heard the news they were quick to recruit him.

He spent two years with MRC, posting a 47-1 record and attending the CCAA championships.

After the two years, he was back at SAIT where his resume took even a bigger leap. In his eight years with the Trojans he won CCAA championships in 1999 and 2001.

Following his second stint at SAIT he coached the Lethbridge Kodiaks for four years before taking a break. But that didn’t last long as he was invited to be an assistant coach with St. Mary’s University in Calgary.

“I came in and they had made the playoffs at 10-10 and I told them they were going to be 18-3 next year and they didn’t believe me. But we finished 18-3 and they thought I might know something,” he said with a laugh.

He still had the desire to be a head coach and Olds came calling, which was home.

He took over the Broncos in 2016 and three years later won the CCAA championship.

“When I won they said I was the oldest coach (61) to win the championship. Hopefully, I can break that record,” he added.

Avery will move to Red Deer, likely in August, and has an office at RDP.

He indicated he’ll open training camp Aug. 22 and run two-a-day practices for two weeks before going back to one-a-day.

Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at

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