A year ago the RDP Queens, under new head coach Avery Harrison, went into the Alberta Colleges Women’s Basketball League regular season as just another team hoping to make the playoffs.
This year they’re heading in as defending ACAC champions and fourth-place finishers at the Nationals.
“We’re so far ahead at this point of the season from where we were last year, it’s night and day,” said Harrison. “We’ve built on the success of last year and on the experience of running the table in the second half all the way to the Nationals.
“You can see the confidence and swagger.”
But Avery knows they can’t be over-confident.
“You have to treat the other teams with respect and dignity and play with confidence but not cocky. We have to embrace the process.”
That process won’t be easy as a number of teams have built to make a run at the Queens.
“We have a tough opening part of the season, starting with SAIT here Oct. 20,” Avery said. “They have an impressive team on paper, but so do we.”
The Queens have six players back from last year, including playoff MVP Sandra Garcia-Bernal, who enters her fifth season in the league as the premier guard in the conference and possibly the country.
“Sandra could well be the most dominant player in the country at what she does,” said Harrison.
She dominates teams defensively with her quickness. Last season she set an ACAC record with 121 steals in 19 games and twice equalled the one-game record of 11 steals. She also averaged 13.6 points per game, 4.05 assists and 7.21 rebounds.
In the playoffs, she averaged 14 points per game and 5.33 steals.
The Queens received a boost when six-foot post Janai Hubert decided to return.
“Janai has been great in camp, she’s leaps and bounds ahead of last year … it’s exciting to get her back,” said Harrison.
Fifth-year guard Heena Sidhu has also had a strong camp, which was highlighted by a 40-minute performance in the Queens 60-53 victory over The Kings University Eagles at RDP Tuesday.
Heena finished with 17 points, five steals, five assists and four rebounds as the Queens played without four starters.
Garcia-Bernal, Hubert, third-year guard Sadie Jeffries and Peighton Melton, who is one of the premier inside players in the conference, were all watching with minor injuries.
Sandra has yet to play this season after breaking a bone in her leg. She’s received the go-ahead from the doctor, but has yet to be completely cleared to return.
Hubert and Jeffries have minor ankle sprains and Melton is out under concussion protocol.
That left Sidhu and Lauren France as the only veterans to dress against TKU. Former Grande Prairie Wolves forward Jayden Demchuk, who missed all of last season with an Achilles injury, made her first appearance with RDP and showed she’ll be a solid contributor, finishing with 10 rebounds and 14 points.
“Achilles is a tough injury and it takes time, mentally as much as anything, to come back from,” Avery said. “You could see as the game went on she gained more and more confidence with it.”
The Queens have a 13-player squad, with six rookies, although Mia Cunningham, an outstanding guard from Lacombe will miss the season after ACL surgery.
The rookies have impressed Harrison in the early going.
Tricia Madourie out of Lindsay Thurber is one of the pure athletes on the roster. The five-foot-nine guard/forward plays a lot taller.
“She’s impressive,” said Harrison. “You see a six-footer waiting for a rebound and Tricia comes out of nowhere to get the rebound. She does it every night.”
Madourie showed her jumping ability during the summer, winning the Canadian U20 high jump championship.
Zoey Longman of Sylvan Lake is the other Central Albertan on the roster with Orianna Patterson from Regina, Sarah Creamer of Airdrie and Salome Nuako from Sherwood Park.
The six-foot-two Nuako gives the Queens some needed height.
“She’s used to playing outside, but we’re working her inside as well and she’s looking more and more comfortable,” said Harrison. “We don’t want to take away her outside game, but need her inside as well.”
The win against TKU was impressive as the Queens outscored the Eagles 27-13 in the fourth quarter.
“A character win,” said Harrison. “The rookies played some big minutes while Heena never came off the floor and showed some great leadership.”
Sidhu and Jeffries were named team captains earlier.
The Queens will have a target on their backs, but Harrison indicates they have their own goal, including winning the South Division and hosting the provincials.
“We will have everyone gunning for us, but winning last year helped our confidence and self-esteem as we didn’t just make the playoffs but won. Once you make the nationals you realize it’s just not the league you’re up against but teams across the country, and you want to get back.
“So they may be hunting for us, but we’re hunting them as well … we’d love to host the provincials.”
The Queens are on the road for the next four exhibition games, beginning Saturday at TKU, before hosting their tournament. Oct. 5-7.
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org