Wolves women making national noise
By TERRY FARRELL, Herald-Tribune staff
There's a buzz in and around the Grande Prairie Regional College lately, regarding its women's athletics.
Actually, the buzz extends much further than that.
It's coast to coast.
The Wolves women are enjoying national recognition, and it's not just one sports team carrying the load. The 2010-11 Canadian Colleges Athletic Association season has been speckled with news and notes regarding GPRC Wolves sports teams and athletes throughout the past couple of months.
Sure, Ron Thomson's women's volleyball team is making waves. Seeing the volleyball Wolves ranked No. 7 in the country is pleasant, but hardly a surprise. The Peace Country has always been a volleyball hotbed. It would be a surprise only if there were not a Wolves team in either the women's or men's rankings.
Here's where this year differs, however.
Take a look at the national women's basketball rankings.
The GPRC Wolves finished the first half as the No. 11-ranked team in Canada.
They are one spot behind the three-time defending national champion Sainte Foy Dynamiques of the Quebec conference.
And it's not just a one-off ranking, like the last time they made the list. The 9-1 Wolves have won seven straight games and have been one of the country's top 15 teams for three straight weeks.
"We were ranked for one week in 2007 at the very end, when we went to the (Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference) Final Four, but that ranking was almost earned by default because we were going into the final weekend so they automatically ranked us," explained Wolves basketball coach Dave Waknuk.
"We were at 13 then for one week. But we haven't ever been ranked during the regular season, that I know of."
Then there's the ''piéce de resistance'' in this story of national glory, in the form of an unassuming 18-year-old from Dawson Creek.
One month ago, Fiona Benson reached heights in cross-country running never before attained by a GPRC athlete.
She won the CCAA championship in Fredericton, N.B., on Nov. 13.
A national champion, a top-10 volleyball team and a basketball team that sits on the top-10 doorstep: These are heady times for the local campus.
And if you don't think people outside Grande Prairie are taking notice, think again.
Makes recruiting easier
The team coaches say they are already seeing the effects of being regarded among the best sports programs in the 108-member association of national colleges.
"It really helps with the recruiting," said Thomson. "Being seventh in Canada and tied for (second) in Alberta (8-2, along with Lakeland), it shows where our program is.
"For us, a national ranking is probably more important than it is for the colleges in the bigger cities.
"It scores big points for you in the 'recruiting wars' if you want to call it that."
"I have never received so many emails from possible recruits than I have in the past two weeks," said Waknuk.
"A lot of interest from different places, that we haven't had before, so it's nice to get this kind of attention. Ron, well he has been here before, but this is new for our program, so this is a really exciting time."
GPRC athletic director Francois Fournier sees the national recognition as a spin-off of the way the college treats women's sports.
GPRC coaches have success recruiting, because the college regards the women's teams as their own entities, and not in any way secondary to the men's teams.
"We don't put them as a second-ranked team; they are a top-rank program with us, and we treat them as such," he said.
"Recruits are looking at all the different elements and the attention we give to (women's sports) overall is a real strong advantage. As a result we have some really strong athletes coming to our (college) and we have people saying 'How do you get them way up north?'"
Still, nothing spikes the interest like winning, and there's a definite spike in interest this season.
Pride is contagious
The pride felt by the athletes is rubbing off on the rest of the campus.
"I think so," said Thomson. "There's a real sense of respect, not only among the players and coaches, but even with the fellow students, those that aren't directly involved with the teams."
National running champ Benson has been experiencing a bit of well-earned distinction among her peers as of late.
"It's weird - people are coming up to me, saying 'hey Fiona' and I have never even seen them before," she said with a smile that has been a near-permanent facial feature the past month.
"I'm not sure how they know me, but they seem to now. It's kind of neat."
"Pride is a great word," said Waknuk. "When Fiona won nationals, we were all proud. When we hit the rankings, we were all proud. It really brings everyone together and it gives the entire (school) a sense of being one team."
"For sure, the people around here that know about and care about the athletics, they really have been supportive," said basketball team captain Jaelle Buhler.
"We're getting a lot of feedback from them. And there has been a little bit of an increase in the crowds, which is neat.
"It's a great feeling seeing the stands filling for the women's games for a change. It's nice to see the community getting involved."
"There's more family coming out," said Buhler's teammate Andria Carlyon, who leads the ACAC in points (22.4 per game average) and assists (14.4 average).
And that's not just family of the athletes, but also the administrative family.
"There has been a shift in the culture at certain levels, for sure," said Fournier. "There now is a tremendous amount of support.
"Don (GPRC president Don Gnatiuk ) and Susan (academic VP Susan Bansgrove) are frequent attenders to Wolves home games.
"I think that faculty and staff members are becoming more aware of what their students are doing and are in support of them pursuing those things.
"So I think there is more of a college pride overall. It's growing. It's not American, where you will go to a high school football state championship and see 56,000 (fans in the stands). But just in general interest it is much better.
"What I am appreciative of is that we have more of our students coming to cheer on their classmates and they are having some fun with it, because they know (the athletes). They know them, they are in classes with them, and they are cheering for them."
Fournier added that the interest is spreading beyond the college environment.
"We have had schools contact us about bringing their teams and watching the Wolves play," said Fournier. "We have had more of that than I can recall."
The inner sanctum
The basketball players say the change in culture starts in the locker room.
Buhler, who was in her rookie season when the team earned its one-week splash on the national charts in 2007, said there's a noticeable change in attitude.
"It's different this year, for sure," she said. "We expect more out of ourselves because we are ranked and it almost pushes us to play to a higher level.
"We knew at the beginning of the season this could be a special season for us. To what extent, nobody knew, until we started to play a few games, seeing what's out there, and then you start to get that belief that hey, we might be pretty good this year. Every week that feeling gets stronger and stronger."
"Inside the dressing room, our team is a lot closer," added Carlyon. "We are working well together and the rankings are just icing on the cake."
For fans, the most encouraging note is the team believes the best is yet to come.
"I still don't think we are playing our best," said Waknuk. "That's sometimes tough to say when you are having the success we are having, but I still think we can get a lot better, so I can't wait until the second semester.
"For success to happen, especially on the female side of things, this is fun. It's fun to see and it's fun to be a part of."
The fun resumes for the squad Jan. 14, with the start of the second half of the season.
The Wolves have a chance to vault into the top-10 right off the hop. They host the 10-0 SAIT Trojans, ranked No. 2 in the nation, in what should be the best-attended game of the season. Not only is there the intrigue of an all-ranked match, but it is also the homecoming match for Grande Prairie Composite Totem graduate Taylor Pillsworth, in her second year with the Trojans, who did not play in Grande Prairie last year.
The Wolves host the Red Deer Queens the following evening.
The volleyball team opens its second half one week earlier, when the 7-3 NAIT Ooks come to GPRC for two matches, Jan. 7-8.