by Michael Sun, The Charlatan
TORONTO — On Sunday night in Toronto, Linnaea Harper hit one of the biggest shots of her life.
With the Marauders up 62-54 on the Laval Rouge et Or with a minute and a half remaining in the U Sports national title game, Harper took a pass from fellow fifth year Hilary Hanaka. With U Sports Player of the Year Sarah-Jane Marois guarding her, the forward made her move.
“I knew I had to get a shot off quick and I guess instincts,” Harper recalled. “I always had this step through, fake right and step through and go left shot but it’s usually way closer to the net and so instinctively, I did that and then, threw up a Hail Mary and it happened to bank in and you know, as I say, the basketball gods where with me during that shot and it went in.”
The bench exploded in applause – as did the Marauder fans – while Harper raised her arms in celebration. Meanwhile, head coach Theresa Burns, right behind her, couldn’t hold back a smile, knowing that shot clinched the victory.
“I got a surge of energy,” Harper noted. “That’s when I started to get the shivers, the feeling that we had won, the same feeling that I got when we won the OUA championship but a little bit more, just that sight bit more of excitement. It felt unreal.”
The players mobbed each other on the court afterwards before turning to celebrate with the coaches. Harper was awarded the nationals MVP award, finishing her career on the highest note possible.
“It doesn’t feel real still,” she said a few days later. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Harper’s path to this point has been anything but inevitable.
Growing up, she didn’t think about playing university basketball – much less winning a national championship. She learned to develop a different outlook on basketball and life over time that got her to this moment. She battled back from numerous injuries, including one that threatened to derail her career only weeks earlier.
However, through it all, she prevailed, a national champion in her final game in the maroon and grey. “It’s definitely motivating and this will definitely be a story to tell to people,” she said.
Harper’s journey began in Hamilton. She was born there but moved to Newmarket when she was two or three years old.
She started playing basketball in grade three but also played soccer as well. She grew up as friends with Ryerson Rams senior Cara Tiemens, who also played basketball and soccer. By grade 10, she chose basketball.
“My parents were like ‘ok, it’s crazy for us to get you to both’ so I chose basketball and I have not looked back since,” Harper said.
Her parents were a big influence on her and her three siblings growing up. Harper calls herself a “very positive energy on the court” – and in life as well.
“I’m not the star play necessarily on my team so the way I contribute is in providing energy, defensively in particular…just being that vocal contribution on the court is my role. Being in my fifth year, I provide some sort of a calming presence on the court.”
She’s had to develop her positive and calm personality over time – starting from her family and support system.
“They’ve always been super super supportive and when I felt bad about games and when I felt bad about plays, they’ve always been there to be like it’s okay, you’re fine,” she said. “So I think I’ve taken that from what they taught me and brought it into my own game.”
“Okay, we just turned the ball over a couple of times, it’s okay, we’ll move onto the next play,” she cited as an example. “We’ll keep going.”
Harper approaches life with a “glass half-full mentality” – something that stemmed from her parents. She remembers being critical of herself in high school and her first year at McMaster when things didn’t go well.
“As a younger player, you do get into your own head a little bit, you’re a little bit more emotional about certain things, especially in the moment,” she noted.
At Newmarket High school, sports were very relaxing for Harper. Unlike others, she didn’t have hopes and dreams of reaching a certain level.
“A lot of people say they want to be an Olympian and they have these hopes and dreams of doing that,” Harper said. “I never really had that. Basketball and soccer were just kind of an outlet for me to just have fun and I didn’t really think too much about that aspiring to be super super good in those areas.”
She did have goals on being academically successful and getting a good job though.
“I loved high school, high school was a lot of fun,” she recalled. “We have the best team and we just had natural talent. We would practice twice a week so it was like fun just because we could win and it was easy for us.”
She won two York region titles at Newmarket High, one where she scored the game-winning basket off a bank shot – much like the national championships. She played with current Marauder teammates Clare Sharkey and Sarah Gates. While playing there and with the Scarborough Blues in JUEL, she started getting recruited by universities north and south of the border.
“I was very humbled. I didn’t expect it,” she noted. “I guess I didn’t realize how valuable somebody at my size was, somebody who can dribble at my size or even shoot the three at my size was so I was very humbled by that. I was happy about it. It was super cool.”
Harper remembers being recruited by McMaster and visiting the campus.
“I also was born in Hamilton and I think just like I was familiar with the area, it felt comfortable for me so I chose that,” she said.
“It was funny because Mac hadn’t actually recruited me until a week after I had even thought about going there so it was kind of interesting,” she added. “I was on the highway [with family] and we were driving past Mac and I said, ‘you know what it’s too bad, Mac doesn’t recruit me because I’d probably go to Mac’.”
A week later, she got an email from Mac assistant coach Ed Grosel, who expressed interest in recruiting her. “Coincidental I guess you could say that that happened,” Harper said.
She also remembers the first time Burns watched her play in an OFSAA tournament in Windsor.
“I actually fouled out in the beginning of the third quarter so it was not my best first impression but I guess from that, with the positive spin on things, she knew from the get go I was a tough player,” she said.
Harper committed to McMaster for the 2014-15 season, also for the academics as she was enrolling in Kinesiology. However, by her first season and the summer before that, she would find a big adjustment from her high school life.
Harper made Canada’s U-18 national team for the FIBA Americas in 2014.
“Very humbled,” she said when she found out. “I was like, ‘man, I can’t believe I’m wearing Canada across my chest’. Not that I had fallen into it by any means but I personally, I just hadn’t pictured that in my head as a child. I had never pictured that and that was so awesome just to be able to wear that jersey and play for the nation.”
She played alongside Shay Colley, Bridget Carleton and future McMaster teammate Christina Buttenham as Canada won silver. It was also an eye-opening experience.
“I think that was the very first time I had ever experienced practicing so much,” she said. There were multiple practices a day and weights as well.
“By the end of that experience – I was so worn out mentally, just so much basketball and like that’s when I was starting to feel the stress of the performance aspect,” she said.
Harper found it a challenge but learned from it. She didn’t like the pressure at first but now loves it.
“Just in terms of being mentally tough,” she said. “I think at first, it was something that I had to get used to…then you kind of adapt to it and it becomes something you’re used to, something that’s normal and then, after that, you kind of be able to play with it a little bit and have fun with it and it becomes not something that’s quote-unquote a job and actually fun.”
Harper’s transition to McMaster was also a big step, unlike other teammates who were used to the training and pressure from high school. She also had to deal with an broken foot and the Achilles injuries that followed.
She broke it on Jan. 28, 2015 at Guelph. “It was in the middle of a play and I just planted to change direction and I felt like this pop in my foot and it turns out it was broken,” she said. “I was devastated.”
“I never broken a bone before that, I never had any serious acute injury that kept from playing so it was a huge setback for me,” Harper continued. “Just mentally even to be like basketball is my life right now, how can that be taken away from me?”
It was taken away as she watched from the sidelines as there had to be an identity change.
“I’m just kind of like not contributing in the same way to the team as much as you can cheer and do other things, which are great, you kind of still feel like there’s that little thing missing from your contribution.”
The waiting part of her recovery was the hardest mentally.
“You just want to get back out there, you just want to play again,” she said. “You don’t want to be sitting but you physically can’t.”
She noted that the recovery was also a turning point for when she started to internalize her positive mentality.
“I was kind of in my own head and feeling negative about things and particularly how I was performing in basketball and I think I had to take that moment to be like, ‘okay, you’re okay, let’s get back on the right track, get back into shape and let’s reward ourselves for the good things that we’re doing’,” she recalled.
“You’re still here, it’s not like you got injured and you quit and you gave up. Look at it from the positive side.”
Before Harper could fully recover, injuries hit her again. When she was cleared to start running again, she developed Achilles tendinitis.
“That was a huge setback because you’re like finally, my foot’s better, I’m going to run now but wait now, I’m feeling all this pain in another area,” she said. The Achilles pain would constantly reappear but Harper persevered through it. “It’s just been a whirlwind with my Achilles,” she noted.
By her third season, her mindset changed and she was enjoying her best year yet to that point as a first-team OUA all-star.
“I think it when I was running around and playing without thinking too much,” she said. “Not thinking about…oh, I have to make this shot or I have to not turn the ball over. Just playing because I’ve been playing my entire life so what’s there to lose kind of thing.”
That mentality went hand-in-hand with positive thinking as well.
“I think the overthinking part is when you’re giving yourself that negative reinforcement where you’re like I have to make this and if I don’t, I’m going to feel bad,” she added.
“Whereas if you’re just playing, you’re like, I’m going to play and if I do something great, that’s great, that’s wonderful,” she said. “If I make a mistake, I’m going to learn from that and I’m going to move on.”
That’s also when she first thought about winning a national championship as a goal, given it was the final go for seniors Danielle Boiago, Clare Kenney and Rachael Holmes.
“At the time, as much as you can emphasize with them, you don’t actually know what it feels like to be like in your fifth year and this being your last chance,” she reflected. “You don’t actually know what that feels like until you get there…it hits home.”
The Marauders lost to the Carleton Ravens 55-54 in the OUA semi-finals, narrowly missing out on their shot at nationals.
“At the time, I did feel terrible for them but I now really really get it being in my fifth year,” she said. “That must have sucked and if I could turn back time and somehow make an extra two points so we could win that game, I would try but can’t.”
Harper noted that after that year, she thought the Marauders chance to win or even make nationals had eluded them – not to return. Expectations were low heading into her fourth season.
They exceeded them – reaching her first OUA finals and nationals – while battling through injuries. Lexie Spadafora was sidelined with a broken hand through playoffs. Hanaka was dealing with a knee injury during the season while Harper suffered a stress fracture.
“I just felt this pain in my foot and I was limping when I was running,” she recalled. “It was really painful and then I went and checked in with our athletic therapist Carly.” She missed four weeks rehabbing.
“It was so tough because you’re like in shape, you’re peaking with your teammates and then all of a sudden, this is a serious pain and this isn’t something you can play through or else you’re going to worsen it and be out the rest of the season,” Harper noted.
When she got back, the Marauders made a playoff run and ended up against the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees in the OUA semi-finals at home. With her team down one point with eight seconds left, Harper found herself at the free throw line.
“I was obviously nervous but I wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen if I was going to miss them, I only thinking about what was going to happen if I made them,” she said. “I guess that’s just the positive mindset again happening.”
She made both of them and the Marauders advanced to the OUA finals and nationals for the first time in her and her teammates careers.
Harper’s fifth season has been marked by an urgency to win, a historic milestone but also familiar Achilles concerns.
The Marauders had continued to learn from their trip to nationals – where they lost two games – and locked up the top seed in the OUA West. Harper scored her 1,000 point in a free throw in the regular season finale at Western.
“It was amazing. Coach was drawing up plays to get me open just so I could get my whatever amount of points I needed for the game and like the team was cheering me on. Hil gave me a hug when I got my free throw,” she said. Harper noted it was ironic given how she usually doesn’t really value how many points she scored.
“It was just so good and literally half a week later, I’m at practice and I feel this pull in my Achilles and I’m like ‘no way, this can’t be happening’,” she said. “I even joked with some of my coworkers [at Mac], now I got my a thousand, now I’m out, I’m done.”
She had an Achilles tear and missed the team’s quarterfinals win over Brock but continued to support her teammates.
“Oh my gosh, I thought my career was over two weeks ago,” she said. “I was distraught but the way I looked at it was ‘okay, if I’m going to contribute, I’m still going to be on the bench, how can I contribute?’” She did so by being vocal, providing tips and support.
She was day-to-day against Carleton in the semi-finals but was helped out as the game was postponed one day due a snowstorm. “The basketball gods were with me that day,” she said. Harper took some painkillers and Tylenol before the game, felt fine in the warm-ups and played.
Coming back into the Carleton game, I was so fired up,” she said. “I was like ‘oh, my gosh, I have it back, I have basketball back. Thank you basketball for coming back into my life!’.”
With her return, the Marauders beat the Ravens and then the Gee-Gees to win Harper’s first Critelli Cup.
The pain was still there by nationals but she played through it, motivated by the end of the road.
“The idea of winning a national championship totally overcomes any of that pain that’s holding me back from playing,” she said before the tournament. “That’s just so exciting and in my fifth year, this is literally my last go.”
Friends, family and media poured out onto the Mattamy Athletic Centre – the Maple Leaf Gardens – court to celebrate McMaster’s first national title.
Harper did interviews and celebrated with teammates and coaches before getting a chance to see her family.
“It was nice. I could finally take a sigh of relief and be like oh my gosh, we did it,” she said. “My team, I love my team too but it’s just that extra sigh of relief when you see your family at the end of the game to be able to enjoy the moment with them is surreal.”
Her parents have been strong supporters all the way through – especially her dad.
“My family was literally, since my first [year], especially my dad, has come to every single game and I don’t think I would be where I am today without their support,” she said. Harper added that “it means a ton” to have that support.
“He loves his kids so he would always want to do things on weekends and want to spend time with his family because he’s definitively a family man,” Harper said of her dad. Growing up, we were always doing things on weekends and then when we all kind of went away to university, basketball at mac was the next thing to do.”
Now, the championship gives her parents closure on her career, according to Harper.
Harper’s own future is still to be decided. She’s worked at McMaster athletics as a Special Events Coordinator for the past few years and enjoys the community aspect of it. Her coworkers also came to Toronto to watch the finals.
“It goes beyond the department when it comes to that feeling of community and friendship and relationship so it’s really really awesome,” she said.
She plans to go back to Newmarket during the summer and commute to Hamilton for work. She has a trip to Austria planned before that in May. Harper’s dream job would be to end as an athletic director one day.
“I like the student athlete environment,” she said. “McMaster athletics has provided me with such a positive sort of experience and I would love to do that for other students that want to do the same thing, be a student athlete.”
Now, she’s only a student, not a student-athlete anymore. The friendships and relationships from her time at Mac are everlasting. The moments are as well.
“You spend every day in the team room with all of our teammates and all of your friends and all those little moments in the team, where somebody says something funny or somebody says something ridiculous and you just laugh together,” she said. “I think those are the moments that really stand out to me. All the amazing moments and the fun moments, after practice and before practice.”
Now, that will soon be over. She will continue to play pickup or intramural basketball, fueled by her same love for the sport from when she was a kid.
“I think I’m lucky because the way that I view sports is like obviously, right now, it’s serious but it’s also super fun and I find that same satisfaction I get from play at McMaster that I get when I play basketball on the weekend with my boyfriend and his friends,” she said.
Right now though? Homework – “I’m realizing how far behind I am on schoolwork,” she admits – and rest for her sore Achilles.
“That’s what I need. No, to be honest, I’ll probably be playing pick up tonight,” she said with a laugh.
– Michael Sun