CALGARY, Alta. – The 2019-20 season marks a changing of the guard for the Mount Royal Cougars, and it’s one that they didn’t necessarily expect at the end of last year.
The Cougars are coming off a 2-18 season in Canada West play, good for 16th place in the regular season standings. Both of their wins came on consecutive nights against the UBC Okanagan Heat in mid-November.
Mount Royal lost their final 12 games to close the season.
At year’s end, the attention quickly shifted to the 2019-20 season. With the bulk of the roster expected back in 2019-20, the Cougars had high hopes of climbing out of the Canada West basement and back into playoff contention.
That was until their plans took a detour in the middle of summer.
Head Coach Nate McKibbon accepted the vacant position with the Western Mustangs and their women’s basketball program, moving the Hamilton, Ontario native closer to home. That left the Cougars without a Head Coach to run their program with the new season fast approaching.
Mount Royal didn’t have to look far for their next Head Coach. On August 1st, the Cougars named Robyn Fleckenstein as their next Head Coach. The native of Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia played four years at Acadia University before moving into coaching.
Most recently, she served as the Head Coach of the Augustana Vikings in the ACAC before making the move to Mount Royal.
Fleckenstein joins another former ACAC Head Coach on the bench for the Cougars, as Ken King will serve as the Lead Assistant Coach on Fleckenstein’s staff. King served as the Head Coach of the Red Deer College Queens for five seasons, and the 2019-20 season will be his first with the Cougars after being hired in the Spring.
The familiarity between King and Fleckenstein will help make the transition a smooth one for both individuals.
“Having coached against Robyn, we have gotten to know one another quite well,” said King. “We balance each other quite well, Robyn will focus on the offense while I will focus on the defensive side. Her, Josh and I get along excellent and balance well so it’s exciting to work together. I made the choice to step back from head coaching and am loving the decision to be at Mount Royal.”
Both Fleckenstein and King have extensive resumes despite being young in the coaching industry. Add in fellow Assistant Coach Josh Fluker, and the average age of the coaching staff is 29 years old. Nobody on the staff is over 31 years of age.
“I think we probably have the youngest coaching staff in U Sports in Canada,” added King.
Age is just a number. Despite being on the younger side of the coaching industry, the Cougars’ coaching staff will look to use their wealth of experience and knowledge to help turn Mount Royal into a perennial playoff contending team.
The coaching staff have begun to implement their own systems ahead of the 2019-20 season, and that has come with its share of ups and downs, as expected. However, the process has also helped both coaches and players to discover things that they didn’t know about themselves beforehand.
“We’ve been challenging the team each day to get better,” continued King. “It’s brought out things that the players didn’t know they could do themselves, and it’s given them a higher level of confidence on the court.”
“They’re learning that they can do things on the court that they weren’t able to do before, and it’s made them a lot better for it. It’s been fun to watch them grow both on and off the court.”
One luxury that the coaching staff has on its side is the fact that the Cougars bring back the bulk of their roster from last season. The level of familiarity within the roster has made the transition easier for both parties alike.
Towards the end of summer, the coaches took the players on an overnight camping trip to strengthen their team chemistry and show them that everyone is on the same level. A six-hour hike up a mountain with all their camping gear showed taught the team that they need one another this season to be successful.
“Some were asking why we couldn’t drive a RV up instead,” said King as he chuckled. “It taught the girls that they need to work together if they want to be successful, and it showed that all players are on a level playing field.”
“This isn’t going to work if we don’t work together.”
For the record, everyone made it back from the camping trip in one piece.
Chalk it up as a win for the coaching staff.
Only two key names from last year’s roster are missing in 2019-20. Both Sydney Tabin (Saskatoon, Sask.) and Michelle Tiffany (Calgary, Alta.) have moved on from the program after last season, leaving a pair of holes to fill on the roster this time around.
Second year guard Maddison Hooper (Perth, Australia) is back and will be looking to build off last year’s successful debut season. Hooper led the Cougars with an average of 12.4 points per game while shooting 31.6% from the field and 27.2% from three-point range.
She added 3.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.
Hooper developed into a consistent scorer as her rookie season wore on. She recorded at least 10 points on 12 occasions, and she topped the 20-point mark in two of those games. Hooper did put up shots in volume last season, as she had at least 10 field goal attempts in 18 games. Still, Hooper is one of the top young stars in the Canada West Conference, and she gives the Cougars a strong player to build around.
Forward Charity Marlatt (Calgary, Alta.) is one of the more underrated rebounders in the Canada West Conference, and she will look to build on her strong 2018-19 campaign. Marlatt averaged a team-best 7.4 rebounds per game last season to go along with 9.1 points, a mark that was second-best on the team behind only Hooper. Marlatt shot 44.9% from the field and 78.0% from three-point range.
Game in and game out, Marlatt was a consistent presence on the glass. She pulled down at least six rebounds on 14 occasions, and she recorded three double-doubles on the year. With her veteran presence and ability to pull down rebounds on both ends of the floor, Marlatt gives the Cougars a strong interior presence that the team can rally behind.
The likes of guards Sarah Rinsky (Leduc, Alta.) and Abbey Gillette (Calgary, Alta.) appear to be in prime position for bigger roles with the program this season. Last year, Rinsky averaged 6.0 points and 2.0 rebounds per contest, while Gillette chipped in with 6.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocked shots per outing.
When asked about Rinsky and her development this summer, King was quick to point out her biggest strength.
“Her basketball IQ is incredible,” said King. “She’s always asking the tough questions on the court to learn as much as she can.”
“We had a scrimmage at the end of practice, working on end-game situations. I would set them up a certain way, whether it’s a 2-3 zone or otherwise, and Rinsky would stop and ask, ‘when and why would we go into a zone defense at the end of a close game’? It makes you stop and think as a coach because you’re focused on practice, but it also makes you proud because they are wanting to learn. Having her ask such detailed questions shows that she’s a leader, and she’s always looking to better understand what we teach.”
In terms of newcomers, the Cougars are thrilled with their four additions and what they bring to the table. Mount Royal has added guard Maitlynn Miller (Lethbridge, Alta.), guard Jamie Lalor (Red Deer, Alta.), guard Ella Stanley (St. Albert, Alta.), and forward Jeneka Martens (La Crete, Alta.) to the mix for the foreseeable future.
Stanley joins her sister, second year guard Alesha Stanley, with the Cougars this season. They come from a family that’s rich in basketball history, and Ella will look to carry the success she enjoyed at the high school level into her career at Mount Royal with the Cougars.
Up and down the roster, the Cougars have some intriguing pieces to build around for the future. With Marlatt as the lone fifth-year player on the roster again this season, the Cougars have the potential to keep the core group together for at least one more year following the 2019-20 campaign.
Their fortunes as a program aren’t going to change overnight, and that’s a known fact. Things like this take time, and it’s about positive progression right now for the Cougars. At the end of the day, the focus is to help the players become successful in the classroom.
For the coaches, they’ve also tried to separate basketball from personal, and they’ve found a balance that will help the team be successful in all facets of the student-athlete lifestyle.
“We may get worked up periodically during practice, but we try to leave it all on the court,” added King. “When we’re away from basketball, we are laughing with the team, joking around, and trying to build relationships with the players that go beyond the game.”
“Doing things like the camping trip, team dinners, and other activities away from the game help to strengthen the bond we have with one another as the season unfolds.”
Mount Royal is trending in the right direction this season, A changing of the guard behind the bench has sparked a healthy change that has the team optimistic for the future. With a strong core intact and a new culture within the team, the Cougars have their sights set on positive progression this season as they work towards contending for a playoff spot in the always-competitive Canada West Conference.
– T. Bennett
Any prospective student-athletes who wish to learn more about the Women’s Basketball program at Mount Royal University are asked to contact Assistant Coach Ken King by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.