THUNDER BAY, Ont. — If you’re reading this, it’s not too late.
While we’re still looking back on an incredible 2019-20 season, one that had no shortage of excitement across both U Sports and the CCAA, it’s also the perfect time to look ahead.
The 2020-21 season is going to be one for the history books. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the season has been pushed back until at least January 2021 for most leagues, with Quebec as the exception. The RSEQ has yet to make a decision on whether or not to delay sports until the Winter semester.
To get fans across the country ready for the new season, we’ve taken on a challenge that hasn’t been done before. In the coming weeks, we will preview every team from coast to coast ahead of the 2020-21 season.
That’s 112 different programs, if you’re keeping a tally at home.
We are attempting to preview each and every team from coast to coast ahead of the new season. Challenges have emerged in each of the last two seasons as we’ve attempted this feat before, but we’re going to give it another run.
As they say, third time’s the charm. Right?
For institutions that have both men’s and women’s basketball, a separate preview piece will be done for each team.
Rosters will be dissected and a look back at the year that was will help us determine what the team looks like this time around as every team begins with a blank slate in the standings.
Without further adieu, here is today’s preview on the Lakehead Thunderwolves Women’s Basketball program.
2019-20 in Review
Heading into the 2019-20 season, Head Coach Jon Kreiner and the Lakehead Thunderwolves were looking to build off their stellar season just one year prior, but they had to do so without the services of their top two scorers.
Leashja Grant (20.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg) and Karissa Kajorinne (13.5 ppg) helped guide the Thunderwolves to a 20-4 record in 2018-19, and a spot in the Critelli Cup Semifinals. Now, without the services of Kajorinne and Grant, who closed her Lakehead career as the two-time OUA Player of the Year and U Sports First Team All-Canadian, the Thunderwolves were looking for others to step up.
When you lose players of that caliber, a step backwards is almost to-be expected, and Lakehead took a step back in 2019-20. They finished the year with a record of 8-14, placing 5th in the restructured OUA Central Division.
Still, with having taken a step back from the previous season, the Thunderwolves secured the 12th and final spot in the OUA Critelli Cup playoffs.
Their reward? A road contest against the Windsor Lancers, who narrowly missed out on a First Round bye.
From the outset, the Lancers controlled the contest, not letting the Thunderwolves get settled. Windsor held a 42-23 lead at halftime, and never looked back down the stretch. Lakehead’s season came to a close with a 96-42 defeat at the hands of the Lancers.
The 2019-20 season was a tale of two halves for the Thunderwolves. Lakehead performed well during the pre-season, a stretch that included a 3-0 showing on their home floor. The Thunderwolves picked up wins over the Memorial Sea-hawks, Winnipeg Wesmen, and Algoma Thunderbirds to close their pre-season schedule.
In the first semester, the Thunderwolves struggled to find their footing, heading into the Christmas break with a 2-10 record. After the break, Lakehead started to string some wins together. They opened the second semester with wins in five of their first six games, and they put together a 6-4 record over the 10-game stretch to earn their spot in the playoffs.
Given the way they played down the stretch in the second half to earn their spot in the playoffs, that has to give the team some positive momentum heading into the 2020-21 season. Still, they will look to climb in the OUA standings without some familiar faces on the roster next season.
With the ever-changing situation surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic, and its effect on school enrollment for the Fall semester and beyond, speculating what the 2020-21 roster could look like for the Thunderwolves is about the best we can do at this point.
We do know that Lakehead will be without three players from last year’s roster due to graduation. The trio of Nikki Ylagan (Mississauga, Ont.), Lily Gruber-Schulz (Grand Marais, Minn.), and Kielly McDonough (Thunder Bay, Ont.) all graduated from the program following the 2019-20 season.
While Ylagan has graduated from the Thunderwolves after four seasons, her collegiate career isn’t quite over. Ylagan has since committed to play for Head Coach Ajay Sharma and the Humber Hawks in 2020-21 for her fifth and final year of eligibility, returning closer to home in the process.
The Mississauga, Ontario native finished her four-year career at Lakehead with 907 career points over 86 regular season appearances, an average of 10.5 points per game. Ylagan started each game over the last two seasons (46), helping guide the Thunderwolves to a combined regular season record of 28-18 over that span.
This past season, Ylagan averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per contest while shooting 28.0% from the field and 85.7% from the free throw line. She had 12 games with double-digit points, seven of which came over an eight-game stretch from January 19th through to February 14th.
With the loss of Gruber-Schulz, the Thunderwolves also lose their top rebounder from a season ago. The product of Grand Marais, Minnesota posted a team-high 6.7 rebounds to go along with 6.8 points and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 35.7% from the field in 17 regular season appearances.
Gruber-Schulz missed three straight games from February 7th through the 14th, and was only attributed one minute of court time against the Queen’s Gaels in the regular season finale. She returned in the First Round of the playoffs, posting four points and seven rebounds in Lakehead’s loss to Windsor.
Throughout the season, Gruber-Schulz gave the Thunderwolves consistent production on the glass. She recorded six or more rebounds on 11 occasions, and had double-digit rebounds in five of those games. Gruber-Schulz recorded a pair of double-doubles, one of which came on November 8th against the Waterloo Warriors.
Gruber-Schulz went for 15 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists in the Thunderwolves’ 68-48 win at home.
Rounding out the group of graduates is hometown guard Kielly McDonough. She appeared in all 22 regular season games, making 12 starts along the way. McDonough started 11 of the first 12 games of the season. She posted a career-high 5.2 points per game to go along with 1.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists.
After appearing in just seven games as a first-year student-athlete back in 2016-17, McDonough saw the floor in all 70 games over the past three seasons, 14 of which were starts.
While all three were honoured on Senior’s Night last season as graduating athletes, it’s worth noting that all three have only used four years of eligibility. Ylagan has committed to Humber for next season, so she is confirmed to be gone, but the door is still open for a potential fifth-year return for both Gruber-Schulz and McDonough.
Like most schools and programs all across Canada, Lakehead is awaiting the start of the school year to confirm who will be back and who may be taking a year off given the remote learning offering as opposed to in-person classes. Despite losing three players from last year’s team that advanced to the playoffs, the Thunderwolves return five of their top eight scorers, led by a guard who made a massive jump in 2019-20.
Guard Sofia Lluch (Mahon, Spain) made one of the biggest jumps in the OUA last season in terms of sheer production. As a first-year guard back in 2018-19, Lluch averaged 5.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and she averaged a team-high 14.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game while shooting 43.4% from the field, 34.8% from three-point range, and 69.9% from the free throw line.
Talk about a glow-up.
Lluch came off the bench to start the season, but quickly played her way into the starting five. After coming off the bench in the first six games of the year, Lluch made her first start on November 15th against the Brock Badgers. She recorded 13 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, and was a mainstay in the starting lineup the rest of the way.
Down the stretch is when Lluch started to play her best basketball. She averaged 19.2 points per game over the final 12 games of the season, reaching double-digits in every game and topping the 20-point mark five times. Turnovers were an area of concern early on, but in the final 12 games, Lluch had an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1:1 in eight of the 12 outings.
With the departures of Ylagan, Gruber-Schulz, and McDonough, Lluch will look to continue her progression in Year Three and help guide the Thunderwolves back up the standings in the Central Division.
Fortunately for Lluch, she won’t have to do it alone. Guard Tiffany Reynolds (Toronto, Ont.) is back for another season, and will be looking to build off last year’s career-best season. Despite only playing 12 regular season games, Reynolds averaged a career-high 8.2 points per game to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 33.3% from the floor.
Reynolds missed nine consecutive games in November, and another in February. The Thunderwolves were 6-6 with Reynolds in the lineup last season, compared to just 2-8 without her services. Having a full year of Reynolds will take some of the pressure off Lluch’s shoulders, and others.
Up front, forward Megan Looney (Buckeye, Ariz.) will be looking to build off a strong first season in the OUA. In her first regular season game as a member of the Thunderwolves, Looney went for 12 points and five rebounds against the defending National Champion McMaster Marauders.
In fact, Looney opened her Lakehead career with three double-digit in her first five games.
For the year, Looney averaged 8.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. With the loss of Gruber-Schulz in the front court, Looney will likely be tasked to be more of an impact player on the glass.
Fellow forward Kate McPhail (Stoney Creek, Ont.) could also be in line for an expanded role in the front court come the new season. In her first season in 2019-20, McPhail appeared in 20 games, making one start along the way. She averaged 5.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per contest, but should see those numbers increase with an increased role and allocation of minutes.
Guard Charlotte Clifford (Cambridge, Ont.) rounds out the core group of returnees. She posted 4.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season, all while shooting 54.2% from the field.
In addition to their five key returnees from last year’s team, the Thunderwolves have announced three incoming recruits thus far, all of whom will bring depth and talent to the back court rotation.
Coach Kreiner and the Thunderwolves have added guards Mae Drost (Kitchener, Ont.), Rhianna-Mae Laing (Bradford, England), and Ally Burke (Timmins, Ont.) to the mix for the 2020-21 season, and hopefully beyond.
Drost comes to Lakehead from Woodland Christian High School, a Christian-based education high school located in Breslau, Ontario. She was part of the team that won OFSAA ‘A’ medals in each of the past two seasons, and was named the MVP Female Athlete of the Year.
This past season, Drost helped guide her high school team to a 30-1 record, en route to winning an OFSAA Silver Medal.
“Mae is a versatile player who is an exciting player to watch in transition,” said Kreiner in a release posted by the Thunderwolves, announcing Drost’s commitment. “Her teammates will love the fact that she is always looking for the right pass at the right time and her development as a basketball player is only in its early stage.”
Rhianna-Mae Laing brings with her a wealth of basketball experience from a career that has seen her make several stops and overcome some challenges along the way. Laing began her career with the Cowley College Tigers, where she spent two seasons from 2015-2017. Then, she was recruited to the Florida Atlantic Owls, but obstacles back home resulted in a red-shirt year in 2017-18, and Laing returned home shortly thereafter.
Most recently, Laing returned to the court with the Durham Palatinates of the WBBL, where she averaged 8.7 points and 3.8 assists per game during the 2018-19 season.
Rounding out the group of newcomers is guard Ally Burke. The Timmins, Ontario native comes to the Thunderwolves by way of O’Gorman High, a program that has won four OFSAA medals in the last four years, including two Gold medals. Burke was named Senior Girls MVP last season, adding to her long list of awards and accomplishments to this point in her career.
“Our program is getting a proven winner,” said Kreiner on the addition of Burke. “Ally has competed and excelled at all levels and does this with a TEAM FIRST attitude.”
“Her work-ethic, toughness and skill at the point guard position is at an elite level.”
Kreiner and his staff are excited about their new additions, and they all come with their own laundry list of accomplishments and achievements in their respective careers thus far. They add a veteran player in Laing, and they’ve added two players in Drost and Burke that will look to be focal points of the roster for years to come.
On the heels of a strong Winter Semester in 2019-20, the Thunderwolves have reason for optimism heading into the new season. Losing three players from their roster, two of which were regulars in the starting five, will put some new faces into different roles than the year prior.
Sofia Lluch will look to continue her progression in Year Three as the focal point of the offense, and Coach Kreiner and his staff have added three recruits that will look to make the transition a smooth one. Getting a full year of Tiffany Reynolds will benefit the program moving forward.
Look for Lakehead to contend for a playoff spot yet again in 2020-21, one that they hope will not only yield a different result than this past year, but put them in a position to make a run down the stretch.
Be sure to bookmark our 2020-21 Season Previews page to keep up with the previews as they are released online.
– T. Bennett