St. Mary’s Univ. Lightning Have Sights Set on ACAC Championship in 2020-21

Osterling, Danya
Danya Osterling (#13) and the St. Mary’s Lightning were the country’s hottest team in the second half of the 2019-20 season, but came up just short of the ACAC Championship game. With all but one player back for another season, plus a loaded recruiting class coming in, the Lightning have their sights set on the ACAC Championship. (Source: St. Mary’s Lightning) (Header: St. Mary’s Lightning)

CALGARY, Alta. — 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 St. Mary’s University Lightning Women’s Basketball program.

2019-20 in Review

Year after year, no matter what is thrown in front of them, Head Coach Steve Shoults and the St. Mary’s University Lightning find another level in the second half of the season. The closer the ACAC Championship gets, the better the Lightning seem to play, and they’re always a threat to come away with the league title.

Just two years ago, during the 2017-18 season, the Lightning found their way into the post-season as the 4th seed in the South Division. From there, upset wins over the Keyano College Huskies, the top-seed from the North Division, and the Lakeland Rustlers (North #3) propelled the Lightning into the ACAC Championship game

In an all-South Division battle, the Lightning completed their run to Nationals with a 77-66 win over the Medicine Hat Rattlers.

Both teams advanced to the 2018 CCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship that season, hosted by the Mount Allison Mounties in Sackville, New Brunswick. The Lightning would finish 7th in the event, while the Rattlers would finish 8th.

STMU WBB 2017-18
As the 4th seed in the South Division, the Lightning came away with Gold at the 2018 ACAC Championship, hosted by the SAIT Trojans. (Source: St. Mary’s University)

Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and the Lightning were hitting their stride at the right time yet again down the stretch. After opening the year with three straight wins, the Lightning lost five of their next six to seemingly lose all of their forward momentum.

They ended their drought with a 79-74 win over the Lethbridge College Kodiaks on November 23rd. That was the start of a second half run for the Lightning, as they wouldn’t lose another game in the regular season.

Starting with their win over the Kodiaks, the Lightning rattled off 12 straight wins to close the regular season. Counting their two exhibition games over the Christmas Break in the North-South Challenge, their winning streak reached 14 games.

St. Mary’s closed the regular season with a 16-5 record, which put them 2nd in the South Division standings. They shot up the CCAA Top 15 rankings during their run, closing the regular season as the #3 team in the country.

After a 76-36 win over the NAIT Ooks in the quarterfinals, the Lightning squared off with Keyano College with a spot in the Gold Medal Game on the line. With the ACAC also holding a Wild Card spot at the 2020 CCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship, the winner also secured themselves a trip to Nanaimo, British Columbia.

It was a tightly-contested game down to the final buzzer. The Lightning held a 67-66 with under a minute left, but a three pointer from Tyshaine Page with just 58 seconds left on the clock gave the Huskies a 69-67 lead. St. Mary’s wasn’t able to regain the lead in the closing seconds, and Keyano College was off to the ACAC Championship Game with a two-point win.

The Lightning bounced back in the Bronze Medal game, picking up a 71-57 win over the Olds College Broncos, the defending National Champions.

What makes the run for the Lightning that much more impressive down the stretch was the fact that they had just eight players on their active roster. In the Bronze Medal game against the Broncos, they played just seven due to an injury sustained against Keyano College.

The short roster forced Shoults and his staff to be ready for anything, and it forced everyone to be on top of their game.

“One of the takeaways from last season for the coaching staff was learning to be more aware of where the athletes are mentally and physically,” said Shoults. “Having a short roster forced us to have in-depth game plans, which made each of us better coaches.”

“In the end, we were all happy with our season although a return to the championship game would have been nice.”

Looking ahead to the 2020-21 season, the Lightning will have a familiar look to them when compared to last year. With a slew of familiar faces back for another run at the title, plus a recruiting class headlines by ACAC and ACAA transfers, St. Mary’s is ready to make another run at a league title.

Who’s Gone?

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 Lightning is about the best we can do at this point.

But, the list of departing players for St. Mary’s isn’t a long one, by any means.

The only player to graduate from the Lightning program after last season was fifth-year guard Juhee Anderson (Mountainview, Alta.). Anderson came to St. Mary’s by way of transfer from Lethbridge College, and she had an immediate impact with the program in the 2019-20 season.

Anderson was named an ACAC South Division Second Team All-Star after averaging 15.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game while shooting 37.4% from the field, 27.5% from three-point range, and 70.2% from the free throw line.

With the exception of the regular season opener against the SAIT Trojans, a game in which she was selected as a Starter but was attributed zero minutes and no production, Anderson was as steady as they come on offense. Anderson recorded double-digit points in every game from then on out, posting two double-doubles along the way. In terms of ball distribution, Anderson dished out at least five assists on nine occasions, showcasing her ability to impact the game in more ways than one.

One player. That’s the list of players expected to be gone from St. Mary’s from last year’s team.

Shoults and his staff expect everyone else to return from last year’s 16-win team, a group that’s hungry to build off last year’s showing and get back to the ACAC Championship game.

Who’s Back?

Like most schools and programs all across Canada, St. Mary’s University 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.

However, with the exception of Anderson, Shoults expects to have everyone else back from last year’s roster, a group that includes the seven players who played down the stretch and a pair of redshirts, both of whom will look to have an impact right away for the Lightning.

Among the group of seven returnees who were key in last year’s run, three averaged more than 5.0 rebounds per contest. Four players averaged at least 8.1 points per game, while five averaged double-digit minutes per contest.

Leading the way in terms of returnees is ACAC South Division First Team All-Star Emily Wagner (Calgary, Alta.). The fourth-year guard from Bishop Grandin High School averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per contest last season, shooting 48.7% from the field and 34.9% from three-point range along the way.

Wagner, Emily (2)
Emily Wagner was among the league leaders in points per game in 2019-20 (21.9 ppg), and was one of three Lightning players named to the ACAC South Division All-Star teams. (Source: The Calgary Sun)

Wagner finished the year ranked 3rd in the ACAC in scoring. She recorded double-digit points on 20 occasions in the regular season, headlined by a 45-point performance on February 6th against Lethbridge College. In the Lightning’s 89-63 win, Wagner went for 45 points on 15-of-22 shooting from the floor, and 6-of-9 from three-point range.

In addition to her offensive numbers, she also ranked 5th in the league in terms of total steals (60).

Wagner did miss the ACAC Bronze Medal game due to a concussion she suffered in the semi-final loss to Keyano, but put together an otherwise outstanding season, one that resulted in her First Team All-Star selection.

Joining Wagner in the back court for another run at an ACAC Championship is Hannah Helton (Okotoks, Alta.). Helton joined Anderson as an ACAC South Division Second Team All-Star for her efforts last season. The former SAIT guard averaged 14.5 points per game on 37.9% shooting from the floor and 72.5% shooting from the free throw line.

Helton also chipped in 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per contest.

Down the stretch, when the roster thinned out and the Lightning had just eight players, Helton took her offensive game to another level. She closed the season by recording double-digit points in 13 of the final 15 games, playing a big part in the 12-game winning streak.

Up front, Chayle Clark (Okotoks, Alta.) will look to build off a strong 2019-20 season, one that saw her finish among the leaders in the ACAC in terms of rebounding statistics. Clark averaged 8.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest last season, while leading the ACAC in terms of field goal percentage (56.2%).

Clark ranked 7th in the league in rebounds per game (9.7), 3rd in total offensive rebounds (88), and 6th in total rebounds (203). She had 13 games with at least 10 rebounds to her name last season, showing that she’s one of the premier rebounders in the conference. Clark’s presence on the glass helps create second-chance opportunities for the Lightning, giving their guards more opportunities to do what they do best.

Madi Gladstone (Salt Lake City, Utah) rounds out the group of regulars in the starting five. Last season, Gladstone averaged 8.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per contest on 35.4% shooting from the floor and 24.5% from three-point range.

The starting five of Anderson-Wagner-Helton-Gladstone-Clark was arguably the top starting unit in the ACAC. They played the lion’s share of the minutes for the Lightning last season, and propelled the team along their 12-game regular season winning streak. After that group, there was a drop-off in production given the lack of depth on the roster.

Danya Osterling (Calgary, Alta.) was the top option off the bench last season, averaging 4.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per contest on 37.8% shooting from the field over 21 regular season appearances, making two starts along the way. Alba Vera Ponte (Vilassar de Mar, Barcelona) and Maya Sinclair (Calgary, Alta.) are both expected back from last year’s team.

St. Mary’s will also welcome guards Jaiden Hansen (Okotoks, Alta.) and Maitlynn Miller (Lethbridge, Alta.) to the mix after both redshirting last season. Hansen came to the Lightning after transferring from the Trojans, and will look to provide another offensive weapon, especially from beyond the arc, with her shooting ability.

Miller, who came to St. Mary’s University from the Mount Royal Cougars, was part of the Lightning practice team last season, and opened the eyes of the coaching staff over the course of last season.

With nine players who were around the program all of last season back in 2020-21, there’s reason to be excited about the Lightning. When you factor in their recruiting class and the level of talent among that group, St. Mary’s may very well be the team to beat in the ACAC this time around.

Incoming Talent

Roster depth was an area of concern down the stretch for the Lightning, and it’s safe to say they’ve addressed that with their incoming recruits.

In addition to returning (virtually) everyone from last year’s team, Shoults and his staff have added five players in their 2020-21 recruiting class. Three of their additions come by way of transfer, two of which played in the ACAC, and two will be true first-year student-athletes in 2020-21.

“The thing that excites me about this recruiting class is we are adding experience and athletes that fit the culture we have worked hard to create at St. Mary’s,” added Shoults. “They all have an amazing work ethic and each bring a particular skill set to the team, so I am excited to see what they do with this desire.”

Hetrick, Caitlyn
The addition of former Ambrose forward Caitlyn Hetrick will help to bolster the front court rotation for the Lightning in 2020-21. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

Arguably the biggest addition for the Lightning in 2020-21 is forward Caitlyn Hetrick (Phoenix, Arizona). Previously, Hetrick played for the Ambrose Lions, most recently in 2018-19, where she averaged 14.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game on 43.9% shooting from the field.

The addition of Hetrick to the front court adds another body to the rotation, but with her offensive game, it gives Shoults and company the option to run more post sets that will then open things up for their guards on the back end.

Sticking with Ambrose, the Lightning have also added guard Avery Deighton (Calgary, Alta.) as a transfer from the Lions. Last season, her first in the ACAC, Deighton was in the conversation for Rookie of the Year after averaging 9.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game while appearing in all 21 regular season games.

Rounding out the group of three post-secondary transfers is guard Mackenzie Lachance, who comes to St. Mary’s from the Mount Saint Vincent University Mystics in the ACAA.

The Lightning have added a pair of high school student-athletes to the roster, as well. Forward Chloe Hunter comes to St. Mary’s University from Foothills Composite High School, while guard Chloe Bessette (Calgary, Alta.) comes to the Lightning from Bishop Carroll High School.

Shoults and company may not be done with their recruiting class as of yet, as there could still be some big additions on the way before the school year officially gets started.

“We have always been a team strong at transition and last season may have been one of our best,” concluded Shoults. “We are loaded with top athletes and we will be pushing this same philosophy.”

“Our season will be based on defensive pressure and transition. With the athletes on this team, I think this group will be extremely exciting to watch.”

Every year, the Lightning find a way to work themselves into the ACAC Championship conversation by year’s end. This year, however, they may lead the conversation from the outset. Equipped with a talented roster, headlined by seven returnees and complimented by five newcomers, St. Mary’s has a roster that will be among the CCAA’s best from the start.

After last year’s second-semester run, and ultimately coming up just short of the ACAC Championship, Shoults and company are hungry to finish what they started last season.

Be sure to bookmark our 2020-21 Season Previews page to keep up with the previews as they are released online.

– T. Bennett

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