Lions Look to Continue Building as Nystrom Takes Charge of Women’s Program

Hoopstrength Basketball
Neil Nystrom was named the Head Coach of the Women’s Basketball team at Ambrose University back on April 27th, 2020, meaning he’ll pull double-duty this season as he remains the Head Coach of the Men’s Program. (Source: Hoop Strength Basketball) (Header: Ambrose Lions)

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 Ambrose Lions Women’s Basketball program.

Ambrose WBB (2)
The Ambrose Lions have been knocked down in the last few years, but Coach Nystrom will be looking to build off last year’s positives to help guide the team up the ACAC South Division standings. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

2019-20 in Review

If the Lions had only played the Briercrest College Clippers in the 2019-20 season, things may have been considerably different at year’s end.

For whatever reason, the Lions had the Clippers’ number all season long. They ended the season with a 3-0 record against Briercrest College, thanks in part to being awarded a 2-0 forfeit win from the season opener due to an administrative error on the part of the Clippers.

Ambrose picked up back-to-back wins over the Clippers in February to complete the three-game season sweep.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they still had to play the other six teams in their league. Those results didn’t go their way, as they went 0-18 against the rest of the ACAC South Division. Ambrose finished the year at the bottom of the division standings with a 3-18 record, marking the fourth-straight season that they have finished in either 7th or 8th in the South Division standings.

Still, the victories over the Clippers should carry some weight with them, as they came over a program that was ranked as high as 5th in the CCAA rankings.

On February 7th, the Lions led by 11 points after three quarters and came away with the 79-71 win on the road. The next day, Ambrose found themselves down five at the half, but a 28-16 third quarter helped the Lions erase the deficit. Ambrose would come away with the 90-79 win, completing the weekend sweep on the road.

After the season came and went, the Lions made a change at the Head Coaching position. On April 27th, it was announced that Neil Nystrom would take over the program, in addition to remaining as the Head Coach of the Men’s Basketball program.

Having focused on the Men’s Program for the last seven years, Nystrom said the transition has been a bit of an adjustment. Still, he saw forward progression last season that he hopes to build on in 2020-21.

“The team really progressed under Coach Gerard last year, and we want to continue that momentum and push to be a consistently tough team to play against,” said Nystrom. “We are working hard to create a positive environment where we hold each other accountable both on and off the court.”

For Nystrom and the Lions, it’s an uphill climb to get back into contention in the tough ACAC South Division. With a combined 11 victories on their resume over the last four years, six of which have come against Briercrest College, they will have their work cut out for them.

Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Lions will lose their share of talent, but will also welcome back some intriguing pieces that will look to help the Lions take the first step in climbing up the standings once more.

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

What we can confirm is that the Lions will be without at least five names from last season, two of which have transferred to programs across Western Canada.

Ambrose will enter the new season without the services of Kristina Bajovic (Belgrade, Serbia), who led the program in scoring last season. Over her 17 regular season appearances, the Olds College Broncos transfer averaged 14.8 points per game on 37.3% shooting from the field and 77.8% from the free throw line.

Bajovic also chipped in with 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest.

While she didn’t play in the final four games of the regular season, Bajovic showed consistency on the offensive end of the floor when she was in the lineup. She reached double-figures on 12 of 17 occasions, headlined by a 30-point (14-of-30 FG) showing against Briercrest College back on February 8th. Bajovic added 10 rebounds in the win for her lone double-double of the year.

In addition to Bajovic, the Lions lose the services of both guards Dora Tasovic (Kragujevac, Serbia) and Kyla Deighton (Calgary, Alta.).

Deighton, Kyla
Both Kyla (above) and Avery Deighton will not be back with the Ambrose Lions in 2020-21. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

Tasovic ended her Ambrose career averaging 7.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, and a team-high 4.5 assists per game while shooting 31.1% shooting from the field. Tasovic also finished the season tied for 5th in the ACAC in terms of assists per game.

Deighton averaged 3.2 points, 1.0 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game last season while appearing in all 21 regular season games as a third-year guard.

On the transfer market, the Lions lose one guard to an ACAC South Division foe, while another makes the jump to U Sports and joins a Canada West program that will be looking for a bounce-back season. Avery Deighton (Calgary, Alta.) has committed to Head Coach Steve Shoults and the St. Mary’s Univ. Lightning, while Tegan McArthur (Calgary, Alta.) has joined Head Coach Cheryl Jean-Paul and the Trinity Western Spartans in the Canada West.

As a first-year student-athlete in 2019-20, Deighton finished third on the team in scoring, averaging 9.3 points per game on 31.1% shooting from the field. She wasted little time before making an impact, racking up 12 points and four rebounds in the opener against Briercrest College, which was played before the Lions were awarded the forfeit win. Deighton went for double-digit points on 10 occasions, topping the 20-point mark twice over the course of the season.

In addition to her scoring, Deighton chipped in 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, and was in the conversation for ACAC South Division Rookie of the Year at season’s end.

McArthur, Tegan
(Source: Trinity Western Spartans)

McArthur saw the floor in all 21 games last season, finishing fourth on the team in scoring with an average of 8.4 points per contest on 29.5% shooting from the floor. She also added 2.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. From January 31st through to February 28th, a span of seven games, McArthur reached double-digits five times, giving her eight such performances for the season.

Despite losing some key contributors, Nystrom is excited about the group that he has back in 2020-21.

“t will be difficult to fill those spots, but I really like the leadership group that is staying with the team this year,” continued Nystrom. “There is a lot of athleticism on our team, and a group that is buying into working hard as we prepare for the season.”

Replacing three of the top four scorers from last year’s team won’t be easy, but the Lions do return a group of intriguing players, headlined by a forward who missed the second half of last season and will be looking to make up for lost time.

Who’s Back?

Like most schools and programs all across Canada, Ambrose University is awaiting the start of the school year to officially 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 five key pieces from last year’s roster, Nystrom will return a group of players that includes the team’s second-leading scorer from a season ago, and others who will look to take on expanded roles with the Lions this season.

Leading the way is forward Munroe Brothers (Calgary, Alta.). While she was limited to just nine games this season, all of which came in the first semester, Brothers ranked second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.3 points to go along with 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

Even though she played in just nine games, Brothers was effective in the minutes she did play. She had at least seven points in eight of her nine appearances, reaching double-figures on four occasions. Brothers closed the first half of the season with three consecutive games in double-digits.

Her season was highlighted by a 21-point outing against the Medicine Hat Rattlers on October 28, a game in which she went 6-of-9 from the field.

Burnell, Sarah
Forward Sarah Burnell is one of the key returnees that Nystrom will lean on in 2020-21 as the Lions look to climb out of the ACAC South Division basement. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

In addition to Brothers, the Lions return a pair of players who ranked inside the top 25 in the ACAC in terms of rebounds per game. Forward Sarah Burnell (Calgary, Alta.) ranked 23rd in the ACAC, and second on the team, with an average of 6.5 rebounds per contest. Burnell added 7.7 points per game on 47.2% shooting from the floor on the offensive end of the floor.

Burnell had at least six rebounds on 16 different occasions over her 21 regular season appearances, picking up two double-doubles along the way.

Nyawieka (Nya) Gach (Calgary, Alta.) led the Lions with an average of 6.7 rebounds per game last season, finishing the year ranked 21st in the league. The former St. Mary’s guard chipped in 5.8 points and 2.1 assists per game, and will look to take on an expanded role on offense this season, especially with the losses in the back court.

Rounding out the group of key returnees from last season is guard Latisha Chiwele (Lac La Biche, Alta.). The former GPRC Wolves guard will also look to expand her role in 2020-21 after averaging 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest despite shooting just 21.8% from the field last season.

As he said above, Nystrom is excited about the returning group that he has, given their willingness to buy in to what the team is working towards and their athleticism. A full season of Brothers on both ends of the floor will help create some stability throughout the roster, but the Lions have a sizable recruiting class coming in that will look to contribute right away.

Incoming Talent

The pandemic has been tough on coaches from a recruiting standpoint, with social distancing regulations and most events either being cancelled or postponed. It’s even more challenging for new Head Coaches, like Nystrom, to get out and see players to add to the mix.

But, he’s been enjoying the challenge and is taking it all in stride.

“Recruitment is always a crucial part of coaching post-secondary, and starting in May has put us behind the 8 ball in this regard,” said Nystrom. “I have focused a lot on the men’s side over the last seven years, so I am enjoying the process of getting out and recruiting athletes that are a good fit for our program, even though it has been difficult during the pandemic.”

The Lions have added six names to the mix as part of their 2020-21 recruiting class, all of whom bring with them a different skill set that can help the Lions on both ends of the floor. Ambrose has added five guards and one forward to the mix, a group that includes a familiar face for the Lions.

Guard Rachel McIntyre (St. Albert, Alta.) returns to the Ambrose lineup after taking the 2019-20 season off. Back in 2018-19, McIntyre saw action in 13 regular season games, averaging 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game while shooting 34.0% from the field.

“Rachel brings some leadership to our team that we will need as she re-joins Ambrose after taking last season off,” continued Nystrom. “The other new recruits bring a great work ethic and lot of skill at both ends of the court, and there will be some great competition for playing time which will really enhance our practices.”

McIntyre, Rachel
After taking the 2019-20 season off, guard Rachel McIntyre will make her return to the Ambrose lineup in 2020-21, headlining their six-player recruiting class. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

In terms of first-year players, the Lions have added forward August Eagle Plume (Blood Reserve, Alta.) to the front court rotation. Eagle Plume comes to the Lions by way of Kainai High School, and will look to give the front court rotation some added depth on both ends of the floor.

Guards Ellen Tiessen (Calgary, Alta.; Centennial High School), Karen Marin (Calgary, Alta.; Western Canada High School), Brianna Thera (Edmonton, Alta.; Jasper Place High School), and Makenna Graham (Edmonton, Alta.; Archbishop MacDonald) will give Nystrom more options on the back end as the Lions look to replace the production lost with the departing group.

Despite a late start in terms of recruiting, Nystrom has assembled a class that gives the roster depth at various spots on the roster. With five players heading out from the program, there will be minutes up for grabs from the start of the year, and these six newcomers will look to earn their spot in the rotation early on.

Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Lions aren’t looking behind them at their struggles in recent years. With a new Head Coach leading the way, one that has helped guide the Men’s Program up the league standings in recent years, Ambrose is hoping that the Women’s Program will follow a similar trajectory.

Looking to build off the positives from last season, Nystrom has assembled a strong recruiting class that he believes can come in and compete right away. Headlined by a veteran guard who is familiar with the program and that brings leadership with her, the Lions are optimistic about the future of the program.

Throw the past results out the window, as they have no impact on what the future holds for the Lions in Year One under Nystrom. It may take some time, but good things come to those who wait.

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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