What Does Western Have in Store for 2020-21 After 14-Win Improvement Last Season?

Graham, Laura
After sitting out the 2019-20 season, veteran guard Laura Graham will make her return to the Mustangs lineup in 2020-21 to cap off her career at Western. (Source: Lucy Villeneuve – Western Mustangs) (Header: Western Mustangs)

LONDON, 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 Western Mustangs Women’s Basketball program.

McKibbon, Nate (3)
In Year One at Western, Head Coach Nate McKibbon helped the Mustangs orchestrate a 14-win turnaround from the previous season, climbing to the top of the OUA standings in the process. (Source: Brandon VandeCaveye – Western Mustangs/ishootsports.com)

2019-20 in Review

In 2019-20, the Western Mustangs orchestrated one of the best turnarounds in recent memory from the year prior.

Nate McKibbon was named the new Head Coach of the Women’s Basketball Program at Western University back on July 9th, 2019, taking over a program that went just 5-19 in league play the previous season. After a stint with the Mount Royal Cougars in the Canada West, McKibbon made the move back to his home province and got right to work.

The Mustangs would end the 2019-20 regular season with a 19-3 record, a record that not only placed them atop the West Division, but was the best overall record in the OUA this past year.

Western made a 14-win improvement from the previous year, vaulting themselves up the OUA standings and the National Rankings, as a result.

​”It was an incredibly rewarding season,” said McKibbon. “We started the year by losing to Windsor by 26, which shook our collective confidence but I believe it also refocused us and set our team goal of being the most improved team by the end of the year.

“We ended up going 19-2 the rest of the regular season and even avenged that loss to Windsor by beating them on Senior’s Night with a great late comeback.  Even though the season didn’t end the way we had hoped, I couldn’t be prouder of a group of athletes and coaches.”

Out of the gates, Western dropped their opener to the Windsor Lancers on the road, 94-68. Despite leading for the first five minutes of the contest, the Mustangs weren’t able to keep up with the Lancers as they padded their lead with each passing quarter.

After that loss, it would be a while before the Mustangs would fall again. They went on a 12-game winning streak following their season-opening loss, winning 11 of those games by double-digit margins. They would then close the regular season on a mini three-game winning streak, capped off with some redemption against Windsor.

On a night where the Mustangs honoured their three graduating seniors, they wanted to get some retribution for their lopsided defeat back on Opening Night. Inside Alumni Hall, the Mustangs needed to dig deep in the fourth quarter to get the job done. Trailing by 12 points with 10 minutes to go, Western used a 28-9 comeback in the final quarter to come away with the 71-64 win over the Lancers.

From there, the Mustangs turned their attention to the OUA Critelli Cup Playoffs. As the top seed in the post-season, the Mustangs had a First Round Bye, and would host any games they took part in the rest of the way.

The OUA Quarterfinals saw the Mustangs take on the defending National Champions, the McMaster Marauders. Throw regular season results and home court advantage out the window, because anything can happen in playoff basketball.

For Western, they had to sweat out their Quarter-final contest right down to the final buzzer. With a 64-62 lead and under a minute left on the clock, Sarah Gates stepped to the line for the Marauders with two free throws to tie the game. Gates made the first one, but the second didn’t fall, preserving the lead for the Mustangs. McMaster had the last shot, but the Marauders weren’t able to complete the comeback,, allowing Western to escape with the 64-63 win.

The Semifinals brought the Brock Badgers to town with a spot in the OUA Championship Game and Nationals on the line. For the second game in a row, the Mustangs had to sweat things down to the final buzzer, only this time they were the team playing from behind.

Despite leading by 12 at halftime, 40-28, the Mustangs had to play catch-up in the closing minutes. A layup from Sam Keltos with 3:08 to play in the fourth quarter put the Badgers ahead for good, and the Mustangs weren’t able to regain the lead despite their best efforts.

Western’s season came to a close with a 69-65 loss to the Badgers, who would eventually go onto the U Sports National Championship Game and bring home the Silver Medal.

“It was a special year.” continued McKibbon. “We were fortunate to have some exceptional athletes get healthy to finish off their careers, have a couple of late recruits boost our overall talent level and had a group in general that were receptive and trusting of our message.”

“Even though the season didn’t end the way we had hoped I couldn’t be prouder of a group of athletes and coaches.”

Despite falling short in the OUA Playoffs, the Mustangs finished atop the OUA Regular Season standings with a 19-3 record, and closed the year ranked 5th nationally in the U Sports Top 10 Rankings. After a down year the season prior, McKibbon and company turned a lot of heads and showed the rest of the league that they’re here to stay.

Looking ahead to the future, the Mustangs will be without three key contributors from last year’s team. However, a recruiting class that’s headlined by two OUA transfers and a returning guard will look to compliment the contingent of returnees the Mustangs bring back and look to stay atop the league standings once more in 2020-21.

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

What we do know is that the Mustangs will be without three key contributors to the program, both on and off the floor. Western honoured the careers of Maddy Horst (Baden, Ont.), Julia Curran (Waterloo, Ont.), and Elizabeth Leblanc (London, Ont.) against the Lancers on Senior’s Night to close the regular season.

“It would be near impossible to replace a group like the one we just graduated,” said McKibbon. “They were outstanding basketball players, leaders, students and people.”

Over her five-year career as a member of the Mustangs, Horst was as consistent as they came on offense. She averaged double-digit points in each of her five seasons with Western, recording a total of 1,221 points for her career over 98 regular season appearances, 85 of which were starts.

Horst, Maddy (2)
Maddy Horst recorded over 1,200 points in her five-year career with the Western Mustangs. (Source: Western Gazette)

In 2019-20, Horst averaged a career-best 16.4 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting a career-best 41.8% from the field. After playing just 13 games the season prior, a fully-healthy Horst in the back court gave the Mustangs a spark each night out. She closed the regular season with double-digit points in 14 straight games, and had 20 such performances over the course of the year.

For her career, Host averaged 12.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per contest.

Up front, the loss of Leblanc comes with its own silver lining. The hometown forward will be transitioning roles with the program, moving from player to Assistant Coach under the tutelage of McKibbon.

[Check out The Happiness of Elizabeth Leblanc, by Michael Sun]

For the year, Leblanc averaged 11.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 33.6% from the floor and 85.3% from the free throw line. After an illustrious career with the Carleton Ravens, Leblanc returned to the court this season after McKibbon took the job and asked if she’d be interested in joining the team as she went through Teacher’s College.

Leblanc recorded double-digit points in 14 games, including three straight games to close the regular season. She added three double-doubles on the year, including a 17-point, 13-rebound outing against the Waterloo Warriors in just her second regular season game with the Mustangs.

Rounding out the group of departures is Curran, another player who played all five years with the Mustangs and is part of the 1,000-point club. With nine points against the York Lions in the second-to-last regular season game of the year, Curran passed the 1,000-point mark for her career.

She would finish with 1,014 career points.

As a fifth-year senior in 2019-20, Curran averaged 11.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 40.4% from the field. She recorded at least five rebounds in 17 of her 22 regular season appearances, including a 12-rebound performance against York on the same night she topped the 1,000-point mark.

Like Horst, Curran missed a significant chunk of the 2018-19 season, appearing in just seven games. For both, having them healthy and regularly in the lineup over the course of 2019-20 was key to the Mustangs’ success.

Who’s Back?

Like most schools and programs all across Canada, Western 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.

While losing three of their top four scorers from the year prior will pose some challenges, McKibbon and the Mustangs will lean on their group of returnees to help lead the way in 2020-21.

Leading the way in terms of returnees is hometown forward Rachel Fradgley (London, Ont.). The 6’1″ post had herself a strong debut season with the Mustangs last season after returning to her hometown, averaging 12.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game while shooting 44.8% from the field over 17 regular season games, all of which were starts.

[Click here to read: Rachel Fradgley’s Self Discovery, by Michael Sun]

Fradgley led the league in rebounds last season with her 10.2 per game average. She recorded five double-doubles over the course of the season, and had at least seven rebounds in 15 of her 17 appearances. With the losses of Curran and Leblanc up front, the Mustangs will likely lean on Fradgley more frequently inside on both ends of the floor.

Fradgley, Rachel
In her first season with the Mustangs, post Rachel Fradgley led the OUA in rebounding during the 2019-20 season. (Source: Western Mustangs)

With the losses in the front court, fellow post Morgan Tamminga (Strathroy, Ont.) should take on an expanded role in Year Two. Last season as a first-year player, Tamminga averaged 2.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest while appearing in 21 regular season games, three of which were starts when Fradgley was out of the lineup.

Like Tamminga in the front court rotation, guard Emma Johnson (Saskatoon, Sask.) will look to take on an expanded role in the back court rotation. Entering her fourth year of eligibility, Johnson is coming off a 2019-20 season in which she averaged 8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 40.4% from the field and 34.1% from three-point range.

Despite starting the season off slow on offense, Johnson started to find her rhythm around the Christmas Break. From November 23rd through to January 11th, a span of five games, Johnson recorded double-digit points in all five contests (13.0 ppg).

Other returnees such as guard Ariane Saumure (Sudbury, Ont.), center Brett Fischer (Wallaceburg, Ont.), and wing Katie Bastedo (Regina, Sask.) will look to continue their development and take on more responsibilities on both ends of the floor as veterans with the program.

Saumure posted 5.2 points and 2.4 rebounds per game last season on 33.8% shooting from the field. She had back-to-back double-digit point performances against the Nipissing Lakers and Laurentian Voyageurs on the weekend of November 8-9, highlighted by a season-high 16 points against the Lakers to close the weekend.

Up front, Bastedo saw the floor in just nine games last season, averaging 2.7 points per game on 38.9% shooting. Over 20 games, Fischer averaged 4.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest. Both front court players will look to add more depth and production to a front court rotation that loses two of its top producers from last year.

“As far as returning players the biggest thing that stands out to me is our collective dedication to preparations,” said McKibbon. “This year with our culture more established our team has really dedicated themselves to working out and getting into shape.”

“We are going to use the fall to push their basketball skills but they are all about to return to campus in great shape!”

Again, losing three of their top four scorers from last year’s 19-win team will undoubtedly pose some challenges as the Mustangs sort out their rotation and who will step into new roles this season. With that said, they may not have to look far to find those players who are ready to step into expanded roles in 2020-21.

Then, when you factor in the Mustangs’ recruiting class, the solutions may be rather easy to figure out.

Incoming Talent

On the heels of a successful 2019-20 season, the Mustangs are gearing up for another run at both an OUA Championship and a run at the National Championship. After losing three of their top four scorers from last year’s team, the Mustangs have added a total of eight names to their 2020-21 recruiting class.

The recruiting class features a pair of OUA transfers, five first-year players from the high school level across Canada, and a returning veteran guard who will close out her Western career after sitting out the 2019-20 season.

Morris, Jess
Jess Morris (#7) will close her collegiate career as part of the Western Mustangs in 2020-21, joining an already-talented recruiting class for Head Coach Nate McKibbon. (Source: Brock Badgers)

In terms of transfers, the Mustangs have added former Brock wing Jess Morris (Guelph, Ont.) for her fifth and final year of eligibility. Last season with the Badgers, Morris averaged 11.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game while shooting 43.4% from the field and 39.8% from three-point range. In the Critelli Cup Playoffs, Morris upped her offensive production, averaging 13.7 points per game over Brock’s three-game run to the OUA Championship, and ultimately a National Silver Medal.

Western has also added guard/forward Ashley Wheeler (Stratford, Ont.) to the mix. Formerly of the Guelph Gryphons, Wheeler averaged 7.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per contest over 22 regular season appearances in 2019-20. Back in 2016-17, Wheeler had a career year, averaging 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

Rounding out the group of veteran additions is the return of guard Laura Graham (Sudbury, Ont.) to the program. After sitting out the 2018-19 season to focus on academics, Graham makes her return to the Western lineup, injecting it with both talent and veteran experience. In 2018-19, Graham averaged 12.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game.

“Laura, Jess and Ashley add experience, toughness and a history of demonstrated performance,” said McKibbon. “All three have averaged over 10 points per game at some point in their career and know how to compete at this level.”

From the high school ranks, the Mustangs have added four players from Ontario and one from British Columbia to the mix going forward. Of the four from Ontario, two played for high school programs in London choosing to stay at home to begin their post-secondary careers.

Guard Avarie Thomas (London, Ont.) comes to the Mustangs from A.B. Lucas Secondary, while fellow guard Samantha Cowan (London, Ont.) heads to Western from Mother Teresa Secondary. Both Thomas and Cowan come from successful high school programs across London, and will look to continue their success at the U Sports level with the Mustangs.

Rounding out the group of incoming guards is Maddie Picton (Welland, Ont.), who comes to the program from Niagara Prep and A.N. Myers Secondary. Picton is one of three players from the Niagara Prep program to make the jump to U Sports programs this season.

On the wing, Western welcomes both Jordynn Bryan (Oakville, Ont.) and Sofia Bergman (Vancouver, B.C.) to the mix, adding depth and versatility to the lineup. Bergman comes to the Mustangs from Holy Trinity Secondary, while Bergman is a product of Seycove Secondary.

“We believe the group has a willingness to compete for minutes right away while being good teammates,” added McKibbon when talking about the five student-athletes who will enter their first year of post-secondary. “They have all the intangibles to be excellent Mustangs right from the start: dedicated students, take care of their responsibilities, empathetic teammates and naturally competitive.”

“They all fit our culture and bring an energy and willingness to compete from day one.”

With the 2020-21 season still up in the air, the Mustangs have made sure to keep the focus on other aspects during the summer months, and not just basketball. However, the team is looking forward to getting back on the court as soon as they can.

“Our focus has been on physical and mental development,” concluded McKibbon. “We are fortunate to have a word class IST model here at Western, and being surrounded by incredibly skilled professionals has gone a long way to keeping our team focused and motivated to work while not surrounded by teammates.”

“We’ve purposely kept basketball training relatively light as everyone in our program is now extremely eager to get back at it in September and get after it.”

Western turned a lot of heads last season with their 14-win improvement from the year prior, and they will be out to prove that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. The Mustangs have added eight recruits to the mix, and return a group of veterans that will be looking to build upon last year’s finish and keep Western atop the OUA standings for years to come.

What will Western have in store as an encore in Year Two of the McKibbon era? Stay tuned to find out.

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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