By Charlie Pinkerton
About a month removed from the Carleton Ravens women’s basketball team’s first-ever national championship victory, the ladies’ championship tour of Ottawa has just about reached its end.
Yet, sitting in his office in Carleton Athletics, head coach Taffe Charles says he’s only now taking the time to think back on everything his team’s accomplished.
Winning the Bronze Baby isn’t the first time he’s celebrated becoming a national champion. Charles won the national title five times as an assistant of Carleton’s men’s team before taking over the women’s program in 2007.
But the experience of capturing national gold was lone to Charles before his team toppled the Saskatchewan Huskies 69-48 on March 11.
“This time around what I was most proud of was being able to bring that experience to others because I know when it was brought to me it was very special,” Charles says.
On the table in Charles’ office is a pile of OUA Champions hats. Beside them rests a greater prize, a decommissioned Wilson-brand U Sports basketball. The ball – scooped from the University of Regina gymnasium after a teary-eyed session of net-cutting – bears the signatures of every member of his team.
When asked about the journey of the girls whose names are scribbled on that ball, Charles points to the last Carleton women’s basketball team to finish their season at the national championship in the University of Regina (Carleton’s 2013 team) as where this rendition of the Ravens was started.
That team was led by All-Canadian Ottawa-natives Alyson Bush (2013) and Elizabeth Roach (2014), players Charles reflects on as having laid the groundwork for his team’s success in future years.
“They were such a big part of where we’re at now and the way we’ve established a culture of excellence. They’re the ones who paved the way,” Charles says.
In their bid for a championship, the 2013 Ravens were hit by bad luck in the form of norovirus. Bush, a member of Charles’ first-ever recruiting class in the women’s program, played ill and shot 30 per cent from the field in Carleton’s Final 8 game, which they lost to the Calgary Dinos.
“It was very heartbreaking for her because she got our team there,” Charles says. “She was an excellent player and it was ironic that we didn’t get it done and that she didn’t have her best day.”
Come this year’s U Sports Final 8, things would go differently between the Ravens and the Dinos.
“That crew and the growth of that team took the next crew to the next level,” Charles adds.
That year was Heather Lindsay’s last at Nepean High School. She was firm in believing that basketball would steer where she attended university. She says she had always dreamed of playing on the east coast, but a conversation with an old coach began to sway her otherwise.
“At the end of the day what do you want to get out of this,” Lindsay says she remembers being told. “You’ll be in Newfoundland where you can score 30 points per game, but when you walk out after the game there will be no one there. You’ll have your friends from school, but your family and your lifelong friends and your neighbours – they’re not going to be there.”
“That’s when I thought about it: What am I trying to get out of this?” Lindsay says.
Another deciding moment came when she was on an east coast recruiting trip. Looking over the Atlantic Ocean she remembers the coach she was visiting telling her that she was actually closer to Europe than she was to home.
The coach wasn’t only misaligned in his knowledge of geography, but he also spooked Lindsay.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God I want to go home!’” Lindsay says.
After that, she says, she figured she would give Carleton a shot.
Before Lindsay played for Charles at Carleton, the two had an underlying relationship; it was Lindsay’s father who Charles remembers being the first person to give him a job when he graduated from Carleton himself.
Lindsay recalls first playing for Charles in Grade 8 as part of the now-defunct Ottawa Guardsmen.
“One of the main reasons I ran the team was because I wanted to build a relationship with her,” says Charles with a laugh.
“I really liked his coaching style,” Lindsay says. The two found common ground in Charles’ approach of players’ practising within position groups, something the pair agreed helped foster Lindsay’s development and lead her to becoming an eventual U Sports All-Canadian (2017).
After her disastrous east coast recruiting trip it took one only lunch with Charles before Lindsay decided she was in.
“He calls me the cheapest recruit he’s ever gotten,” she says.
The other member of Carleton’s 2013-14 rookie class who would go on to tough-out five years with the team was Lindsay’s longest serving teammate, Stittsville-native Steph Carr.
Carr attended Sacred Heart High School. She and Lindsay had been teammates in Ottawa since Grade 8 in the JUEL Ontario development league. That’s where Charles says he first took notice of Carr.
Unlike Lindsay, Carr says her university choice was directed by academics well head of basketball. Carleton had just launched its biomedical engineering program, putting the school on Carr’s shortlist. After that, she says her decision came down to the coaching staff of each school’s basketball team.
Charles says he was nervous about Carr studying engineering, since he’s had engineering students play for him before, but none that stuck it out a full five years.
“She was a good enough athlete, a really competitive kid and seemed determined to do it,” Charles says. “It takes a special kind of person to actually be able to do that.”
Carr says she spoke to some family friends on the team, including Bush, who encouraged her to go with Charles and the Ravens.
“They told me he was really good at improving players, and I wasn’t an A-Class recruit, and I was definitely looking to improve as quickly as I could, so that’s one of the reasons I picked Carleton,” she says.
With Bush among the team’s graduating class of the year before, first-year roommates Lindsay and Carr played significant minutes for a Roach-led Ravens team that finished with a 16-6 regular season record in what Charles called a rebuilding year. Their second year (2014-15), the Ravens fell short of .500 with a record of 9-10.
The next year the Ravens rebounded with a 14-5 record, before being halted by a streaking Windsor Lancers team in the OUA quarterfinals, ending Carleton’s season.
With several players key players leaving the team after that season, the Ravens got some help from their cross-town rivals, the Ottawa Gee-Gees.
The Gee-Gees finished the 2015-16 season with a 17-2 record, best in the OUA. They won the silver medal in the conference before falling to the Saskatchewan Huskies, the eventual CIS champs, in the first round of the U Sports Final 8.
That spring, Catherine Traer of Chelsea, Que., the team’s leading scorer, graduated from the University of Ottawa.
Traer says never imagined she would play for the Ravens.
“It never really crossed my mind. I didn’t know Taffe that well, so I never really thought about it (in high school),” she says.
Traer’s a Gee-Gee by blood. Her father, Rick Traer, played and coached for uOttawa. Her younger brother, Zach Traer, took up the garnet and grey just a year after her.
Charles says he hadn’t recruited her in high school because of any lack of talent, but that he knew if she stayed in Ottawa she’d go to her legacy school.
Traer was pursuing a master’s degree in political science and ended up accepting an offer from Carleton because its conditions trumped that of her alma mater. She says at that time she was still undecided as to whether or not she would continue playing basketball.
Charles excitedly recalls finding out that Traer had two years of athletic eligibility left rather than one, because of a year she spent sidelined with injuries while at uOttawa.
“It’s not that one-year transfers don’t work very well, I would have taken her if she had one year left, but that she had an extra year was even better because it takes a little while to understand what we do as a group and to get to know the kids,” he says.
Charles was given approval by Andy Sparks, head coach of the Gee-Gees women’s basketball team, to meet with Traer to discuss her playing for the Ravens.
The two got together early that spring while she was still a student at uOttawa. They met in neutral territory: Bridgehead in the Glebe.
“I had a really, really good chat with Taffe. He was very convincing, and he knew where the program could go,” Traer says.
Charles says he parted ways with Traer with a good belief that she would be joining the team. He jokes that he may have employed Thomas Scrubb, Traer’s boyfriend and former Carleton Ravens men’s basketball star, to help lead her in that direction.
“I told him that I need him to seal the deal for me,” Charles says with a smile.
She committed to Carleton’s team within two weeks.
“It’s a tough switch to make – uOttawa to Carleton. She’s the only girl I know who’s made that switch,” Charles says.
“It was a really hard decision to make but I put all the pieces together and it just made sense. The switch was easy, the scholarship offer was great and with basketball I just knew I could get to where I wanted to and that as a team we could get to where we wanted to at Carleton,” Traer adds.
Charles’ local core of Traer, Lindsay, and Carr, teamed with veteran out-of-towners Becky Leblanc, Nicole Gilmore and transfer Jenjen Abella propelled Carleton to an 18-1 regular season record and the team’s first OUA championship in 2016-17.
“That was the first thing I had ever won. That was the best feeling I’ve ever had at that time,” Carr says.
Their season was halted in the semifinals of the national championship. The Ravens lost to the McGill Martlets 66-60 to bounce them to the bronze medal game, in which they defeated the Queen’s Gaels 53-43.
“We accomplished so much – winning a provincial title and only losing that one game, those were awesome accomplishments, but it didn’t even seem worth it at the end when we got the bronze,” Lindsay says.
“But there was a glimmer of hope because we all knew we had another year,” Carr says.
Carleton graduated no players last year, and were spurred by that semifinal heartbreak in their mulligan season.
“We kept it in the back of our mind all year,” Traer says.
Though the 2017-18 Ravens were nearly identical to the season prior, the team’s local fifth-years agreed something was different about the Ravens this time around.
“The connection that we had this year was so, so strong,” Traer added.
Carleton won all 23 of their regular season games on their way to their second consecutive Critelli Cup. It capped 47 straight victories in OUA regular and post-season play.
Retracing the shortcomings of Carleton’s past, the Ravens defeated the Calgary Dinos 52-42 in the U Sports Final 8, setting up a rematch with McGill in the semifinals.
The Ravens trailed by as much as 15 in that game, and never led until their final basket.
A play designed for Lindsay broke down, leading to a now-infamous heave from the former Gee-Gee at the top of the key.
“Taffe said at the athletic banquet that he’s seen that shot 100 times in practice and that it’s never gone in,” Traer says with a laugh.
That took them to the national championship against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, where they secured a more savoury 69-48 victory to complete their perfect season.
Carr held the ball for the game’s final seconds. At the buzzer, she says tears poured from her eyes. Lindsay and Traer joined her and the rest of the Ravens in a celebration of screaming before cameras captured their first audible words – a collective, “TEAM!”
“Once you get to this point you don’t want to ever go back,” Charles says. “You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what you’re missing, but when you do know, you don’t want to go back.”
At the time of publication, Traer is overseas playing for Canada’s national team at the Commonwealth Games, Lindsay is mulling a basketball career overseas, and Carr says though she would do anything to continue playing more basketball, “It just doesn’t look like it’s in the cards.”
To describe the feeling of going out on top, that’s best left up to the ladies:
“It was the best feeling, for sure. A lot of tears were shed over a sense of relief and a perfect way to end my U Sports career,” Traer added.
“If I finished my basketball career without having won I think I would have been a total mess, but because we won the happy and the sad balance out, so I can be content. I think that really helps. Otherwise it would have been the worst day of my life. But now it was the best day,” Carr says.
“I’m never going to play another university basketball game, but it doesn’t matter. We were the best and it wasn’t even close,” Lindsay says.