The York Lions women’s and men’s basketball teams kick off their regular seasons this Friday, Oct. 26 when they host the Queen’s Gaels at the Tait McKenzie Centre. The women’s game starts at 6 p.m. and the men’s game will tip off at 8 p.m.
Fans attending the games will be in for a treat, as the name of the new Lions mascot will be revealed during halftime of the men’s game.
Nate Philippe begins his second season as head coach for the men’s team with a fresh set of expectations after the team struggled in his first year behind the bench. The Lions got off to a good start last season going 8-5 in their non-conference schedule and 2-1 in the first three games of the regular season, but fell into a long losing skid soon after that would last the rest of the regular season. With a tough first year now in the rear-view mirror, Philippe sees a productive first off-season as head coach as the first step in bringing back a winning culture to the team.
“I think we’ve had a really good off-season and we’ve been taking steps forward every day,” said Philippe on his expectations for the team this year. “Realistically, we definitely want to improve on last season, which was a tough year for us on and off the court that we don’t like to talk about too much. Our main goal this year is to continue to improve and compete for a playoff spot. Playing in the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) East is a challenge with it being the toughest division in Canada, but I’m excited to see how we match up and how good our team can be this season.”
Leading the way for the Lions’ returning players this season will be 2017-18 team MVP Gianmarco Luciani and former OUA all-rookie team member Gene Spagnuolo, who will be playing their final years in the York red and white. After sitting out two seasons, first in 2015-16 as a red shirt after transferring from the Acadia Axemen and then in 2016-17 with an injury, Luciani was one of the bright spots for the team last year, averaging a team-leading 10.7 points per game and finishing second on the team with 4.7 rebounds per game. Spagnuolo also returned last season after missing the 2016-17 season and averaged 7.5 points per game while finishing second on the team in assists.
The York Lions women’s basketball team, on the other hand, has been getting better and better each year since head coach Erin McAleenan took over the program in advance of the 2015-16 season.
The Lions struggled during McAleenan’s first year and were out of the OUA playoff picture. With her first recruiting class on the roster, the Lions improved by two wins in 2016-17 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14. Last season, the Lions took a big step forward in their development, finishing the regular season with an 11-12 record and proving they can compete with the best programs in the OUA. The team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row, but McAleenan hopes that focusing on the process of building a winning team this year will help them make a deeper playoff run.
“We have 12 players returning from last year’s team and we’re just trying to build off what we accomplished last year,” said McAleenan. “We’ve been to the playoffs two years in a row now but haven’t gotten out of the first round. This season we’re trying to focus on the process of how we’re training, competing and practising on a daily basis, and hopefully that will put us in a position to get farther then we did last year.”
While the Lions return 12 players from the breakthrough squad last season, they did lose a key piece in U SPORTS second-team all-Canadian Lindsay Shotbolt. The star forward was the Lions’ leading scorer and rebounder last season and her presence will be missed on the court and in the locker room. Stepping up to fill the leadership void both on and off the court for the Lions this year will be team captains Katrina Collins-Samuels and Haley Bowie.
“Katrina and Haley both learned a lot working with Lindsay last year,” said McAleenan on who she expects to lead the team this season. “Katrina was also captain last year and she learned a lot as a younger leader. We’ll lean on her heavily, both on and off the court, and the way she’s been playing and carrying herself throughout the pre-season has been great. She’s been that resilient player we need and has been our best defender.
“Haley’s a fifth-year guard and you can really see the increase in her confidence and poise on the floor. She’s been able to get us under control offensively and always plays tough defence. We’re in a good position with these two leading us, even after losing a player of Lindsay’s calibre.”
The season opening games will feature the Rock Your Red, Best Seats in the House and Fan of the Game contests, as well as great prizes from the Tait Pride Shop, the York University Bookstore and Pizza Pizza. During halftime of the men’s game, the highly anticipated name of the new York Lions mascot will be revealed. After receiving 800 entries, the names have been whittled down to the following three finalists, in no particular order:
- Regulus – meaning the brightest star in the constellation of Leo;
- Yeo (pronounced Yo!) – it was chosen as an homage to and a shortened version of our former team name, the York Yeomen/Yeowomen; and
- Roary – it’s spelled R-O-A-R-Y, like when a lion roars!
The winner of the naming contest will receive an amazing fitness-focused prize pack, courtesy of Kahunaverse, valued at $500. Our two runners-up will each receive a prize pack valued at $250.