Gryphon basketball women set to take on Notre Dame

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The Guelph Gryphons varsity women’s basketball team is to get an early Christmas present of sorts Saturday when they take to the floor to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

“It’s a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gryphon guard Skyla Minaker said.

“I’ve never had an opportunity like this before and I don’t think anyone else on our team has either,” guard Sarah Holmes said. “We’re so lucky. I think the atmosphere is going to be fantastic.”

The Gryphs are getting to fill a hole in Notre Dame’s schedule that opened up when another NCAA opponent backed out and the Gryphs were invited to fill that gap thanks to the friendship between Gryphon coach Mark Walton and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.

“Basically I told her about this time last year we’d be interested in coming to play,” Walton said. “They had their schedule basically all filled and then at the last minute, pretty much in the summertime, Muffet called and said ‘Can you guys play on December 21st?’ because somebody cancelled out on them. I said ‘Sure, we’ll be there.”

Notre Dame had to apply to the NCAA to be able to play a non-NCAA school during their season and that application was granted. And now Walton is feeling the same excitement as his players.

“There’s not many opportunities in this lifetime where you get to coach against a hall-of-fame coach,” he said. “She’s in the Women’s Hall of Fame, she’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, she’s in the Indiana Hall of Fame – hall of fames everywhere. Not only that, her staff (associated head coaches Carol Owens and Beth Cunningham, assistant coach Michaela Mabrey, player development program manager Kayla McBride), it’s such a fabulous group of women that I really wanted our young women to be able to see how women can reach the absolute pinnacle of success given the gender issues that exist out there and still exist, unfortunately. I’m just happy that they’re going to have an opportunity to meet Muffet.”

The Gryphs did travel to Notre Dame Thursday and ran a practice at the Fighting Irish’s home, the Purcell Pavilion that can seat more than 9.000 spectators. Walton also asked McGraw to come to that practice and address the Gryphon players.

“It’s an opportunity for them to see greatness at so many levels – greatness as a coach, as a staff and certainly their players are ESPN top-20 kind of players,” he said. “It’s a no-lose opportunity. Everything about it is going to be a fabulous opportunity, a learning opportunity for our players.”

Of course the Gryphs will go into Saturday’s game knowing that their chance of victory are not great.

“We’ve been told that,” Minaker said. “I hope that most of our team isn’t going in being scared. I know it is scary. Obviously they’re Notre Dame, a D1 school. It’s going to be incredible to play them, but if we just go and play our hardest, whatever the outcome is, it’s just that’s how it’s going to be. I know odds are very much against us, but if we just work hard we can come out of it feeling great because we just played against one of the best teams.”

“Hey, hey now. We have a chance,” guard Burke Bechard said. “They did lose all five of their starters from last year. They all got drafted. So we are an older team right now. Our starting five, we’ll have one (fifth-year player) for sure and the rest are third years. We have some experience.

“It’s going to be tough, but we have nothing to lose and they have everything to lose so that’s how you go into that game.”

“It’s going to be a battle for sure right off the bat,” Holmes said. “They are younger, a younger team this year, so we might have some more experience. Obviously, the competition over there is a lot different than it is here in Canada so if we go in optimistic, but really excited, and just play our game, it can be a very close game.

“It’s definitely going to be a battle, but if we go in with the mentality that we have nothing to lose, there’ll be way less pressure on us and I think that will really play in our favour.”

“There’s no pressure on us,” Walton said. “Everybody expects us to lose so we can just go and have fun. We’re coming off exams. They’re coming off exams. Anything can happen, especially in college basketball. If we’re shooting the ball, we have a chance. If we shoot the ball well, we have a legitimate chance. Let’s see what happens.”

The game, though, is just part of the trip. Combined with a trip to Florida for a camp there, the Gryphs are hoping to build on their team bonding. While they had plenty of time together in the preseason, there were no overnight trips as all their games were home games.

“That was done on purpose because we have such a young team in many ways,” Walton said. “We wanted to keep them all at home and just experience what it is like playing in (the Guelph Gryphons Athletic Centre) and have our team camaraderie develop and all of that and then we’ll take it on the road.”

“We don’t have an issue with that,” Bechard said of team closeness. “Our team is very close even though we didn’t have trips like that in our preseason. We’re still a very close team and we’ll only get closer.”

“It’s very important and we make sure every year that we’re doing some sort of team-bonding activities,” Holmes said. “We’re a very close-knit group of girls including our coaches, our families and everything. We’re all kind of one unit. It’s going to be fun, really exciting and any chance we get for team bonding, we’re going to take it.”

The Gryphs are 9-5 overall and 5-5 in OUA league play, but have dropped five of their last six games. The Fighting Irish are 5-7 overall, but 2-4 at home and have also dropped five of their last six games – three at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and two of three at the Cancun Challenge.

“It goes way beyond the game,” Walton said. “The reason I wanted to do this was so our kids could experience greatness and that is personified by Muffet and all of her staff, the program that they run. It’s amazing how they do it.

“From top to bottom, it’s just a classy organization and I want all of that to rub off on our young women.”

Game time Saturday is 1 p.m.

 

  • Guelph Sports Journal