CIS 50th Anniversary: The Dinos Dream Team
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of CIS, longtime University of Calgary Sports Information Director Jack Neumann takes a look back at one of the deepest, most talented teams in CIS women’s basketball history: the 1988-89 Dinos.
The 1988-89 edition of the University of Calgary women’s basketball team will go down as one of the most prolific women’s hoops squads ever. They captivated the Calgary sports market, sharing front-page coverage with the NHL’s Calgary Flames, and in the process helped put CIS women’s basketball on the map in Canada.
The team, comprised of entirely of graduates of the Calgary high schools (except for Lacombe, Alta.’s Veronica VanderSchee) excelled on and off the court. They could win with the outside shot, beat you inside with their post play and, if all that didn’t work, their transition game was unstoppable.
Coach Donna Rudakas assembled a deep and talented team whose reserves could have started on a multitude of other teams.
“Sometimes our best battles are with ourselves in our practices, some one-on-ones are incredibly intense,” Rudakas once told reporter Rita Mingo, then of the Calgary Sun.
Often games were over by the half. Four times they tallied 100-plus points using their entire bench. Offensively they averaged close to 90 points and could defend, something Rudakas drilled into them, yielding just 53 points per game in conference play.
Opponent match-ups created no problem. Rudakas could play small or large depending on the opponent.
Just how good were the starters? Debbie Patterson and Karen Degner were first team Canada West all-stars while VanderSchee and Jodi Evans were second team all-stars – and how Cori Blakebrough was missed still remains a mystery even today. All Blakebrough did was average 13 points per game, in addition to her solid defensive play.
Current Dinos head coach Shawnee Harle, then an assistant at Victoria, remembers the team vividly.
“What an incredible starting five!” Harle enthused. “Wow! It's one of those situations as an opposing coach where you have to ‘pick your poison.’ They could hurt you in the paint, hurt you off the dribble, and hurt you from the three-point line. On top of that it was impossible to keep them off the boards.”
Patterson anchored the backcourt and personified the point guard position. What she lacked in quickness was made up with basketball knowledge and a deadly long-range shot. Complementing Patterson was shooting guard Blakebrough, who was quick and could drain the trey. Cori eventually played for Canada’s national team and professionally in Europe.
In just her third year, Evans was a versatile player who could beat you with quickness, intelligence, inside and outside. She went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, CIAU player of the year, and a national team member before retiring from the game. The inside game had the twin towers: the athletic Karen Degner, and 1988 and 1990 CIAU Player of the Year Veronica VanderSchee.
The Dinos were already in first place in Canada West, and had won the Calgary and Toronto tournaments. The team got even stronger when two-time Canada West MVP VanderSchee returned to the fold after spending the first semester away from the game while attending school south of the border – and the team cruised through the Winnipeg High Performance Tournament.
The bench was deep. Many felt the second string could qualify for conference playoffs in any league in the CIS. Sue Jickling provided instant offense with her outside shot while Claire Mitenko could be relied on for a defensive stop was needed. If and when the starting posts got into foul trouble or needed a break, six-foot-four Lisa Schirock more than held her own, starting before VanderSchee returned. Rookies Linda Orr and Patti Cumming were capable players in the backcourt, while forwards Cathy Johnson, Denise McPhee, and Shawn Roscoe did their job when called upon inside.
“Going into every game, you never knew who was going to be the key player as we had five great starters,” Blakebrough (now Ferrier) told me. “Donna was able to make us a team and the fact we were all from Calgary except Veronica meant we all knew one another really well.
“Our bench was so tough. Our best games came in practice.”
Going 20-0 in Canada West was no easy feat with the travel across three time zones and teams such as Victoria, who had national teamer Kelly Boucher and was coached by legendary coach Kathy Shields. Meanwhile, Lethbridge also had a national team member in Shawna Molcak.
The Canada West Final Four tournament was hosted in Calgary. The Dinos defeated UBC 69-54 in the semi-final, and an impressive 87-61 win over Victoria in the final was no contest thanks to a 20-point halftime margin before more than 2,000 fans in a game covered by columnists and beat reporters from both newspapers and other media outlets.
The next stop was Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. for the CIAU championship, with Calgary facing the host Lady Vees in the opening round. After a slow start Calgary posted a 74-55 win, advancing to the national semi-final against the University of Toronto, a team they had already beaten twice that year: by 15 at Toronto tournament in the fall without VanderSchee, and then by 48 after Christmas with VanderSchee in the line-up.
Whether it was complacency or adjustments, the Blues had the Dinos down by 17 at the half. Who knows what was said in the locker room at the break, but with their season on the line, Jickling nailed a trio of treys to kick-start the comeback and the Dinos won 78-73. They faced UPEI in the final for win number 36, for a perfect season, and for a national championship, something that had eluded them a year before losing to Manitoba in Lethbridge.
The final was anti-climactic as the Dinos played everyone, cruising to a 92-55 win.
The following year, despite losing Degner and Patterson, the Dinos won their next 33 games, including a pair against NCAA Division I competition before losing in the 1990 national final to Laurentian, ending a streak of 69 consecutive wins against Canadian and American universities.
More than two decades later, the exploits of these student-athletes are still talked about, and the 1989 CIAU championship remains the only Bronze Baby captured by the University of Calgary. It was a season that nobody on campus will ever forget, as the Dinos brought home no fewer than five national titles that season: the Vanier Cup, men’s volleyball, women’s volleyball, men’s swimming, and the Bronze Baby.
“That year was most fun I ever had playing basketball and that includes playing internationally,” said Blakebrough. “We had great crowds, great coverage and that helped even when we went on the road people came to see us.”