The MacEwan University sports teams should always be a sense of great pride for the students and faculty; however, the men’s basketball team hasn’t been in recent memory.
Since the 2018-19 season, the men’s basketball team has only had three wins, totaling a win-loss record of 3-53 over a four-year span — their last win as of writing was on Nov. 30, 2019. With the team struggling, it was time for them to go in a new direction, which meant hiring a new coach before the 2019-20 season. MacEwan decided to hire national champion Mike Connolly from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) right here in Edmonton.
The Griffins were in for a big change when coach Connolly arrived. In his first season, he led the Griffins to a 2-18 record, putting them in second-last place in the Canada West standings. Following a year off in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, the Griffins finished their 2021-22 season winless, 0-16, sparking Connolly to make some changes to the program.
“We had chemistry issues last year,” Connolly said when asked about the 2021-22 season. “Culture matters and the team is learning to be teammates.”
Following the disappointing 2021-22 season, Connolly went to work on establishing a new culture for the Griffins, hoping to fix the chemistry issues of the past. In order to do that, he overhauled the team roster by bringing in not only new faces, but younger faces as well. The Griffins 2022-23 team consists of nine first-year players and seven second-year players, making the team one of the youngest in the Canada West conference. Not one player is over the age of 21.
“It is both fun and frustrating having such a young team,” Connolly explains. “The team is constantly getting better, putting in the work and it’s great to see them listening. We have no egos on this team.”
The young Griffins aren’t only building this year’s team, but also laying the foundation for the future of the men’s basketball team at MacEwan. Without the player experience on their team, they’ll need to rely on the hard work and dedication of their training.
Second-year player, Taylor Cook (number 11), from Magrath, Alberta, enjoys the young team and thinks it’s more of a benefit than a hindrance.
“The biggest benefit I can see coming out of this experience is more time spent playing together, increasing our cohesiveness in the future,” Cook says. “I’m from a really small town with a graduating class of around 50 kids, yet our basketball team was very successful because we had been playing ball with each other for eight or nine years, so we knew how to work best together. I imagine a similar situation will occur here at MacEwan too.”
The Griffins feel like they are on the verge of having a very special program, due in no small part to their combined growth as a team. Changing the team’s focus from losses to improvements is a tough task for a coach. Thankfully that hasn’t been an issue with the team this season.
“The off-season effort they put in was great to see. They came into the season in shape,” Connolly says. “The team knows that nothing happens overnight and that has kept them patient and hungry to play. These guys can take a punch. There is no quit in this team and they are excited to prove that to everyone.”
The Griffins are constantly finding ways to grow as a team, including making fifty free throws at the end of every practice that will make this team great. Play time is one of the biggest factors helping the Griffins grow. Very rarely do younger players get to experience the challenges of university basketball so early on in their careers. They are putting in the work against the best that western Canada has to offer, which is invaluable experience.“Playing minutes as a first year has helped me because it is getting me experience and giving me confidence,” Isaiah Merk, who wears number nine, says. “With each game, I’m learning so much and I’m able to come into the next one better than the last. Not many people get the opportunity to get thrown into the fire, and I embrace the challenge and am ready to go at everybody.”
Playing time for young players is vital in creating a winning culture and building a future for the Griffins program. Make no mistake, the Griffins are going out to every game and trying to win as many games as they can. However, to those who aren’t Griffins fans and faculty, it simply looks like a rebuild. Fans hoping for Griffins wins will need to put their faith in Coach Connolly, who believes a new team foundation has been established.
“We have a good future set up for this program,” Connolly says. “All we’re going to be bringing in to play here at MacEwan is impact players. We are getting into win-now mode soon.”
The players are on the same page as coach Connolly. They understand they’re building something, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to compete now.
“We expect to be competitive in the league right now,” Cook said. “We also understand that there are going to be some growing pains. We understand that all the work we put in now will pay off, whether this season or in the future.”
The veterans on the team have high hopes for the future of this team and program. Connolly has recruited players who want to win. This was evident then when freshman Isaiah Merk was asked about a championship being in Griffin’s future.
“We have such a talented team who is willing to work so a championship is not out of reach in the next three to four years,” Merk explain. “Our potential is through the roof, it’s on us to meet or even exceed that.”
For many who have watched the Griffins the past few years, the thoughts of making the playoffs, let alone winning a championship, seems out of reach. That doesn’t seem to be the mindset for coach Connolly and the entire team — they want to win and believe they can.
The Griffins are focused on the here and now of the 2022-23 season, working everyday to climb the mountain of all the goals they’ve set for themselves. When asked on who they were looking forward to playing most this season, coach Connolly had a simple answer.
“We’re excited to play everybody.”
A simple yet powerful message to send not only to the campus but the entire conference — the Griffins aren’t going anywhere.
Coming out of the Christmas break, the Griffins have six home games left at the David Atkinson Gymnasium. They welcome the Trinity Western Spartans on Jan. 6 and Jan. 7 before hosting their cross-town rivals, the University of Alberta Golden Bears, on Jan. 20 to 21. The Griffins will finally close out the Canada West regular season when they face the Regina Cougars on Feb. 10 to 11 at home.