HALIFAX – Andrew Hackner and Jamie Searle have seen the worst that Lakehead basketball has to offer.
Set to embark on their final weekend in a Thunderwolves jersey at the CIS national men’s basketball championship in Halifax, the fifth-year duo hopes to see its best.
Hackner and Searle are the lone holdovers from the dismal 2006-07 squad that finished 1-21, awaiting the return of academically ineligible star forward Kiraan Posey in 2007-08.
The rapid rise of the program, from laughing stock to national contenders in just three seasons, has turned heads in the basketball community and made believers out of even the most sceptical fans across the land.
Getting here hasn’t been easy, Hackner said Thursday, shaking off last-minute jitters before hitting the Metro Centre floor for a one-hour practice, as the fourth-seeded Wolves prepare for a do-or-die match Friday against B.C.’s Trinity Western University in the CIS quarterfinal.
“The bottoming out was definitely a hard time. It’s tough to put in all that work and continue to lose. But I think it really speaks about the guys who stayed around and knew that if they worked hard there would be benefits and you’d see them eventually,” said Hackner, who played just four games and 21 minutes as a rookie.
“I think part of the turnaround was just coach (Scott) Morrison bringing in the right type of people. Not necessarily the best player in the country, but he brought in people who have potential and have that work ethic, which everyone on this team has.”
A player who fits that description perfectly is Searle, who arrived in Thunder Bay via Belleville in 2006 from Moira High School’s highly successful program. Needless to say losing wasn’t what he was used to at that stage of his career.
It took a long time to get used to, Searle reminisced.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “We were close in a couple of games, but we knew it was a rebuilding year. Coach had said that at the beginning. We started four freshmen. We had some great leaders to show us the way in (Ryan) Precious and Richie (Chris Richards) and Boomer (Matt Verboom) and those guys.
“It was a tough year and for guys like me and Hack this has just been an amazing road these past five years. It’s been a lot of work getting up at 6 a.m. in the summers, putting five or six hours in and then having to go work and come back and do the same thing to make sure we ended up here.”
Bit by bit Morrison, who suffered six losing seasons at the LU helm, until last year’s squad made a surprising run to nationals, only to lose their first game to UBC and any chance at a championship.
Yoosrie Salhia, Greg Carter, Matt Schmidt and Brendan King arrived in 2008. Ryan Thomson, Cam Hornby and Joseph Jones joined the fray a year later, with the final pieces of the puzzle arriving last fall in the likes of Pictou, N.S.’s Ben Johnson and Venzal Russell, both transfers from the U.S. college ranks.
Morrison said it was anger that turned things around for the Thunderwolves program, which before last season hadn’t made an appearance at nationals since 1977, the same season Julius Erving made the switch from the ABA to the NBA.
“We got fed up and said we’re going to try to work harder and said we’re going to try to get some of the best coaches and become one of the best programs in the country like Carleton and (coach) Dave Smart and UBC and teams like that,” Morrison said, five days after capturing the school’s first ever OUA men’s basketball championship.
“We just tried to envision what they do on a daily basis and see if we can match their efforts or exceed them. In some ways we have to do more to make up for our location with things like recruiting and a lack of talent in our early years. But I think we’ve established ourselves now and there was no problem walking in (the Metro Centre) with our heads held up and not over-confident, but believing we belong here.”
The Wolves 2011 Final 8 opener is slated for 2:15 p.m. against Trinity Western.
Claw marks: Salhia spent an extra day in Thunder Bay recovering from an undisclosed illness. Morrison said they wanted to give their star forward an extra day of rest before Friday’s opener ... The Wolves were shut out of the CIS awards. Guard Greg Carter was up for defensive player of the year, but lost out to Thompson Rivers’ Greg Stewart. Teammate Searle was not named to either the first or second CIS all-star team.
A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith has been the editor of Thunder Bay Source for 19 years and has served a similar role with TBNewsWatch.com since 2009. Wants his Expos back. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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