The UTM tri-campus basketball team has had its struggles this season. In what could be called a rebuilding year, the team has gone without a win and sits at the bottom of the standings with a 0-6 record. The team has found ways to be successful in extramural tournaments while placing second in a tournament at Humber in October and winning a six-team tournament in February, beating UTSC in the final.
Although on paper the team’s regular season says little about their talent, UTM has had a bumpy season, losing games by both small and large margins. They lost by six points to UTSC in one game and by 24 in another against St. George Black, the undefeated team that is currently leading the pack.
At the end of the day, most sports fans couldn’t care less about the margin of victory. Instead they focus on the number of wins and losses. A string of continuous losses can dishearten a team, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Eagles.
Essence Penaloza-St. Hill is in her third season as point guard for the Eagles tri-campus team. Basketball has been a part of her life since she was a kid in elementary school, one who dreamed of playing in the WNBA and even of being the first woman to play in the NBA.
After graduating from Loyola CSS and coming to UTM, she realized that despite an ever-increasing workload, basketball had to be a part of her university experience. Although her desire was to play at the top-tier level for varsity, or even to play NCAA college ball in the U.S., Penaloza-St. Hill settled on tri-campus as a happy medium for managing sport, school, and a part-time job.
This season has been different for Penaloza-St. Hill. The winless record is a shadow that has followed the team throughout the fall and winter semesters, but the changes the squad has experienced throughout the past two seasons seem to be a significant factor in the team’s lack of success.
As Penaloza-St. Hill points out, the team started off the season with a new coach and a new team, and is pretty much building from the bottom up. The lack of team chemistry was one of the many factors that led to the losses. “Our struggle is partially because we are slightly out of shape and we don’t talk,” says Penaloza-St. Hill.
She notes that this was more of a problem early in the season. New teammates are generally more reserved in front of each other and take some time to warm up and start communicating; since the start of the new semester, she says, the team has begun to address the problem.
The team also had to get used to a new head coach. Salee Johnson-Edwards took over the coaching position last August after former head coach Jack Krist was unable to continue due to his new role as varsity program coordinator.
Johnson-Edwards’ impressive resume includes playing for the University of New Hampshire in the NCAA, eventually coaching in the States for Harford Community College, Monmouth University, and Fordham University. Her experience makes her an ideal candidate for the position and the team is proud to have her as a coach and teacher.
“She is amazing,” says Penaloza-St. Hill. “Salee brings the energy and understanding of the game that some coaches don’t have.” Part of Johnson-Edwards’ coaching style involves getting the team into shape. Penaloza-St. Hill jokes that she hasn’t had to do so many suicides since she was in grade nine.
Part of what she and her teammates love about Johnson-Edwards’ coaching and personality is her focus on unifying the group and helping to build the chemistry that was initially lacking. “Basketball is a sport. The goal is to get the ball in the basket and for your team to win,” she says. “But in order to achieve this goal of winning you have to be a team. [Johnson-Edwards] reminds us that a team is more than just girls playing on the same side, but girls who help each other when we are winning or losing.”
Penaloza-St. Hill says Johnson-Edwards had the team do team-building exercises, something she and many of her teammates had never done before. They included standard exercises like partnering up and simply talking to each other. Some were more demanding, like a game involving one blindfolded partner and the other as “seeing-eye”. The seeing-eye must help the blindfolded partner walk safely from one end of the court to the other without tripping over scattered basketballs.
The influence Johnson-Edwards has had on the team is evident, regardless of their record. The program seems to be on the upward trend, and the team has their coach to thank.
Penaloza-St. Hill is an aspiring coach herself and has been involved in Athletes in Action, a summer program that coaches kids in grades one through eight, teaching them the fundamentals of basketball. She was also part of the coaching staff for her high school’s junior and senior girls’ basketball teams and coached the women’s open division team with former UTM teammate Meghan McErlain.
The hardest part about coaching, for Penaloza-St. Hill, is being restricted to the sidelines, unable to involve herself in the action on the court. She finds inspiration in Johnson-Edwards and sees herself having a similar style if she does end up coaching somewhere down the line.
“It may be high school coach, UTM coach, or even starting my own league for kids—who knows what the future holds?” she says. “I hope I can balance the fire and the fun when my time comes.”