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Saturday morning is the beginning of a quick turnaround for the Dalhousie women’s basketball team. Fresh off a loss to the AUS-leading Saint Mary’s Huskies the night before, the Tigers need to regroup in anticipation of an evening matchup with Cape Breton at the Dalplex.
Today, third-year forward Tessa Stammberger heads to the shootaround at 9:15 a.m., earlier than usual. Having tread this path many times before, she zigzags between buildings on campus to get to the physiotherapy clinic inside the Dalplex, where trainers Tani and Hannah are there to meet her. While the three catch up, Tani applies heat packs on Tessa’s back and legs, making sure she is ready for the day ahead.
Players and coaches begin filing into the empty bleachers as the men’s team finishes practice.
As Tessa and the players begin stretching, the brain trust of head coach Anna Stammberger and assistant coaches Tina Lum, Noel Pendergast and Leah Girdwood meet to discuss how the shootaround will progress.
The forwards and guards break into their own shooting drills. With a calm demeanour and laser focus on the basket, Tessa begins working away at her shooting. From the sidelines, Tani is quick to praise her work ethic.
“She’s one of the most dedicated players at this school,” he expresses. “She’s a special player.”
Far from armchair generals, the coaching staff is very active in the practice, with Girdwood acting as a defender in the post and Stammberger frequently chiming in with the theme of the day.
“It’s game day, we gotta talk!” exclaims the head coach as she runs through their defensive setup for the Capers.
After an hour of various drills and gameplay strategy, the team receives scouting reports and heads to a nearby classroom to study game tape. Once again, the themes of communication and defence are emphasized as they watch clips of the Capers from a recent game.
The film session concludes, and many of the Tigers head to Shirreff Hall for a team brunch. Tessa, however, stays behind, retiring to the physio clinic with Hannah for a painful but necessary ice bath. As the metal tank begins to fill, the two discuss an episode of “Friends” Tessa watched the night before as a remedy for the loss against SMU.
The frigid waters ready, she gets in.
“Oh my god! It’s so cold!” she shouts as she slowly acclimates to the tub’s frosty touch. “I’ve never had it this cold!”
The first few seconds consist of an animated Tessa exhaling loudly as Hannah adds a bucket of ice to the mixture. Tessa tries to busy herself with the scouting report, but then a new development arises.
“My toe got sucked into that!” she exclaims, referring to the pipe that pumps in the cold water.
After freeing herself from a potential mishap, Hannah helps Tessa study the scouting report, quizzing her on the defensive assignments. Hannah counts down the last few seconds and Tessa eagerly jumps out of the tub.
“This better help,” Tessa says.
“It will,” Hannah reassures her.
Every player has a pregame routine to prepare for the upcoming match. These routines usually consist of a specific meal, examining the playbook and scouting report, a quick nap and some time to unwind on their own.
Tessa’s routine this afternoon is interrupted by her job as a bantam coach in a girl’s basketball league. Today she goes through her routine quickly before embarking on a 20-minute drive to Bedford.
Normally accompanied by teammate and co-coach Robbi Daley, Tessa goes on her own today as Daley takes extra time to reset for the evening’s game. Upon arriving at the community centre at 1:40 p.m., Tessa transitions from player to coach, leading the red-clad Martyrs in what will be the first of her two games today.
Inside the modern charcoal and orange complex, Tessa appears at ease in the coach’s chair. The measured composure evident in her play suits her well when directing from the sideline. Imparting wisdom to her players, she echoes the lessons learned from years of experience competing at the collegiate as well as provincial level.
With the game ending in a Martyrs win, Tessa must now reset and resume preparations for her next game. She drives back into Halifax to pick up her mother Anna, a player turned coach herself, and then Tessa adjourns to the team room for some alone time.
The Dalplex’s main court slowly evolves from an afternoon of pickup hoops to the centre of AUS attention.
As university students and high-schoolers get their final shots in before vacating the main stage, the event staff finish setting up the concession stand, sweeping the bleachers and making sure the electrical equipment is ready for the evening’s festivities.
An hour and a half before tipoff, Tessa emerges onto the floor and begins reacquainting herself with the court. Joined by men’s guard Derek Norris, she shoots from targets all around the floor, methodically moving from the baseline to the elbow and free throw line. Her teammates join her shortly after, and the atmosphere picks up as the ubiquitous “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor plays over the loudspeakers. The Capers then take the court to warm up as the Tigers retire to the locker room for a pregame talk.
When the team returns to the court, Stammberger and her lieutenants go over strategy as both the Tigers and Capers begin preparing at an energized pace. The team convenes once more under the basket, then heads to the bench to get ready.
The game begins, and immediately the Tigers bench is vocal cheering their teammates on. As players chant the traditional “De-fence!”, coach Stammberger paces the sidelines delivering instructions to her players and occasionally directing ‘suggestions’ to the referees.
Playing for most of the half, Tessa hustles on defence and tries to push the ball up the floor, but it isn’t enough. The team isn’t clicking on offence and not closing out on their end.
As the exasperated forward heads to the bench with her third foul, the Capers finish the half up 35-19.
Before the start of the third quarter, Stammberger leaves her team with a final message. “Work harder to get the ball!” she exclaims. “Let’s go get a steal and get after the ball!” The team takes this message to heart, starting the quarter on a 14-2 run. With the Tigers now effectively communicating and hustling on both ends of the floor, momentum swings in their favour.
The level-headed Tessa begins to show some emotion after some big plays. With every steal and “and-one” play, Tessa high-fives her teammates on the floor. The bench explodes in applause after each score, cheering their team on as the Capers’ lead narrows.
The match continues at a physical pace with time winding down in the fourth. “Just keep plugging away one minute at a time, one possession at a time,” Stammberger says during a huddle.
With the score levelled and under a minute to play, the Tigers push the ball up the court to take the lead. After a missed shot, forward Ainsley MacIntyre wrestles the rebound from her Caper counterpart, and the ball gets to Tessa behind the arc. These moments are why she puts in the extra work hours before the game. Just like she practiced, she effortlessly rises, releases the ball and with a smooth stroke drains the bucket to put the Tigers up by three with 42 seconds left.
The bleachers, close to full capacity, erupt as the team mobs a smiling Tessa while Cape Breton calls a timeout. Dal’s defence hold on to secure the win.
Minutes later, their pleased head coach congratulates the team on a hard-fought battle and hands each player a reflection sheet to evaluate their performance over the weekend. After filling out the sheets amid calls of “no group work!” from coach Stammberger, the team retreats to the locker room.
As the men’s team prepares for their game, also against Cape Breton, several coaches and players grab seats in the stands to cheer their Tigers counterparts on. Tessa is one of the last to emerge from the team’s headquarters, ready to join the crowd.
It has been 11 hours since her day began, a day filled with hard work and attention to detail. If dedication is measured by logging the extra time to hone one’s craft and stopping at nothing to succeed, she has it in spades.
A lifelong sports fan, Benjamin Blum entered the world of journalism after suffering a concussion playing rugby for the University of King’s College. From that moment, his twin passions for writing and sports motivated the Thornhill, Ont. native to give this journalism thing a try. Having been an athlete, coach and fan for many years, Ben brings his diverse knowledge of sports along with a witty sense of humour to the sports section. Ben was Sports Editor of the Gazette for Volume 146.