By Christie Melhorn, March 23 2018 —
A sense of community spirit has filled the University of Calgary campus after the Dinos men’s basketball team earned their first-ever national championship on March 11 in Halifax. The 79–77 win over the Ryerson University Rams came with only nine seconds left on the clock when fourth-year guard Mambi Diawara executed the game’s final play.
Head coach Dan Vanhooren says it’s taken a few days to digest the magnitude of the win. He says it’s a product of the amount of work and commitment invested into the program since its establishment.
“In the moment, I don’t know if you truly realize what you’ve accomplished. Having some time to reflect on it, it’s massive — our first one in history,” Vanhooren said. “But this all started 53 years ago. There are so many people who have spent a lot of time building a foundation here. The championship came from that and was just the cherry on top.”
Much of the game was a blur but Vanhooren says a few key memories stand out from the game.
“It was overwhelming and emotional,” he said. “Seeing Lars [Schlueter] play so well was a major component for us winning. When’s he’s hitting those shots, it really opens up the floor for other players,” he said. “It was just so fun watching them all — David Kapinga’s big smile. Jhony [Veronne] wearing the U Sports banner like a cape.”
While earning a U Sports title takes great skill, Vanhooren credits the team’s distinct and wholesome spirit to their success.
“This isn’t the most talented team we’ve had. It’s cliché to say, but there’s a massive impact of the right kind of unity a team can have,” Vanhooren said. “Will I go and recruit the most talented kids now? Probably not. I’ll find the ones who fit our team culture.”
Vanhooren commented on how fourth-year guard Kapinga’s backstory helped shape the team’s identity.
“[Kapinga] is a refugee from the Congo. He has a unique positiveness about him. His whole approach is so energized,” Vanhooren said. “For [the Dinos], this is about educating young men and women. Athletics does a really great job of that. Having [Kapinga] on the team in itself is a hugely educational to the guys around him about privilege.”
While the men’s basketball team’s 2017–18 season was full of feats, Vanhooren emphasizes that the team’s relationships and self-growth underlying them are their most valuable achievements.
“The important piece of [the Dinos athletics program] is the relationships. And when we don’t see the importance of that, that’s when we fail,” Vanhooren said. “This one championship solidified and justifies all the work that came before. I can’t tell you how pleased and humbled I am by it.”
The spectrum of struggle and success a varsity team experiences together creates life-long bonds, regardless of results. Vanhooren says he hopes to share those bonds with his players once they’ve moved on from the U of C campus.
“As an athlete and a coach, there’s so many people you meet and go through hardships with. It’s those moments that keeps everyone working towards goals,” he said. “Our goal here is building good young men. I have many deep relationships with them and hopefully they’ll last until I’m grayer!”