The ball clanks off the back iron and falls into Sebastian Beckett’s hands. The seconds tick off the clock but the cheering has already started. The 2013-2014 McGill Redmen assembled across the foul line to accept their RSEQ Championship medals. Redmen Head Coach David DeAveiro cuts down the final strand from the net for the second time in as many years. But this season is different. This RSEQ Championship marks the end of the team’s gruelling eight-month journey. For 10 of these young men, the journey started when they first stepped onto a collegiate basketball court seven months earlier.
It’s the middle of August, frosh is still weeks away, and last-minute cramming for finals is a thing of the distant future. For most people, it’s baseball season, but not for these 10 freshmen. While fathers and sons play pitch and catch in front yards, the athletes sweat in stuffy gymnasiums while running suicides, breaking only after exhaustion has set in completely. Their tongues hang out of their mouths and sweat beads down their foreheads as DeAveiro separates the boys from the men. It’s time for them to make the jump.
Though their journeys are all different, these Redmen have all found collective success. For starting swingman Michael Peterkin, the transition to the collegiate game was difficult, but he received ample playing time as a starter. Other athletes, such as redshirt freshman Thomas Lacy, spend their entire first season on the sidelines watching from afar.
However, few people understand the magnitude of this transition better than point guard Jenning Leung. Leung, a native of the Philippines, was by far the best player on his team in Manila, and almost always the most skilled player on the court. As a point guard, the biggest challenge for Leung was the speed and timing of the CIS game.
“That was the major adjustment,” Leung said. “Just how much faster you have to think.”
The fast pace of the CIS game has left Leung watching from the bench for the majority of the season as he works behind Simon Bibeau and Ave Bross, the team’s two veteran point guards. This was tough for the freshman, who was used to being in the limelight for his high school team.
“At the start of the season, my confidence was low,” Leung explained, after a 63-56 victory over Concordia in which he posted double digit points for the first time. “I just had to find the perfect [balance] between knowing [that] I wasn’t going to be ‘the guy’, but also knowing I have to go out there and prove myself.”
Ari Hunter, basketball coach at Crescent High School in Toronto and former McGill Redmen (1997-2000), believes this balance between overconfidence and lack of confidence is the hardest concept for new student athletes to grasp.
“If you’re going to be an elite athlete […] you have to have an edge on you [and] you have to believe that you’re the best,” Hunter said. “So you can’t lose that ‘I can do this, I’m a badass’ attitude, because then you lose that little extra [edge] that makes you excellent.”
While seeing limited playing time might not have been what Leung had in mind when he committed to McGill, he now understands his role within the team.
“During practice, I have to go at [Bibeau and Bross],” Leung explained. “It’s nothing personal [….] I’m pushing them […] because they don’t want to lose their minutes […] but at the same time, I know I’m getting better.”
The transition to the collegiate level has been much different for Peterkin. He was thrown into the fire from day one and was asked to respond.
“I was pretty surprised when coach put my name in the starting five in the NCAA game against Sacred Heart,” Peterkin said. “I’ll always remember that moment [.…] I’m glad [DeAveiro] believes and sees something in me for this year, and hopefully the future.”
While Peterkin doesn’t deal with a lack of playing time, at times competing against bigger and better players has been overwhelming.
“It’s crazy thinking that a year ago I was the oldest guy [on the court],” he said. “[Now] I’m battling against guys who have played basketball longer, who are older than me, and guys who have developed more than me. It’s been tough at times.”
Peterkin quickly realized that he couldn’t rely purely on athleticism to succeed at the collegiate level.
“In high school, if I didn’t play at my best, I was still […] at another level compared to some guys. But here, I have to play at my best and compete,” he explained.
While Peterkin has struggled to score this year, his strong defensive abilities have made him a regular in the Redmen lineup. The same cannot be said for Lacy, who never saw the court in his first year at McGill. Coming from Vermont—a state that only produces a handful of college basketball players each year—Lacy was a regular in his high school team’s starting lineup, and was named captain of the varsity team in grade 10. Not seeing game time was tough, but being left out of practice was harder.
“There were days when I didn’t even get to touch the ball at practice,” Lacy said. “That was the hardest part for me – sitting and watching. I couldn’t handle the thought of being the worst player in the gym, because I knew I could change that with time.”
After countless hours in the gym last year working to improve his game, Lacy earned the chance to play this season.
"There were days when I’d show up at the gym at 6 a.m. for practice and wouldn’t leave until after noon,” Lacy said. “One of our assistant coaches last year, [Daniel McCue], really took me under his wing. He put me through drills and workouts for hours after official practice was over [.…] Having put in so much work last year to improve my game, it felt amazing to finally get minutes this year.”
With the support of his teammates, Lacy found his way onto the court, even scoring a career-high 30 points in a game at Laval earlier this year. Despite having a stellar season this past year, Lacy knows that he needs to continue to get better if he wants to hold onto his playing time next season.
“I earned a role this year, but every year is different,” Lacy said. “Each new season is a new story. I know my spot can be taken at any moment if I don’t continue to improve.”
The same goes for the rest of the freshmen. With Bibeau leaving this year, Leung expects to take on a bigger role next season. Lacy understands that he will have to wrok hard and fight for playing time next year, while Peterkin hopes to take his game to the next level in his sophomore year.
Making the jump is about adapting to an increased intensity. CIS basketball demands a higher level of preparation, focus, and effort than these athletes have ever seen before.
“There is a reason the Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger,” Hunter said. At the university level everything is faster, higher, and stronger than high school, and together, the increased speed, size, and skill creates a more intense level of play. The ability of this year’s crop of freshmen to adapt played a key part in the Redmen winning the RSEQ Championship. Despite their collective success this year, immediate achievement is not guaranteed in the slightest.
The transition from high school to university is one that student-athletes struggle with and must adapt to. Every minute must be earned, and every moment must be cherished. For these 10 freshmen, the first part of the journey is over. But for countless others in gyms, courts, fields, and rinks across the country, it will will begin anew in the Fall.