Building on a banner year for Huskies

It was a banner year for Huskie Athletics at the University of Saskatchewan in 2015-16, with plenty of pennants soon to be raised to the rafters.

So what do you do for an encore?

“There certainly is a level of excitement and anticipation that is probably higher than a normal fall start-up, given the success of our programs last year,” said Huskies athletic director Basil Hughton. “There are a lot of things to be excited about.”

Indeed.

Huskies teams kick off the 2016-17 athletic season riding a wave of success from 2015-16 that included four Canada West conference championship teams in women’s basketball, men’s hockey, men’s track and field and men’s wrestling. The U of S men’s hockey team advanced all the way to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national semifinals before dropping a heartbreaking triple overtime decision, while the Huskie women’s basketball team—led by longtime coach Lisa Thomaidis—capped a dream season by capturing its first national championship.

“I think it’s a first for our program to have won four Canada West banners and of course the one CIS banner, and we’re extremely proud of all of them,” said Hughton.

“It’s obviously a great way to reflect on last year and to move us into this year.”

Basking in the Canadian sports spotlight on nationally televised broadcasts helped raise the profile of the U of S across the country and resulted in a recruiting boost for Huskie Athletics programs.

“It’s priceless promotion, that’s exactly what it is, for our teams to be at national championships,” said Hughton. “Those are promotional opportunities for our university that are second to none … Success breeds success and I think that successful teams probably lend themselves to easier recruiting opportunities. Very simply, potential recruits are more aware of Huskie Athletics and the University of Saskatchewan because of the successes that our programs have.”

The recent Rio Olympics also offered more positive profile for the U of S, with a number of former Huskie athletes playing in prime time, and Thomaidis taking Canada’s women’s basketball team all the way to the quarter-finals.

“I’m extremely proud of that,” said Hughton. “To watch our former athletes, and obviously Lisa coach the women’s basketball team, is incredible … It’s a credit to them for what they have done to get themselves to the penultimate place in sport. It’s awesome.”

There are likely more future Olympians in this season’s crop of Huskie student-athletes, with approximately 400 competing on 15 teams in basketball, cross-country, football, hockey, soccer, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. From men’s hockey to women’s soccer, a number of Huskie teams are projected to be conference contenders battling for berths in nationals again this year.

“We’re optimistic that we’ve got a very strong recruiting class and I think all of our coaches are looking forward to a great year,” said Hughton, noting that one of the highlights of the upcoming season will be the Huskies hosting the 2017 Canada West wrestling championships on Feb. 10-11. “We’re optimistic about a number of our programs. It’s always an exciting time.”

Huskies football and men’s soccer have already kicked off their seasons, with women’s soccer starting its schedule this weekend and U of S cross-country runners soon to follow. Huskie hockey, volleyball and wrestling teams begin conference play in October, followed by basketball in November and indoor track and field in January.

While the Huskie teams prepare to pursue more titles and trophies, and awards and accolades, Hughton points out that the focus for U of S student-athletes is always to balance both athletic and academic achievement.

Last fall, the university honoured 183 Huskies—more than 40 per cent of all student-athletes, trainers and managers at the U of S—for earning grade point averages of better than 74.5 per cent while completing full course loads of 24 credit units per session.

In addition, 77 Huskies also named CIS Academic All-Canadians for posting averages of better than 80 per cent.

“It certainly is a source of pride to know that these young men and women are students first, working towards a degree, and with their athletic prowess are playing a sport that they love at a very high level,” said Hughton. “We always have a strong academic success rate, so that’s a sense of pride for a fellow like me, a former high school principal, who looks at the academics as a very important piece of what we do and to make sure that all of our athletes do their very best in the classroom, too.”

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