Basketball head coach Rastko Popovic is proud of everybody involved
The Concordia Stingers men’s basketball team played their first preseason game on Aug. 6, 2018, against the Ole Miss Rebels. Almost seven months later, the Stingers won the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) championship, beating the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) Citadins, 73-69.
“To become a champion, it’s a long road,” said head coach Rastko Popovic after the Stingers’s win against the Citadins on March 2. “You don’t just show up; you have to put in the work. I told our guys that game against Ole Miss paid off.”
From that first game against the Rebels, the Stingers played 33 preseason, regular season, and playoff games. They won 20 times, and had an 11-5 regular-season record.
“We struggled with some injuries, but I thought we had a pretty good regular season,” Popovic said. “We had some losses near the end, but you can’t expect to win every game in our league when you play each other so many times.”
For most of the Stingers, this championship title has been the result of hard work throughout the years. They last won the title in 2012, before Popovic was named head coach in 2015. Under him, the Stingers lost two semi-final games in 2016 and 2017, before losing last year’s final to McGill.
“We just had progression every year, but lost a couple of tough games in the playoffs,” Popovic said. “You have to learn the daily habits of becoming a champion and you have to live by that. We pushed our guys, and I’m so proud of our guys.”
Although the team had a handful of rookies this year, they might not have won the championship without help from their veterans. Fifth-year players Garry Merisier and Ricardo Monge stepped up and performed when it counted—Merisier played 22 minutes and collected four rebounds in the final, while Monge had a team-high 19 points and made four of his six three-point shots.
“Big-shot Rick, MVP, team captain, whatever you want to call him, he does it all for us,” said guard Adrian Armstrong.
Monge, who won the RSEQ’s MVP trophy, played in the last home game of his Stingers career, and his teammates saw it as inspiring. “We were going to ride or die with him making [important] shots,” said forward Olivier Simon. “He’s been working on shooting all year. He has confidence [in himself], so we’re not surprised.”
One of Monge’s biggest shots of the game came right at the end of the third quarter, while the Citadins started to come back. He made a three pointer, giving the Stingers a 48-43 lead heading into the final quarter. Popovic said it gave his team energy for the fourth, and helped them win.
“This is the materializing of all the hard work I’ve put in throughout all these years,” Monge said. “It never happened for me, but it feels good to win my first championship.”
The point guard said only his team knows exactly what they had to go through to reach this point in the season. “We worked so hard, we’ve been through so many ups and downs,” Monge said. “Practices in cold gyms, hot gyms, it’s just a grind. It’s really special.”
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Popovic added his team wouldn’t have won the championship without the work from everybody around the team. “I’m so proud of our coaching staff, our therapists, everybody in the [athletics] department,” he said. “This is for everyone involved with Concordia basketball, from the alumni to the supporters. Everybody has a piece of this [trophy], and helped us and seen our progression since day one.”
The Stingers will now play at the national tournament in Halifax from March 8 to 10. When they last won the RSEQ title in 2012, they lost two games at nationals. Popovic played at the tournament for the Stingers in 2005, also in Halifax, and lost in the final.
“It’s the first time at nationals for all these guys,” Popovic said. “Going to nationals is the best experience of your life. You represent your school and it’s just a great reward for all the hard work these guys have put in.”
The players want to represent not only their school, but also the RSEQ as a whole, as they are the only team from Quebec. “We want to go out and show Quebec is one of the stronger conferences,” Armstrong said. “Obviously, we had some respect this season being ranked [in the Top 10], but it’s not enough.”
Main photos by Mackenzie Lad.