For the first time since 2011-12, the Concordia Stingers men’s basketball team will start its Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) season as league defending champions. Yet, the mindset remains the same for the Stingers.
For head coach Rastko Popovic and his team, expectations that come with being the defending champions are more of a cliché in sports.
“We still try to recruit the best players we can,” Popovic said. “We still spend time in the gym with our players to try to make them better. There’s no guarantee we’ll win again this year. We’ll obviously do our best to do so, but it’s a new season and a new challenge.”
Popovic said that last year’s success is the result of many years of work. He explained that some of the players who won last year are the same who went through the pain of losing a semi-final and a final game before winning the championship. Yet, new players will be at their debuts with the team this season and won’t have lived last year’s success.
“It’s part of the process in sports,” Popovic said. “You hear it a lot now with many professional sports team saying to trust the process. If anybody could just do something by snapping their fingers, it would be that easy to coach in any sport, not just basketball.”
Seven months after their championship and nationals participation, fourth-year player Olivier Simon said he and the team finally had time to reflect on what last year meant to them. Yet, he said the focus was turned to this season in a matter of time.
“We worked hard this summer in order to recreate [our accomplishments of last season this year],” Simon said. “Yes, it’s fun to win a championship, as you celebrate for a week or two, but after that you just want to get more. I knew [last season] it wasn’t my last year, so my mindset was more about winning more championships. Of course we took the time to reflect on our season. To get that win and see our efforts pay off was the best feeling we’ve had for a while.”
Some of those players will have bigger leadership roles in 2019-20, as the Stingers lost important pieces this summer, including team captain Ricardo Monge. In his final year with the Stingers, the point guard was named the MVP in Quebec university men’s basketball conference and received all-Canadian honours.
Simon said that after the experience he and the other returning players acquired, he wanted to be more of a leader for this season. The players might have to earn their next championship, but the experience he acquired is invaluable.
“Now I know what’s needed to [win the RSEQ title and go to nationals],” Simon said. “Guys just need to follow and be on board with us because we know what it takes to win. For me, it’s just to bring that energy and effort every day in the gym.”
For Sami Ghandour, also entering his fourth year, last season served him as a motivation this past off-season. Ghandour said that despite winning the RSEQ championship, the loss at nationals hurt and pushed him to get better.
“In my first year, we didn’t get past semi-finals,” Ghandour said. “In my second year, we reached the final, but lost. In my third year, we won, but lost in the first round [at nationals]. We saw that we were good for the RSEQ, but once on the national court, the level [of play] was different. Even after winning all that, it hurts when you lose like that at nationals.”
With the season set to start next month, Popovic said there’s a long process to follow before thinking about championship goals for 2019-20 campaign. He said it’s a long season, and there are many games to win before those in the RSEQ playoffs.
“Yes, we can talk about [the fact that] our goal is to go to nationals, but we don’t get there by just saying it,” Popovic said. “We still have a lot of things to work on before [coming to this moment]. We’re trying to get better one day at the time. We’re trying to get better this weekend than [we were the previous one]. That’s how we see progress, with small steps to get to where we want to get.”
Ghandour said the team wants to win consecutive championships. However, he explained that with this new season, the Stingers and all teams in the league will start at the same point.
“We are the defending champions, which makes people even more hungry to play us,” Ghandour said. “[We] need to keep working, and keep [our] feet on the ground. [We] want to win the championship every single year.”
Photos by Britanny Clark