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You always hear the gym before you see it—the storm of defensive talk, competing communication, and dribbles. As you enter, the punctuating sounds of Thunderwolves men’s basketball head coach Ryan Thomson’s rapid-fire instructions become clear, organizing the chaos into controlled beats.
Thomson is quick to call for a reset on the action, always looking for precision in execution. His directions come in bursts, information always delivered in an even tone—Thomson pacing, always in motion at center court, the action unfolding around him.
“Be crisp, blue,” he calls out to his players. “One more rep.”
“I feel a great deal of gratitude to be back coaching and trying to help our guys improve throughout the course of the season,” Thomson tells me later.
Ryan Thomson has been a member of the Thunderwolves for over a decade. As a stand-out player on the men’s basketball team from 2009-2014, he was a big part of the program’s 132-58 record and four CIS Final 8 appearances.
Since returning to Lakehead as head coach in 2017, he’s done his best to restore the winning ways of the Thunderwolves. He immediately won his first game as head coach, despite inheriting a team midseason that sat winless at 0-11.
“I really enjoyed my time as a student-athlete at Lakehead and it’s been rewarding to be back in a coaching role,” Thomson says.
Since taking over, his squads have gone 28-20 in league play, including 17-5 in 2019-20. The subsequent year, however, was cancelled due to the global pandemic.
“The cancelled season was difficult,” Thomson says. “Finding ways to try and keep the guys engaged through all the uncertainty and questions of ‘will there be a season,’ ‘will we be able to get on court,’ ‘what are we or what aren’t we able to do,’ was the biggest challenge. Video calls and trying to send out film and clips doesn’t have the same effect as when we’re able to be on the court working or talking face to face about how we can add this skill or this action to a guy’s game.”
“It was a long year for our student-athletes,” he adds, “largely without sport, and to be able to return to play and to have their family and friends coming out to support the team when we’re on the road or at home is a welcome sight.”
And what a return to play it’s been. The Thunderwolves currently sit at 5-1 overall including preseason play, and are averaging 84.2 points per game as a team.
“It’s really exciting to be back,” veteran guard Alston Harris says. “After the year off, we just appreciate it all more—little stuff like practice and being able to play again.”
“We’ve got a bunch of new guys,” Harris continues, “Coach [Thomson] has been preparing me to be a leader since I came to Lakehead, so it isn’t a new challenge for me—I just have to lead the team as best I can and put us in a position to win as many games as possible.”
The Thunderwolves opened this year with a pair of preseason wins in Winnipeg against the Manitoba Bisons, including a 95-92 OT finish. They then swept the Nipissing Lakers in their own gym to finish off a perfect preseason. They opened the OUA regular season last week with a weekend split against the McMaster Marauders down in Hamilton.
“In preseason we try to focus more on what we’re trying to accomplish than what our opponent is doing from a scouting standpoint,” Thomson says. He’s conscious of relative lack of scouting information available, as teams across the country have experienced considerable roster turnover during the pandemic. There isn’t much game film available yet.
“We will have an idea of actions they’ve run in previous years and some of their personnel,” Thomson adds, “but at the end of the day it’s about executing the offensive and defensive principles we’ve been working on since training camp.”
Katie Ulakovic, a new addition this year to Thomson’s assistant coaches, echoes the lack of information.
“I really don’t know what our competition looks like,” she says, “none of us really know what the league looks like because there isn’t much preseason film.”
Ulakovic spends practice on standing attentively on the sideline with the other support staff. While veteran assistant Matt Erdman uses breaks in the action to move in close to the players, ensuring his guidance is clear, Ulakovic coordinates with Thomson, papers passing between them.
“What I’ve noticed with the way Ryan structures his practices is consistency,” Ulakovic says. “It makes it easy for guys to buy in right off the bat.”
Team building, however, is a group effort. The coaches are quick to highlight the leadership of the veteran Thunderwolves.
“Some of our guys who have played at this level for a few years—Alston, Chume [Nwigwe], Jared [Kreiner]—have really stepped up in terms of their leadership and setting the example of what it means to compete and what it’s going to take to be successful,” Thomson says. “Because of the pandemic our first year athletes and transfers have more of a learning curve in terms of what it feels like to bring focus and intensity consistently day after day.
“Our on-court leaders have really stepped up, helping everyone gel—it seemed like a natural fit for all of them right away,” Ulakovic adds. “I give credit to them—I think it’s just part of their personalities. I didn’t have to say anything to Alston, and I’ve definitely noticed his leadership, and he takes pride in it. Chume’s been a really good leader for us and Jared has been excellent as well.”
Senior guard Jared Kreiner defers to his teammates: “We have great chemisty—our team’s looking really good.”
Kreiner is the only member of the team local to the city, so for him to have reached this point is an important accomplish.
“I started off here with two other Thunder Bayers on the team and four years later—my senior year—it’s pretty special to still be playing,” he says. “It feels weird—Alston and I came in together, and along with Igor we’re the only ones left from that year. We’ve come in and helped lead the team as the veteran guys on the roster.”
The Thunderwolves will play 16 games this season as part of a lightly condensed schedule. They return home tonight for the first home action since a going 2-0 in February of 2020, a gap of nearly two years.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to competing here in Thunder Bay in front of the best home crowd in Canada,” Thomson says.
“It’s been almost two years now,” Kreiner adds, “and we’re looking forward to seeing all of you. Come out and show your support.”
“It’ll definitely be good to play in front of our crowd again and get the fans going,” Harris says. “It’s been a long time—too long—and we’ve missed them a lot.”
As for expectations for this season, Thomson’s focus is on execution.
“Throughout the preseason the ball was moving from side to side,” he says. “Guys we’re doing a good job of attacking the paint and kicking and trying to get great shots. We need to make sure that we stay disciplined—offensively, taking great shots and not turning the ball over and defensively being in a stance, in the gaps and communicating every possession. We’re trying to take it day by day and to continue to build as a team and improve individually.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing what this year has for us—we’ve come out strong, and we’re going to build on that.” Kreiner says. “Our ultimate goal is to play in the last game of basketball in the season, and we’re going to come out and fight hard every day.”
“To compete,” Harris adds.
Back at practice Chume Nwigwe calls the team to center court as practice draws to a close. The group is huddled together, a sea of blue jerseys, each player focused on the team, on improving, on succeeded. The discussion is muted—that stays between the players—but the energy is palpable.
Thomson, Ulakovic, Erdman, and the rest of the staff stand together, shoulder to shoulder, a few feet away, watching.
Inside the huddle, a howl breaks out, quickly echoed by the rest of the pack: “1-2-3 FAMILY.”
* * *
Thunderwolves men’s basketball returns to the Thunderdome tonight where Lakehead will host the visiting Brock Badgers as part of a two-game weekend. The games tip at 8:00pm on both Friday and Saturday, following the women’s games.