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Thunderwolves women’s basketball coach Jon Kreiner finds himself shouting a little louder these days. The long-time bench boss has finally returned to helm the women’s squad after last year’s cancelled season, but he’s relishing the vocal strain.
“I’m so happy, excited, thrilled—throw all the adjectives in there—that’s how it feels to coach in front of fans again,” Kreiner says inside his office steps away from his squad’s home court. “I’m happy for the girls, and honestly for myself as well, to have that feel-good rush back.” He pauses for a moment as players pass the door, early arrivals for practice. “It’s good to be back,” he adds.
Lakehead’s women’s team will finally return to regular season home action this weekend when they face the Brock Badgers in the Thunderdome, but for Kreiner, the preview of a pair of preseason home games against the Algoma Thunderbirds have set the season in motion.
“It was fantastic—we had a pretty good crowd out, which was very cool,” he says. “We have so many first-year players, they don’t even know what it’s like to play in the Thunderdome, so they got to experience that.”
They certainly did. The dimmed lights, the crunchy guitars and heavy drums of ACDC’s Thunderstruck pumping through the gym, the player introductions, the raucous fans, it was all part of a whirlwind weekend that saw Lakehead pick up two exhibition wins by a combined 65 points.
But Kreiner has a challenge ahead of himself—his team returns only six players from the 2019-20 squad, with only two—veteran standouts Sofia Lluch and Tiffany Reynolds—who saw substantial minutes. In fact, the Thunderwolves have replaced over 155 minutes out of a possible 200 minutes of playing time from two years ago, including three starters.
Their start to OUA regular season play was a slow one, dropping two straight to the McMaster Marauders in Hamilton, Ontario, including allowing fourth-year McMaster guard Sarah Gates 57 combined points.
The deluge from the Marauders guard is indicative of the importance of Thunderwolves returning team captain and defensive leader Tiffany Reynolds’ stellar physical play. Reynolds faced foul trouble in the weekend away, presenting her with what could be a year-long challenge of matching defensive intensity with controlled play. Reynolds needs to pair her force of will with efforts required of a leader.
She isn’t shying away from the challenge.
“I have a lot of new responsibilities now,” Reynolds says, acknowledging that early cohesiveness could propel the Thunderwolves forward. “We have a good group of girls this year—we’re all pretty connected. We have great team chemistry right now, it’s really exciting.”
This year’s team has a whopping eight players within their first two years of eligibility, including five in their first year. The first year players include talented recruits from other provinces like Manitoba and Quebec, a duo from Spain, and a heady guard from Timmins, Ontario.
“I think with this team youth is a strength,” Kreiner says. “This group, especially once Paula gets back from the injured list, once we get our team healthy and through everything a few times, once we finally get there we’re gonna be a pretty tough team to beat.”
“We have so many young players,” guard Hana Whalen says. She is the sole player on the squad hailing from Thunder Bay and is in only in her second year of eligibility, but is already one of the longest-tenured Thunderwolves—she knows they will need to work hard to grow up quickly. “It will be a great year to build our team,” she adds. “Time to set the groundwork for going from good to great.”
“We’re all hard workers,” Reynolds says, and she isn’t speaking lightly. On the court she is a force that overwhelms opposition—exploding for rebounds off a concrete boxout, bursting into passing lanes for steals, suffocating ball-handlers with an unshakeable defensive presence. She is the team’s vocal leader on the floor, but she also leads by doing.
“I’m always trying to lift everyone up,” Reynolds says. “I have to put them ahead of me and say ‘it’s ok, you’ve got this—we’re going to crush it.’”
So far the women’s basketball team has returned from the long hiatus to go 2-2 in preseason, including two early losses at the University of Manitoba along with the aforementioned home wins against Algoma, as well as the 0-2 finish against McMaster in last weekend.
This year’s lightly condensed schedule will see them play 16 total regular season games, including their first set of home games in league play on November 12th and 13th against the Brock Badgers.
“We look forward to fans coming out to support their Thunderwolves and cheering them on,” Kreiner says.
“My mom has a lot of friends she always brings to games,” Whalen adds with a laugh. “It’s a little nerve-racking sometimes, but it’s always nice to have all that support from them, from my hometown.”
At the mention of Thunderwolves fans, Reynolds—already a smiling dynamo of personality, perks up.
“We love you!” She says. “You’re all Wolves.”