Last year was one of the wildest in the history of the Vancouver Island University Mariners women's basketball program.
They battled injuries, eligibility issues and a slow start, but still managed to rally post-Christmas to their first Pacific Western Athletic Association title in 15 years and a fifth place finish at the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association championships.
On Saturday in Victoria, they open their first provincial title defence at the Camosun Chargers.
"We're looking forward to it, it will be fun," said head coach Bill McWhinnie. "Instead of beating up on each other, we get to play some of the teams in our league now and start building towards March."
The M's return most of their lineup from last season, but already are dealing with a couple of injuries that will trip them up in the early going, with centre Alicia Grossi and guard Jamie Macfarlane already on the limp.
One player who is healthy is all-Canadian guard Jocelyn Jones, which is huge, considering she missed much of the first half of last season with a bad hamstring.
This will be her last season with VIU, and she wants to make it a memorable one.
"It makes me more hungry," she said. "Pressure wouldn't be the right word to describe it with me."
If any team is mentally prepared to deal with the adversity of injuries, however, it is this group.
"It's a long season," said McWhinnie. "There's going to be some bumps in the road and as long as we learn from them and get better, if anything it gave other kids more playing time and made them better.
"As long as we're healthy for provincials, that's all that matters."
To help ride the storm out early, they will once again rely on contributions from some of their young players. Macfarlane was a benefactor of this last year, as was Jenna Carver and Heather McCarthy.
This year McWhinnie will be leaning on new recruits like Wellington Wildcats Mariah Van-Sickle and Taelar Keir as well as Washington import Amanda Tapia.
"First half of the year we can weather storm and get healthier, and it's only going to make us better," said McWhinnie.
Another boost over last season is the full-time contribution of fifth-year forward Erin Vekic, 21.
The Port Coquitlam native transferred to VIU last season from the Kwantlen Eagles, but do to a technicality was ruled in eligible for the first semester.
But she was a major cog in their post-Christmas turnaround.
It is an experience she is hoping to build off.
"I think we've learned a lot and I think it's only made us better and stronger and made us work harder," she said. "I think we all want to succeed, but since it is my last year, it makes you value your time more and make you want to enjoy every moment of it."
Coming off a PacWest championship with a veteran team, expectations are high for the Mariners.
McWhinnie cautions, though, that the PacWest is a stronger conference this year with a number of programs, including Camosun, improving.
"I think they're the most talented team in the league," said McWhinnie of the Chargers. "They've got some veteran kids back, they've got a couple of new kids that are very talented and they're well coached."
He is doing his best to take the pressure off his team this season as they get used to being the defending league champions. It is a new position for the Mariners to be in.
"I don't know if we feel a target on our back, it's a brand new team and a brand new year," said McWhinnie.
"We've won that championship, you can't take it away, so we're trying to win another one."
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