Issue 98

Cover Story, Chantal Vallee - Giving Windsor a New Sense of Pride. By D.J. Telfer.

Chantal Vallée Giving Windsor a new sense of pride.

Give an artist a blank canvass or a musician an instrument to play and turn talent and imagination into beautiful sights and sounds. Give a visionary director a dedicated cast and turn fiction into reality. Give Chantal Vallée a desperately bad basketball team and turn a doormat into a dynasty.

When Chantal Vallée decided to come to the University of Windsor and take over the women basketball program in 2005 there were many who thought she was making the wrong decision.

Seven consecutive OUA West Division titles and (count them) five straight CIS National Championships later, not only was it the right decision, it’s historical.

Only one other team, the Laurentian Voyageurs, has ever won five consecutive CIS women titles and that was accomplished in the late 1970s.

Now the 2014-15 U of W women basketball team share those honours. It is a historical achievement and leaves no doubt the U of W women basketball program has been developed into the best in the country. And there is no doubt the credit for this goes to Chantal Vallée. Which leaves just a couple of questions: will the coach be back next year and can the women Lancers joust their way to one more history-making title?

“Yes,” said Chantal in answer to the first question but she couldn’t hide the growing smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, “as of now, yes I’ll be back next year.”

Hidden behind that smile was an open door. The future of the most successful coach in the history of U of W women basketball is not to closed to possibilities. If the right opportunity were to walk in, say, coach of the Canadian national team, not only would Chantal be compelled to accept (it would be another dream come true) she is deserving of the opportunity.

And to the question of winning again next year – well she would not rule it out but she’s too smart to make any guarantees except one.

“As long as I stay at Windsor we will be successful.” The confidence in her voice was as steady as the look in her eyes. “This is who we are now,” she continued, “we are not going to change.”

In this year’s championship game the Windsor Lancers defeated the McGill Martlets 60-47. The national finals were held in Quebec City where Chantal lived for ten years. She was more than familiar with her surroundings – it felt like coming home for the Montreal native – and she is a graduate of McGill University which made winning this year’s championship all the more especial. Of course the whole five-in-row thing was kind of cool too.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome to win the fifth one in Quebec!” She said reflecting back. It was a thought that had been lingering in her mind since the start of the season so when it happened and against her alma mater, it was another dream come true and even the ever stoical Chantal was overwhelmed by her emotions.

“Right after the game I was hugging one of our coaches and I just started crying.” she said. “I usually keep in control and I was surprised I was crying...but it was the excitement of the moment... it was all just a very emotional.”

In the final game, the team was led by seniors Korissa Williams and Jocelyn LaRocque who became the first individual players to hoist the Bronze Baby trophy five straight times in nearly 40 years. Williams who was voted tournament MVP for the second time in three years (2013) led all scorers with 21 points. She also gathered in 14 rebounds while adding seven assists and six steals.

The Lancers were the number 1 rated team in the country and posted a 19-1 record this season. During their drive for five the team amounted an incredible 102-5 record.

This remarkable turnaround from a perennial disappointment to a national powerhouse is the stuff of legends. And no one dared to dream it except of course, Chantal Vallée but even she admitted there were moments when the challenge of winning a national championship appeared too daunting.

“In the beginning the dream seemed impossible.” she said but she insisted that no matter how impossible the dream might have seemed she was entirely committed and even more, she believed it. She said the key was maintaining “a clear direction.”

That direction included setting a new mind-set, a new perspective for players, coaches...the entire program.

“We needed to change the culture here,” she explained. “we wanted to show our sincerity for transforming the program...and we needed everybody to see we were going to win at some point.”

Coach Vallée came to Windsor as the youngest coach in the CIS. She came despite the criticism and despite the woeful past of the women basketball program. She came with a five-year plan and with full intentions of bringing a national championship to Windsor. She came unafraid of the challenges and she came here because she could imagine winning here.

History would have begged to differ.

In the two seasons prior to Chantal’s arrival the women Lancers posted an 8-36 win-loss record. There were no banners hanging from the rafters. They had never competed for the CIS trophy, they had never once appeared in the national tournament.

To create a new picture, to play a new tune, to act differently, coach Vallée painted her own vision for the program. She emphasized core values which were (and still are) more about life skills than basketball skills.

With a Master’s Degree in Sports Philosophy from McGill, Chantal said her own doctrine while inclined toward realism also embraces the abstract, she said, “it’s not about sports, it is all based in character.”

In other words, she believes the commitments and dedication to sport should be mirrored in life. The intangibles are the same and interchangeable, she believes success is not measured by winning but calculated in respect and integrity on and off the court.

Still, considering her women Lancers have ridden rough-shod over the entire league for the past five years others might not regard the experience as a cordial intercourse, but it has been delightful to watch.

After noticeable improvements the first two years (but no playoffs) the third year yielded a peek into the excitement yet to come for the women. The team went a respectable 14-8 and made it to the playoffs but did not advance further. However the momentum was building and the team coach Vallée was still building were embracing her vision and beginning to believe in themselves.

In 2008-2009 the Lancers churned like a whirlwind and they ripped the league apart posting a sparkling 21-1 record. They had finally made it to the big-dance but these young upstarts were not quite ready to live at the top and finished fourth in the national tournament.

The next year was nearly the same, they only lost two regular season games and made it to the finals again but lost in the championship game. But in that defeat the women learned how to win.

In 2011, a season of beautifully choreographed performances the once dejected, defeated and lowly Lancers, a team which had been lying like a doormat out on the stoop for these many long years were ready for top billing; and they were notabout to tap lightly on the door and politely ask to come in. Instead, the 2011 Women Lancers kicked the door right off its hinges and moved into the CIS penthouse. They have been there ever since.

“You have to have vision.” Chantal had said at the beginning of our interview. “and then you have to bring that vision to term.”

So after six years of molding and shaping. Six years of adding different colours, different music, different characters, Chantal had brought her visions to term and her dreams had come true. She had her masterpiece. Now what?

She thought about leaving.

“After all the excitement was over I felt a huge crash,” she admitted. “I felt lost. I had been on a six year rush and now it was over. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”

Well it did not take long for her to shake off the melancholy and let her dreams and imagination rise again. Once she started to focus on next year the visions grew clearer and like an artist she embraced the challenge of painting another masterpiece. No it did not take too long for her to dream about winning it all again and to feel the rush begin to build once more. The rest as they say, is history.

The accomplishments of the women Lancer basketball teams and the coaching of Chantal Vallée have garnered national attention. It is no secret Chantal is regarded by many as the best coach in the country and it would be hard to dispute it. There are many who court her favour including American suitors. Indeed, the door is open to possibilities and so it should be. Although winning five consecutive championships should be more than enough to satisfy any coaching career, Chantal is not just any coach and she is far from the end of her career. She still has much more to achieve.

Chantal has vision and creativeness that transcends sports “it’s about the human spirit...the human being and character” she said. “Sport is just a part of life.”

She has the passion every coach would claim but very few possess and she has a natural ability to turn nothing into something, something into extraordinary and the extraordinary into the sublime.

Her personality, her confidence, her skills as a coach and teacher; as a mentor and leader; and her successes at Windsor are now legendary but of course there is so much more to write about Chantal Vallée. There are her Olympic experiences, her involvement with the national team, her 2014 Coach of the Year honours and her future aspirations to name just a few. But her legacy is not yet to be written – there are many chapters still to be scripted in the life and career of Chantal Vallée.

And if or when the day comes and she chooses to leave, her decision will be the right one and will not in any way detract from her love for Windsor or for her lady Lancers. It will not diminish her enduring accomplishments or her historical achievements.

“I am so proud to have achieved this in Windsor.” Chantal said affectionately, “and I am proud to have brought greater recognition for the University and for women basketball.”

Last, but hardly least. It’s true, winning is addictive but with every win, with every title the desire and the pressure to win again grows exponentially. To all the U of W women basketball players who have been a part of this amazing run; grinding out the regular seasons year after year; staying focused and centred through-out the post-seasons, keeping composed under the mounting pressures, well done!

Not only have you given great honour to yourselves and the University of Windsor, you have given the entire city a new sense of pride.

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