Smashing Expectations: Brock Women’s Basketball’s Storybook Run of 2019-20

St.Catharines,ON- The trophy awarded to the OUA women’s basketball champions is called the “Critelli Cup.” It is named for Chris Critelli, an iconic figure in Canadian basketball. She played for Canada at the 1976 Olympics at the age of 17. She attended Laurentian University, where she won two U SPORTS championships with them and went on to play for Old Dominion in the NCAA where she won two more championships, a feat accomplished by no other player. 

Brock University's Assistant Athletic Director Chris Critelli holds up the OUA trophy that's been renamed the Critelli Cup in her honour.
Chris Critelli with the trophy named in her honour (Brock University)

For the first time in the history of the trophy, Critelli presented it to the Brock Women’s Basketball team, a program that she helped build. Critelli spent over 30 years with Brock as a coach and then later, assistant athletic director. Critelli joined the program as an assistant coach in 1982. In 1983 the Badgers won the OUA championship, their only title. That is, until this past season. 

Badgers banner
The Badgers with the 2020 Critelli Cup (Stephen Leithwood)

The Badgers weren’t exactly a team that anyone was expecting big things from this season. They finished the 2018-19 season with a 11-13 record, ultimately losing in the quarterfinals to the McMaster Maradeurs. It was an improvement from the 2017-18 season where the Badgers went 6-18 which ultimately led them to the decision to part ways with their coach. 

She was replaced with Mike Rao. Rao’s hiring led to two old faces return to the team, Melissa Tatti and Jessica Morris returned after taking the 17/18 season off from university basketball, opting to transfer. The 2016 second team all star unquestionably became a centrepiece of the team upon her return. 

Making it to the quarterfinal in 18/19 was a massive step forward for the once struggling team, but it wasn’t enough. This season was going to be the last at Brock for Tatti and Morris. 

The Badgers started their season with a bang in the home opener, toppling the Ryerson Rams for the first time since 2013, 68-58. Tatti led the charge with 15 points but maintained that the team needed to stay humble and focus on the season as a whole, no matter how good a single victory might have felt. 

(Brock Women’s Basketball Instagram)

They won the next two, making it three wins in a row. As the season progressed it became clearer and clearer that the Badgers were a team to watch. They finished the season second in the central conference, a single win behind Ryerson. 

Their quarterfinal faceoff against Windsor proved what some already knew, nothing was going to come easily for this team. Windsor led 51-32 going into the fourth quarter, it looked like the Badgers might just make another hasty exit from the OUA playoffs. The Badgers scored 29 points and held the Lancers to just six in the fourth. It was a storybook comeback to add to their already unbelievable season. 

They played a close game with Western in the semi-finals, staging yet another comeback in the second half of the game.

The only thing standing between them and the Critelli cup were the Ryerson Rams, who had won the central conference and earned a first round bye. They had played twice in the regular season, winning one each. The Badgers were going into the final ranked No. 6 nationally, the Rams were ranked No. 2. The Badgers, who had been previously dubbed “comeback queens” shrugged off that title and maintained control for the majority of the game, never giving up the lead after leading 44-38 at halftime. 

Melissa Tatti at Ryerson
(Mackenzie Gerry)

Melissa Tatti, the team’s 5’4” point guard scored 19 points, but it was third year Sam Keltos, a 6’3” centre who put the team on her back. Keltos scored a career high 42 points in the final against Ryerson. Keltos had played two seasons for St. Francis in the NCAA but returned to her hometown of St. Catharines to play for the Badgers, a decision that proved absolutely worth it. 

It was the kind of season people make movies about, defeating their rivals, mounting comebacks, winning on the performances of their graduating seniors, being handed the trophy by a woman who had been there the last time the Badgers won. 

And it wasn’t even over yet. The Badgers headed to Ottawa for the U SPORTS National Championship. They went in knowing they could win. By winning the Critelli cup, they had already surpassed expectations, but the Badgers had made a season out of defying expectations and then pushing even further. 

It came down to a single point against the University of Calgary Dinos in their first game out the tournament. The Badgers squeaked out the win, 72-71 with Sam Keltos continuing her stellar playoff performance with 24 points. Tatti, the recently crowned OUA player of the year came in with 17 points.

Keltos and Tatti combined for a little over half the Badgers points in the semi against UPEI. Keltos earned player of the match for the second time in a row and for the first time in school history, the Badgers would be going for gold. There were tears as Badgers reflected on a moment that they hadn’t even thought to dream of at the beginning of the season. The best Brock has ever placed is third nationally, and they were guaranteed at least a second place finish. 

For a handful of the starters taking the court, they knew this was going to be their last game. This was the first time Brock would even have the chance at gold in program history, the first time they’d made it to nationals since 2001/02. The Badgers won the tipoff, Tatti scored first, but the Huskies were the better team at the end of the day. They led briefly, in the second quarter, after Keltos hit a three to put them up 31-29, but the Huskies dug in and led 45-33 at halftime. 

The Badgers never regained the lead, but they never stopped playing. In the final minutes of the game, the starters returned to the bench and the younger players took over. Second year, Elise Euale hit a three and the crowd of Brock fans who had made the journey to Ottawa rejoiced. 

The Badgers finished the tournament with silver medals around their necks and a newfound understanding of what it takes to win. The Badgers lost Tatti and Morris to graduation, but Keltos remains, Euale is on the right track to become something special. Most important of all, especially to the graduating Badgers, they put Brock back on everyone’s radar. 

2019-20 OUA Champions
(Stephen Leithwood)

Brock is a small school and championships are not exactly the norm. Not in the big team sports at least. Brock has wrestling banners lining the walls of their gymnasiums, but not much else, some curling banners, a handful of rowing championships. There’s not much to cheer for as a Brock student, but the women’s basketball team packed the stands. Even the Brock meme pages on Instagram got on board with their championship run. Badgers who didn’t hop on the bus to watch the Badgers live packed around screens on campus. The monitors that normally displayed the news and the weather were tuned to the Badgers. When the women returned from Ottawa, there was a crowd waiting to greet them as they threw their hands in the air and chanted their coach’s name. Rao had been named OUA coach of the year, and clearly, the basketball team agreed.

In just two seasons, the Badgers went from one of the worst teams in the OUA to provincial champions, national runners up. It was an impressively fast turnaround that could be attributed to any number of things, Keltos’ transfer, the returns of Tatti and Morris, a new coach, a new culture. Whatever it was, the Badgers learned what it takes to be contenders. 

Cover Photo: Brock Badgers Athletics

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