A woman in white basketball uniform highfives her teammates

Amber Lease enters the floor, surrounded by her supportive teammates / Image via Kev @kourts1de

After years of waiting, VIU will finally host the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Women’s Basketball Nationals from March 25–27.

VIU was initially going to host the event in 2020; however, the outbreak of COVID-19 sidelined those plans. For some, it represents a second chance, one that resembles “normal life”—what should have been.

But for the athletes, staff, students, and local fans of the Mariners, the CCAA Nationals mean much more. 

The story of the Mariners women’s basketball team is one of overcoming adversity, community pride, the importance of teamwork and, of course, the incredible feats of female athletes.

The Mariners have been the hot topic on campus during the 2021-2022 season.

Engagement with Mariners-related social media has been off the charts, with reshares and reposts all over the timelines of VIU students. This excitement extends beyond the campus, with many Nanaimo locals, even ones lacking ties to the university, keeping up with the athletes and their accomplishments.

The excitement largely stems from the Mariners’ incredible play this year. 

Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as the men’s and women’s volleyball teams, have spent time at the top of the national rankings in their division. These teams boast conference all-stars, all-rookie team selections, and multiple player of the year selections.

Mariners athletic clubs have long been bastions of excellence. The women’s basketball team is no exception. 

In the final game of the season against the Camosun Chargers, the women’s squad showed why they are worthy of their high ranking.

As the Mariners kept scoring and their lead widened, the crowd—made up of students, families, locals, and even young children—got louder. A play as simple as a drawn charge by a Mariner would result in an eruption of noise, both from the children banging the garbage can drums and from the spirited VIU bench.

The game was a spectacle as the Mariners showed off their suffocating defense, lighting it up on offense when they had to. VIU shut down Camosun in the first half, the Chargers struggling to put the ball in the basket. 

After a few missed shots, the Mariners got in rhythm and went on a 7-0 run, the first of many lopsided stretches in a game where VIU was able to hold Camosun scoreless for long periods of time.

The third quarter saw an offensive explosion from the Mariners, with three-point shots being splashed from deep and pretty passing plays leading to perfectly executed buckets. The fourth quarter was for experimentation, as the team tried different lineup combinations and set plays they hadn’t used in the game yet.

The final score was 90–62, the Mariners holding the lead the entire game. Afterwards, Head Coach and Nanaimo native Tony Bryce honored graduating stars Kiara Johnston, Shayce Johnston, and Amber Lease.

“We were ready to go, we were honouring three humongous members of our program and our community,” Bryce said at their game against Camosun. “I thought for three quarters we were outstanding. In the fourth quarter we were working on things, but we got it done.”

There is nobody who understands what it means to be a Mariner more than Bryce. He played for the team in the ’90s and served as Head Coach of the men’s team, which he led to an impressive record of 87 wins and only 15 losses in six seasons. 

“My heart, soul, and blood is in that school, and I know the coaches well. I have thought about moving away to coach at a different school, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I am a Mariner,” he said.

Indeed, this commitment displayed from their head coach has become a pillar of the Mariners culture. When asked how he would define the women’s basketball team’s identity, he gave three words.

“Depth, toughness and defense. We wear people out; we are no fun to play against.”

This gritty philosophy can be seen throughout the entire roster, but perhaps the player that exemplifies it the most is veteran floor general, Amber Lease.

Coming to VIU from southern Oregon, Lease has built a large collection of accolades. Since she joined the program, the Mariners women’s basketball club has had an incredible total of 52 wins, compared to only 2 losses. 

Her play in these games earned her multiple All Canadian team berths, a PACWEST MVP, multiple PACWEST gold medals and back-to-back PACWEST championships. Her shiftiness and unwillingness to back down, even against much larger opponents, has gotten her the moniker “the little engine that could.”

When Lease came to Nanaimo, she didn’t just bring her skills, talent and hard work. She brought her expectations of winning and of being recognized as one of the best teams in the nation.

“I have always been in a program that’s wanted to be the best. During my two years in community college in Oregon, I played for one of the best coaches on the west coast, and so I came into VIU expecting to win,” Lease said candidly. “I expected to get our program to the national tournament and to be nationally recognized.”

Despite Lease’s dominance on the court, she admits that her confidence and knowledge of the game has grown tremendously since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I will say my first four years, I definitely would get really nervous before games and I would overthink things at times. I wouldn’t see the whole game itself,” she said. “I got the opportunity to go home and coach . . . view the game more from an analyst perspective, and look at the big picture.”

This season is Lease’s last with the club. The CCAA Nationals will be the final test for her as a member of the Mariners.

“Winning would mean so much more than I could imagine or want to think about. It would mean a lot for our program, it would mean a lot to Tony, trying to transition this program into a national powerhouse, and it would be the best way for us seniors to end our career,” she said.

In perhaps the most fitting of send-offs, Lease was honoured again as the PACWEST Women’s Basketball Player of the Year.

These national championships have been a long time coming as she, and athletes around the globe, had to experience the devastation of their leagues being shut down indefinitely due to COVID-19.

“The cancellation was the worst heartbreak I’ve ever felt,” Lease said. “You have all these expectations, everything you’ve worked towards all year long, and this dream, plan, vision of accomplishing one thing has been shattered. It’s the biggest stage you can play on at this level.”

The announcement of the tournament’s cancellation caused plenty of shock and disbelief among the players, which turned to a feeling of hopelessness. 

Now the Mariners women’s basketball team has a chance to redeem the lost year and show Canada why they are a force to be reckoned with, in front of a crowd made up of their own.

While March is known on college campuses across North America as the month of basketball championships, it is also Women’s History Month. This month celebrates the great accomplishments by women in every field of life, including sports.

The CCAA Nationals provide a great opportunity to showcase the hard-working, athletic, talented, and resilient women that make up VIU’s basketball team. 

“Our team is full of strong and independent women, with their own personalities and their own minds,” Lease said. “We will celebrate each other as a team together, and it is something important for us and every woman, not just Mariners athletes, to feel a part of.”

With people of all ages and walks of life encouraged to come to the event, perhaps the next generation of Mariners will be inspired by the play on the court. 

The championships offer the opportunity for VIU’s local sports heroes to become local sports legends. 

“I highly recommend that people get out to the national championship; the level of play is exceptional,” Bryce said. “The pace of the game will be at such a high level, especially from the competitors coming from out East.”

When asked if she had any words for Mariners fans, VIU students, and other readers of The Nav, Lease had one thing to say:

“We are at full capacity. Let’s pack the gym.”

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