By: Monty Mosher
Len Harvey is thrilled to coach the top-ranked women's basketball team in the country.
But he knows the accolade doesn't buy much come March.
There was a time in the not so distant past that the Acadia Axewomen basketball team struggled for wins and credibility. It's not the case any more.
The Axewomen are No. 1 in the land, something that doesn't happen to AUS teams very often and had never happened to Acadia until last week, when they grabbed the honour from the Regina Cougars.
And why not. The Axewomen, with 10 Nova Scotia players on the roster, are 7-0 in conference play and 15-1 overall thanks to a jam-packed non-conference schedule Harvey engineered to build up the team's reputation across the U Sports landscape.
The only loss came against Regina at a tournament in Calgary in early October.
MVP candidate Paloma Anderson, the AUS leading scorer, is a once-in-a-generation talent for the Axewomen, but it doesn't end there.
Harvey, in his third year with the Axewomen after replacing Bev Greenlaw, said he wants to avoid peaks and valleys in his program. But he understands he has a rare blend this season.
"They (the veterans) are really solid players," Harvey said. "But at the same we are getting huge production out of a second-year and a third-year player.
"The emphasis always trends towards the seniors, and don't get me wrong they are amazing. But I don't think the contributions of some of the underclassmen should get lost in that shuffle. It's a great group."
As for building toward this year, that would be a bit of a stretch. Harvey said the team wanted to win last year, when it lost the AUS final to Cape Breton, and the year before, when the Capers edged them in the semifinals.
"I think it's just made them hungrier more than anything else," he said.
Berry is a six-foot-one senior from Yarmouth. She said the players and coaches have put the work in and reaped the rewards.
She said nobody is thinking past the next game. There is plenty of depth to hold all the players accountable.
"We just focus on the small goals rather than the big goals," she said. "I think other people thought this could be our season, but we take it step by step.
"It's a special group. We have returning players who have been together for four years now and a lot of great rookies on the team this year."
Team chemistry is often little more than learning from hard knocks. The Axewomen have that.
Some of the players are from a time when the program fought just to make the playoffs.
"They've gone through some learn years, too," said Harvey. "They've felt the other side of it, which is important. I think that kind of shapes who they are as a team. It's not like the kid who has been given everything. They've had to work for everything they've got."
The team operates with a high-performance mindset without any of the locker-room issues that night come from the pressure created.
"Everybody wants to be better and they are doing whatever they can to contribute to that," Harvey said.
Experience is a great teacher, but frequently a cruel one. Acadia toppled four-time champion Saint Mary's a year ago in the semifinals, only to watch the Capers cart off the banner and the trip to nationals.
"Every possession in the playoffs is so important" said Harvey. "I think it takes being there to realize that.
"For us, I think a lot of lightbulbs have gone off about how consistently we need to compete."
As for the No. 1 ranking, it's a champagne toast to a good start.
"I'm a big AUS guy and I think it is special for our conference to have that for basketball," he said. "It's a great thing whether it is us or someone else. I'm glad it is us, but I'd be excited for the other teams as well if they had that going.
"For us, we get to have that moment in the sun, but really it's about what is front of us every day. Our girls are pretty focused on that. We take out little moments to celebrate it, but that stuff can go away as quickly as it comes. They want to defend it now. They want to prove they are not an underdog."
Berry said it is an honour. And that's that.
"I think it is important that it puts the AUS back on the map for women's basketball," she said. "But we need to keep pounding."