By John DeCoste
Two years ago, the Acadia men’s basketball team had its share of talent, but was short on experience in competing for a national title. The results reflected that reality, as the Axemen lost both games they played.
Two CIS Final Eight appearances later, the 2012-2013 Axemen are quietly confident entering what will be, for a number of them, their third straight appearance at nationals this weekend in Ottawa.
Anthony Sears, Owen Klassen, Tom Filgiano and Lauchlan Gale will all be competing at the Final Eight for a third time as Axemen.
This will be the second appearance at the Final Eight as an Acadia player for Anthony Ashe - not counting his time at Carleton before that – as well as Sean Stoqua, Brad States, Tyler Scott, Shaquille Smith and Jonathan Tull.
All 10 were part of last year’s Acadia team that went 2-1 at the Final Eight and captured the CIS consolation title. A.J. Simmonds, Kyle Arseneault and Kyle Jennex are Final Eight rookies, as the other Axemen players were before them.
For all the Axemen but Ashe, their only nationals experience has been in Halifax. This year’s tournament is being played in Ottawa, which makes the experience extra special for Ottawa natives Gale and Stoqua, and for Ashe, who hails from nearby Stittsville and also spent two years at Carleton.
“Obviously, there are going to be some things different this time, but last year was definitely valuable experience for all of us,” said Stoqua, the second-year point guard who also plays football for Acadia.
As for playing in Ottawa, Stoqua said he is pretty excited.
“The last time it was in Ottawa, I was the ball boy for the tournament,” he said.
Scotiabank Place, where the Final Eight is being held, “isn’t far from where I grew up. I’ve had a fun time volunteering there over the years.”
As for how Acadia might fare, Stoqua admitted he’s feeling pretty good.
“I like our seeding, and for me, it’s going to be exciting to play in front of my family and friends,” he said.
Ashe also feels good about Acadia’s first-round match-up.
“We’ll hopefully get off to a good start, take it one game at a time and see what happens,” he said.
Gale is in somewhat the same position. Scotiabank Place is about 25 minutes from his home, which is, in turn, only minutes from Carleton.
Despite being close to the Ravens growing up, Gale has “absolutely no regrets, none at all” over his decision four years ago to choose Acadia.
“This will be my third trip to nationals in four years, which is a testament to our program,” he added.
In 2008, when Acadia last completed at the nationals in Ottawa, Gale was part of the audience.
“Achuil Lual (a member of the 2008 Axemen) and I both played for the same club program in Ottawa, and he influenced me to come to Acadia,” Gale recalled.
For Gale, this will be the first time in his university career playing in Ottawa. And while all his family will be there to watch him play, he anticipates no extra pressure and is looking forward to the experience.
It will also be the third trip to nationals for Tom Filgiano, who like Gale, is graduating this spring. Filgiano said he’s been aware for some time that every game he plays for the Axemen from now on could be his last.
“It’s definitely bittersweet. It’s nice to get to nationals, but it’ll be tough to see my career end. I’ve had a lot of good times here, made a lot of good friends.”
At the same time, “it’s unreal to be able to go (to nationals) three years in a row, when you consider some players don’t even get to go once.”
As for how Acadia will fare, he’s confident.
“We’re going to win. That’s why we’re there.”
This will also be the third Final Eight for Anthony Sears. The Riverview, N.B. native is also in his fourth year, but like teammate Owen Klassen, is already committed to returning next season to finish out both his degree and his CIS eligibility.
Sears missed the first half of the season recovering from a foot injury, and admitted it was “frustrating” having to sit out. Since his return, Sears, formerly a starter, has been one of the first players off the bench.
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I’m enjoying it now, and I’m still playing the same number of minutes.”
Asked if he is more prepared for nationals this time, due to having been there twice before, Sears said it’s an ongoing process.
“Two years ago, we really had no idea what to expect. Last year, it was a lot more comfortable, and we got to play Carleton, so we know what to expect from them,” he explained.
“I feel we match up well with UBC, and have a solid chance. If we win, we get Carleton, but we’ll have to play them sometime if we hope to win it all.”