For Warren Ward, déjà vu and uncharted water are one and the same.
There is little the Ottawa Gee-Gees' fifth-year floor leader has not encountered in his career, save for going to the CIS Final 8 and expecting to win like Ottawa did in its 82-70 quarter-final win over McGill on Friday. The reminders from his journey were everywhere Friday. The third-seeded Gee-Gees got a push from the Redmen, a program that’s been reborn under Dave DeAveiro, who recruited Ward to Ottawa almost five years ago. It was the best preparation Ottawa could have asked for ahead of its semifinal against Lakehead, which ended Ottawa’s season one game shy of the tournament in 2010 and ’11.
To quote the Jay Baruchel character in Almost Famous — sure it’s a 12½-year-old movie, but it’s a Canadian actor — it’s all happening.
"It’s just a storybook ending for me," Ward, the fifth-year wing, said after putting up 23 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs. "Now I play a team that beat us at the buzzer my third year [in the 2011 OUA semifinal] and beat us in our own gym my second season, it’s going to be special. It’s going to be good.
“I’m excited, the same way I was when I woke up this morning,” he added. “If we get to the finals on Sunday, nothing else but a win is going to satisfy us. I think we can do this. I don't think anybody else thought that at the beginning of the season. I like it. I like all the doubters. I like all the hate. After a bad game, I get all the Tweets. After a good performance, everyone says I'm the greatest. That's just how it goes.”
When DeAveiro decamped from Ottawa to McGill in April 2010, it was fair to wonder what become of the program which has so often been a garnet-and-grey Sisyphus rolling its boulder up Mt. Smart at cross-town rival Carleton. The downtown Ottawa university adhered to the KISS principle and turned the keys over to the boyish Derouin. Three seasons in, Derouin’s team, with Ward and reserve forward James Vig as the only holdovers from the previous regime ("I’m 23, J-Vig is 24 and everyone else is under 21," Ward notes) is imbued with a contagious confidence.
They might have also got a break from No. 7 seed Lakehead taking out No. 2 Cape Breton in the other half of their sub-bracket.
The event is building to the Carleton-Ottawa final that the tournament organizers are craving here in the world’s biggest village, although that might not go over well with CIS hoops fans outside the national capital region. DeAveiro has a part in that narrative, having been the last one to get Ottawa to the national semifinal in 2007. (Ottawa lost to, who else, Carleton.) Three years removed, he’s demurring from any claim in Ottawa’s current flush status.
"I have no place in that, this is James' program," said DeAveiro, whose Redmen had not been to a Final 8 since 1979. "He's done an amazing job with this team. The team's gotten better throughout the year and his kids believe in him and believe in what they're doing. You don't want to play that team. They're very good right now and they have a good chance to win."
The two coaches didn’t chat much during the lead-up to the hotly anticipated matchup.
“Friendship kind of goes out the window there for at least 24 hours anyways on game day,” Derouin said. “You can’t say enough about what Dave’s done with that program. First time at nationals in … I don’t know when 1979 was, it’s a long time ago. And he’s a great coach and they played a great game. I have a lot to thank to Dave for me being in this position.”
Now that the mutual admiration society has adjourned, there’s the matter of Saturday’s Ottawa-Lakehead semifinal (5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m., The Score). Ottawa won by 15 when the teams went head-to-head in November. That was when Ward was only one month into his return from a knee injury. Lakehead is also operating without its leading scorer, Ryan Thomson, who tore his ACL during the Ontario playoffs.
If Ottawa wins, there’s an odds-on chance it gets a fourth crack at Carleton. The Ravens have won the previous three meetings by a combined dozen points; every one of their other wins over CIS teams has been by that margin or greater. Carleton looks as formidable as ever even as coach Dave Smart maintains the Ravens’ nucleaus is a year away from peaking. It’s also arguable none of those rivalry games counted for Carleton, which was assured of a Final 8 berth since it’s a host school.
Know this much: Ottawa is expecting to win in a way it hasn’t in recent memory. That much was obvious when the horn sounded against McGill.
"The celebration seemed pretty tame, I thought, for a team that’s going to the national championship semifinals so that tells me the guys understand there’s more work to be done," Derouin said. "When it comes to nationals, you look at the minutes on both teams — 33s and 35s and 37s — we just gotta rest up. Having the earlier game [Friday] helps us a little bit — a couple extra hours’ rest, we’re just gonna get food and fluid. These guys are young. There’s no time to be tired at this point.”
That traces back to their court leader, Ward, who learned not to take the game for granted after tearing an ACL in January 2012.
"I've been motivated since the beginning of time, since I came back,” the London, Ont., native said. “This [reaching the semifinal] just adds fuel to the fire for me.”
So did his old coach's current team providing a push.
"McGill's tough, man," Ward said. "Any team coached by DeAveiro is going to play hard. I got a nasty elbow in the back of my head. They compete hard."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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