How the UPEI Panthers became the top team in U Sports women's basketball

·4 min read
Jenna Mae Ellsworth is the all-time leading scorer in UPEI history.  (Janessa Hogan/UPEI - image credit)
Jenna Mae Ellsworth is the all-time leading scorer in UPEI history. (Janessa Hogan/UPEI - image credit)

For the first time in the program's history, the UPEI women's basketball team is ranked the best in the country, and it's gotten there with homegrown talent.

"It's huge. We've worked for everything we received, I believe. A lot of it comes from a lot of hard work," said the team's star, Jenna Mae Ellsworth.

"There's a lot that goes into it. It's really nice to see. But we are just going day by day, trying to get better."

The team has won all nine of its games so far, led by the fifth-year Ellsworth, who is from Prince Edward Island.

Janessa Hogan/UPEI
Janessa Hogan/UPEI

The ranking is far from unforeseen. Before COVID-19, the Panthers won the Atlantic University Sport championship in 2020, and went on to earn the bronze medal at U Sports nationals.

"It opened everybody's eyes to the fact that we can do this. We can create a national championship level program in a place like Charlottetown, P.E.I.," head coach Matt Gamblin said.

"It really broadened not only the player's, but the program and the community's horizons about what we can accomplish here."

Homegrown star

Ellsworth grew up watching the Panthers play. She was born and raised in Charlottetown, and would go to UPEI games as a kid.

"I would go to any basketball game I could. I love being in the gym," said Ellsworth, whose mother used to coach the team.

Now, she's the team's star.

In 2020, Jenna Mae Ellsworth was named the top U Sports player in women's basketball. That same year she was the Atlantic University Sport player of the year, and defensive player of the year.

She's also the school's all-time leading scorer, and counting.

Gamblin says that comes from a lot of hard work.

Janessa Hogan/UPEI
Janessa Hogan/UPEI

Gamblin remembers Ellsworth was the first person he met when interviewing for the UPEI head coaching gig.

She was on her second workout of the day, with another one planned for later.

"Every accolade that she has received, every amount of attention she has earned is through sheer dedication and hard work," Gamblin said.

Gordon McNeilly says he knew Ellsworth would be a star when she committed to playing for her hometown team. McNeilly's daughter played for the Panthers, and he now does play-by-play for the team's webcast.

"She does what her team needs her to do. If she's going to score 25 points a game, it's going to be within the flow of the game, and those players don't come along everyday," McNeilly said.

Rise to the top

The Panthers didn't make their jump to the top of the standings until a few years ago. In the 2015-2016 season, UPEI was 6-14. But then the team made its move.

The next season they had a winning record, and in 2020 they won the conference and the bronze medal.

Despite this success, Gamblin doesn't want the team to change its approach. As cliché as it might seem, he's just focused on the next game.

Tracy Ellsworth
Tracy Ellsworth

"It really is just trying to get better every single day. We work hard on focusing on only things we can control," Gamblin said.

"There's no reason why you can't create a national level program in a place like UPEI."

Community team

The team has a close connection with its fans, who flock to the gym on Fridays and Saturdays to cheer on their Panthers.

Fans like McNeilly have witnessed the team grow into the national contenders they are now.

"Their U Sports run before COVID was an incredible moment for our community. There were viewing parties. There were people travelling to Ottawa, and for them to finish third, it was a pretty incredible experience for the whole entire community," McNeilly said.

PEI Man Up
PEI Man Up

Gamblin says watching a team like this can promote growth of the game in the community, and potentially more stars like Ellsworth.

"Jenna Mae is definitely on a pedestal for kids in the community, but they are very familiar with her. They're able to see to an extent the work that she puts in," Gamblin said.

"When you can come to a game on a Friday night … the more that they're exposed to that, the more they can see themselves in that roll down the road and have something to work towards."

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