By Ellen Tsaprailis
Photos by Chris Roussakis and UVic Vikes Athletics
The melodic rhythm of basketballs bouncing and running shoes squeaking on the hardwood floor reverberates through the Ravens’ Nest gym in Alumni Hall on an early September afternoon. But when the masked 41-year-old speaks, the sounds go silent mid-pivot.
Even though Dani Sinclair, the new head coach of the Carleton Ravens women’s basketball team, has yet to lead her squad into a game — and may not do so for some time, amid one of the most unconventional starts ever to a coaching job — the players’ respect is already apparent.
Sinclair, who had been behind the University of Victoria Vikes’ bench for eight years, started at Carleton on May 1. She was introduced by video from the west coast and oversaw online team meetings and individual fitness workouts from remote until August, when players were permitted to begin practicing.
They can remove their masks when they’re on the court — Sinclair keeps hers on — but must maintain distance from their teammates. Fortunately, the gym has eight hoops, so there’s plenty of room to spread out, and the balls are sanitized after each session.
The backdrop to these safety protocols, of course, is Ontario University Athletics’ decision to cancel all varsity sports until at least April 2021, in line with provincial public health guidelines.
Because practices are an hour shorter than they used to be and players cannot scrimmage, Sinclair is instead focused on basketball fundamentals: shooting, passing and ball handling. She also has more time to analyze video with the team and discuss strategy.
“We haven’t got bogged down by what we can’t do,” says Sinclair.
“Timelines are different, but I can still plan a season, and we’ll continue to challenge our athletes in whatever ways possible. We usually have to balance skill work with putting in team systems. Now there’s a real opportunity for these women to get better both offensively and defensively.”
The ability to build competitive spirit — even in this stifled environment — has defined Sinclair throughout her basketball career.
Growing up across the street from the University of Guelph, her family would rent out their basement to students. One of those students, Caroline Kealy, played varsity basketball and helped coach Sinclair’s Grade 8 team. Kealy taught Sinclair how to shoot and instilled a love of basketball while she practiced every day on her driveway.
“I played every sport I could until I was out of high school, but I was always pulled just a little more to basketball,” says Sinclair, who was a national rookie of the year and a provincial all-star at McMaster University for three seasons before transferring to Victoria, where she captained the Vikes to a national championship in 2002- 2003 and was named a first-team All-Canadian in 2003-04.
“I love how many different skills are involved and love the pace of the game. There are so many nuances; if you want to be the best, you can never stop working on your game. I loved that idea as a player and still do as a coach. The opportunity for growth is infinite.”
Sinclair, who had wanted to be a teacher as a kid, began coaching with Basketball BC in 2004. A string of assistant roles, including stints at Dalhousie University and with the national women’s team at the 2011 Pan American Games, paved the way to her head coaching position in Victoria.
The Vikes women’s basketball program is incredibly successful — winning a record nine national titles — but Sinclair was drawn to Carleton by the opportunity to help develop a team that captured its first Canadian championship in March 2018 and to work with director of basketball operations Dave Smart.
“There are very few opportunities for professional development in this job, and I don’t see much better than working with Dave,” says Sinclair, who moved her three young sons across the country to come to Ottawa and has relatives within driving distance.
“It’s a good fit for me because I’m also pretty intense as a coach. I have experience working in a program where there were extremely high expectations not just of success, but of working hard to earn success.
“I wholeheartedly believe that sports can develop resiliency and character in a way that not many other experiences can. I’ve benefited so much from basketball and still do today, and I love seeing how that gets passed on.”
No wonder the players stop dribbling and shooting to listen closely when their newfound masked mentor speaks.
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