© BRIAN MCINNIS/THE GUARDIAN
UPEI Panthers guard Tamara Tompkins returns to her to her digs for the last time when the Panthers (6-13) finish its regular season Friday versus the Varsity Reds (10-8) in Fredericton, N.B.
A circuitous, bumpy road might describe Tamara Tompkins’ basketball journey at UPEI.
The fifth-year Panthers shooting guard has played on good teams (the 2014-15 team reached the Atlantic University Sport women’s final), bad luck teams (the 2012-13 squad was bumped from the AUS tourney because UNB earned the last playoff berth as host) and other teams (she started with UNB in 2010-11).
Now she returns to her to her original digs for the last time when the Panthers (6-13) finish its regular season today versus the Varsity Reds (10-8) in Fredericton, N.B.
That the Lakeville, N.B., native’s basketball journey ends where it started isn’t something she’s brooded about until recent;y, said Tompkins, because she’s been too busy navigating the route’s twists and turns.
“It’s been a learning process. I’m very stubborn. I wanted it to be storybook, I guess. I wanted to play for my province (which didn’t work out). We lost in the AUS finals, that (winning) would have been storybook. Not everything always goes as you want,” said the 23-year-old Tompkins. “Basketball has kept me coming back. I would do anything to make that happen.”
And maybe like her career, the Panthers are hanging in there.
UPEI’s in the fifth playoff spot with 18 points. Tonight’s game versus UNB, starting at 6 p.m., is worth four points, all the AUS’ weekend games are, and if UPEI wins, it earns the fifth spot.
Behind UPEI is Dalhousie with 16 points followed by St. F.X. and Memorial, each with 10. The latter two face each other today and Saturday at Memorial. If they split, UPEI is in whether it wins or loses today.
If Dal wins and UPEI loses, UPEI goes to the sixth spot. If St. F.X. or Memorial pull the sweep against the other, one of those teams could reach the sixth spot should Dal lose.
UNB also plays Saturday and if it wins, there is a scenario where UPEI would face UNB in first round at the AUS tourney
And that’s a matchup Tompkins wouldn’t mind at all.
“I would take that loss (today) to get that game in the quarter-final,” she said, with a sly grin.
Maybe she’s earned some slack, though.
Tompkins started at UNB with the best of intentions, but a second-year sickness held her out for most of the year and when she returned she found her roster spot filled.
Looking for a team, she contacted former Panthers coach Carly Clarke, now with Ryerson, who had recruited Tompkins in high school.
Clarke found a spot for her and Tompkins was able to finagle her lost second year back from the AUS and had four years to work with.
Then Clarke left in 2012, cutting her connection, and the reins fell to current head coach Greg Gould.
“I wasn’t really too nervous. I knew who he was because I played against his teams in high school.”
So she’s settled right? The team is improving, even reaching the AUS semifinals in 2014.
Well, not so much.
Two years into Gould’s tenure, he resigned. It triggered a review of the UPEI sports department and after the review’s report, UPEI hired another coach.
This time Mark English got the call. And it paid off as he guided UPEI to the AUS final last year where it lost to Saint Mary’s. But it was one of team’s best years since 1998 when it last won the AUS.
“Honestly, I was really happy. It was the biggest turning point for me. Another fresh start. He blended in with us perfect,” she said. “He earned our respect and he gave us respect right from the start.”
Tompkins graduated with a kinesiology degree that year and toyed with the idea of returning for her final year.
All seems settled again.
Following where this is going? That’s right. English takes the open head coaching job at his alma mater Memorial, leaving the Panthers without a coach for 2015-16.
Re-enter Gould with a younger, more inexperienced squad save for Tompkins, Anne Kiberd and Katelyn Donahoe, all fifth-year seniors, with half of its 14 members freshmen.
And that’s been a journey, too. The team started 2-0, then lost seven straight games and didn’t get its third win until late January. It’s gone 3-6 since that victory.
So it all leads up to today, and beyond to next month’s AUS tourney where Tompkins and the Panthers will likely be hanging in there, persevering.
Tompkins credits her parents Robert and Jackie, saying “how supportive they’ve been through everything,”, and appreciates the backing of those who watch the games.
And memories? She has a few. The best?
“Last year with Mark and all the girls. I’m (somewhat) bitter at leaving UNB, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have met such great girls. (There) were up and downs, but we were really part of a team. I only wished it could have ended with a championship.”
If the women's AUS weekend is murky, then men's side is more than convoluted although clearer if the UPEI Panthers beat UNB today.
Winning secures UPEI the second overall seed and a bye into the semifinals of the AUS championship next month in Halifax, N.S. Losing opens a can of worms, albeit with less slimy contents given the Panthers won't fall too far, said head coach Tim Kendrick.
"We can finish no lower than third, (but) we'd sure like to clinch that number two seed (today). A win makes it nice and easy. We want to get the best route possible. The bye is an advantage and we're going after it," he said. "UNB is a very good team. They shoot the ball very well and they have Javon Masters, one of the top players in the country."
Masters leads the AUS at 28.6 points per game.
Like the women's side, all the games this weekend are worth four points.
Dalhousie has the first overall seed with 38 points while UPEI is second with 34 points, followed by Acadia, UNB and Saint Mary's, all with 28 points, but of that group only UNB plays twice so it has eight points on the table.
Win both and the Varsity Reds move into the second seed with 36 points.
Cape Breton, at sixth overall, is on the playoff bubble with 20 points and face Dal and Saint Mary's today and Saturday, respectively.
Seventh-place Memorial (14 points) hosts last-place St. F.X. twice and, with wins and help, can move into a playoff spot.
"It will be a mess until Saturday night," said Kendrick.
UPEI can't finish first because Dalhousie owns the tie breaker after beating UPEI seven days ago.
Kendrick said UPEI is healthier than it's been for several weeks although team-leading scorer Tyler Scott (25.8 points per game) is still suffering from the flu. Kendrick hopes he's in for today.