Under a controversial new divisional alignment

Column: ‘Pioneer hunting’ the new catchphrase for Cascades hoopsters

The new basketball divisional structure approved by Canada West for 2014-15 is grossly unfair to newer members of the league like UFV.

The University of British Columbia basketball teams are making the trip to play the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades this weekend, and I suppose we should all be grateful.

“We” being basketball enthusiasts in Abbotsford, because this might be the last time – at least in the near future – that the exalted Thunderbirds will have to humble themselves and trek to our neck of the woods.

As of next fall, UBC and 10 other long-tenured members of the Canada West basketball conference plan to be safely tucked away in a gated community of their own construction, separated from UFV and the rest of the johnny-come-latelies.

In June, Canada West approved new basketball divisions for 2014-15, grouping UFV with five other relative newcomers to the league – MacEwan University, Mount Royal, University of Northern B.C., Thompson Rivers and UBC-Okanagan.

The other division includes Canada West veterans Alberta, Brandon, Calgary, Lethbridge, Manitoba, Regina, Saskatchewan, Trinity Western, UBC, Victoria and Winnipeg. The divisions won’t interlock until a 10-team playoff system which is too convoluted to explain in detail here, but which seems to provide an inside track in terms of access and seeding to the larger division.

In a nutshell, Cascades basketball has been banished to the kids’ table.

This was all decided upon democratically . . . kind of. Only two universities in the junior division – Thompson Rivers and UFV – were full voting Canada West members in June. The other four schools, still on probationary status, had zero say.

This is the part where you might be saying, “Wait a minute. Haven’t the Cascades spent the last few years whuppin’ those blue bloods?”

More often than not, yes. The women’s team is a legitimate powerhouse, qualifying for the Canada West Final Four three years in a row and holding the No. 1 national ranking for two weeks last season.

The men’s team won the Canada West silver medal and finished fourth at nationals in 2012, and made the conference semifinals last spring.

UFV moved to reverse the division decision in late October, with university president Mark Evered denouncing the alignment as “tiering” in an open letter to his counterparts at Canada West schools.

Only Manitoba and UBC-Okanagan (which had gained full voting status) voted with UFV, though, and the motion was defeated.

“This decision will impact . . . our ability to recruit and retain young athletes, our reputation, and our contributions to the athletic development of our region,” Evered wrote in the letter, which can be read in its entirety at abbynews.com. “To say that members of our community are angry about this is an understatement.”

UFV is currently weighing its next move – whether to appeal to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) parent organization immediately, or focus on ensuring the alignment doesn’t extend to 2015-16.

Folks on the other side of the (electric) fence insist the new divisions don’t amount to tiering – they merely preserve traditional rivalries while simplifying scheduling in an unwieldy 17-team league.

But:

a) If this isn’t institutional snobbery, it would make sense geographically. UFV will no longer play Trinity Western, located 20 minutes down the road, nor will several teams in the same city, like Calgary/Mount Royal and Alberta/MacEwan.

b) UBC has openly called for tiering since at least 2011, when university president Stephen Toope, in a press release, urged the CIS to “institute a two-tiered system.”

The Cascades aren’t in the same tax bracket as the relatively deep-pocketed T-Birds, but that hasn’t stopped them from excelling, and to sequester UFV basketball from elite competition is asinine.

UFV, furthermore, made a significant investment to join Canada West in 2006. The Envision Athletic Centre, a $6.5-million, 1,200-seat gymnasium, opened in 2007, and the school has full-time coaches for its four CIS teams (men’s and women’s soccer and basketball) on the payroll.

The proposed division names – Pioneer (for the blue bloods) and Explorer (for the newbies) – have inspired much sarcastic humour at UFV.

Women’s basketball players have coined a phrase, “pioneer hunting” (or #pioneerhunting in Twitter hashtag parlance), to define their mission this season and to protest their predicament for 2014-15. Their 6-2 record includes four wins against those prestigious Pioneers.

So be warned, Thunderbirds. Though you’re eager to escape, you’re squarely in the crosshairs this weekend.

• The UFV hoopsters host UBC Friday (women 6 p.m., men 8 p.m.) and Saturday (women 5 p.m., men 7 p.m.) at the Envision Athletic Centre.

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