While Rachel Flanagan is a highly accomplished coach, the 2015-16 season was one that saw her emerge as a fresh revelation. Recognized as the recipient of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Coach of the Year Award, the third in her career, Flanagan enjoyed a season filled with many career milestones.
Serving as the head coach of the Guelph Gryphons, Flanagan led a team that led the conference in goals scored per game (3.25), complemented by allowing the least goals per game (1.25). The result was a first place regular season finish in the ultra competitive OUA, complemented by close to four months at the top of the national rankings.
Flanagan and the Gryphons would follow it up by capturing a postseason crown, capturing the OUA’s McCaw Cup and qualifying for the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Nationals in Calgary. Taking into account that conference rival Western were the defending OUA and CIS champions, the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and stake their own claim was a remarkable feat.
As Flanagan reflects on such a dream season, she is quick to acknowledge the efforts of the players, whose contributions helped to make it happen. Goaltending phenom Valerie Lamenta would become the first Guelph player since Amanda Parkins (another player that Flanagan coached) to win the OUA Player of the Year Award.
Joining Parkins on the list of Gryphons players earning OUA All-Star recognition were forwards Averi Nooren and Jessica Pinkerton, along with blueliner Leigh Shilton. Their heroic efforts were also recognized nationally. Lamenta became the first Gryphons player to win the prestigious Brodrick Trophy, also garnering CIS First-Team All-Star honors. Fellow Gryphons Nooren and Shilton were recognized as members of the CIS Second-Team All-Stars.
Of note, Nooren would lead the Gryphons in scoring with 25 points. Other members of the Gryphons roster that logged at least 20 points during the season were Pinkerton, Kelly Gribbons, Christine Grant and Brittany St. James. Perhaps more important was their dedication to the team and the commitment involved to set a positive example as student-athletes,
“I am tremendously proud of this group for accomplishing our number one goal this season but I am more proud of the people they have become along the way. They treat each other and the game with so much respect. They play for each other, our families, our school and the alumni that came before us. They trained harder than any team I have ever coached. They bought in 100%, trusted the process and brought passion to the rink everyday.
We gave up so much of our lives for this title and we would do it all over again if we were asked to. We took care of the little things – sleep, nutrition, wellness & rehab. These women are such wonderful role models and ambassadors for the game. They are like family to me.”
As a coach, Flanagan has been involved at some of the game’s highest levels, including part of the staff that helped lead Canada to a golden finish in women’s ice hockey at the 2013 Winter Universiade. Getting the opportunity to ice a team for the 2016 CIS Nationals was a true coming out party for Flanagan, a proud career milestone that saw her star rise in the coaching ranks. While the Nationals represented Flanagan’s first as the Guelph head coach, there was a residual familiarity that only enhanced the experience.
“I attended the Nationals in Calgary last season while I was on maternity leave so I was comfortable with the event, the venue, etc. Short term events are exhausting for coaches and staff and I cannot speak highly enough about the group we had with us this year.”
Despite a visceral fourth place finish, edged out in the bronze medal match to an ambitious squad from St. Mary’s that featured their own goaltending phenom in Rebecca Clark, there was a great personal victory for Flanagan and her team, a proud feeling of achievement that cannot be measured in wins and losses. Instead, there was a graciousness and appreciation for the process itself, as the Gryphons fought valiantly.
“I thought we were prepared for every game from pre-scout reports to nutrition to sleep quality and that would not have been possible without a fantastic staff. It was an honour to coach this particular group in this event and they played their hearts out.”
A remarkable highlight in Flanagan’s season was the ability to keep the team focused, maintaining a proud culture while avoiding a goaltending controversy. Last season, Stephanie Naehring served as the Gryphons goaltender, assembling a solid season. Early on in 2015-16, it had become evident that sophomore goaltender Valerie Lamenta was ready to shine.
The result was a collaborative effort on the part of the Naehring and Lamenta to propel the Gryphons into unchartered territory, setting a positive example for the rest of the roster. Such maturity cultivated a mutual respect and collaborative sense of support, as focus was on the success of the team, rather than the individual. With Lamenta respecting Naehring’s legacy, the two were key contributors towards a Gryphons team that logged an astonishing 21-2-1 mark.
Unmistakably, Flanagan’s ability to recruit Lamenta may prove to be the acquisition of the decade, one that leads the Gryphons towards dynasty status. Raised in the province of Quebec, reputed for producing elite goaltenders, Lamenta had not been recruited by any of the Montreal-area universities, despite her credentials as a 2013 Esso Cup champion and 2014 CEGEP First-Team All-Star.
With an eye to the future, Flanagan saw great qualities in Lamenta and she was rewarded for her faith with a dream season. While the next season may bring with it raised expectations, there is no question that Lamenta has the poise and maturity to build on Naehring’s past contributions while serving as a foundation, the cornerstone upon which to build future glories.
“On top of her athleticism in the net we really liked her ability to stay focused regardless of the situation. She has played in (and won) big games before and it is not easy to find that experience. Getting to know Val throughout the recruiting process solidified our opinion that she would be a starter sooner than later in the CIS. She is very humble, a great teammate, and manages her time and academics extremely well.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Video still of Scott Fraser interviewing Flanagan obtained from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPQf1Wjf71I