by: Michael Sun, The Charlatan
This Wednesday is Erin Burns’ seniors’ night. It’s the final home regular season home game for the Marauders guard. It will also be end of an era for her and her family.
Burns and her older sister Liz (she calls her Elizabeth) have both played five years in the Marauder maroon now. Their parents got a chance to watch them along the way.
“It’s going to be 10 years so literally a decade of McMaster women’s basketball so I think they’re just kind of enjoying it all and I don’t think they realize how much they’re going to miss it when it’s all done,” Burns said.
Burns calls herself “a gritty player” and a hard worker. “My role on our team is very much so making sure I’m getting hustle plays, getting rebounds, forcing steals.”
Others notice her hard working nature as well.
“I have a great deal of respect for Erin because she is such a fierce competitor,” Queen’s Gaels head coach Dave Wilson noted. “Generally considered an undersized player but never let that interfere with her.”
“She’ll do whatever you ask her to do for the team and if you could put Erin’s heart in every player in the league, holy crow,” Marauders head coach Theresa Burns (no relation) added. “You won’t find a player with a bigger heart and a bigger passion for the game.”
Burns has been through her ups and downs during her time at Mac, having been to nationals and the OUA Finals. She’s also been injured and had moments of uncertainty.
“I’ve enjoyed my time at McMaster for all five years,” Burns said. “For me, I’ve always had to work hard for any minutes that I’ve gotten.”
However, her lifelong relationship with McMaster basketball started long before her rookie year in 2014-15 – with much thanks to her sister.
Burns calls Elizabeth “a big sister role model.”
“Anything she did, I wanted to do,” Burns recalled. “Anything she wanted to be, I wanted to be there. So growing up, I was a bit of a pest for her in her eyes I could say.”
She got into basketball by following her sister around.
“Anything my sister did, I wanted to do so I ended up playing [Blessed] Sacrament house league, played on rep team,” she recalled. “Our parents threw us into every sport growing up but basketball was the one I was most passionate about.”
She would constantly compete against Elizabeth and brother Mark in basketball and other sports.
“He was just able to pretty much toughen me up anytime we played pickup outside in our court,” Burns said of Mark. “He would always push me around and, eventually, I would end up learning how to push right back.”
Soon, the games became quite competitive between the three of them as well as former Marauder and neighbour Danielle Boiago (now a Mac assistant coach).
Elizabeth played on the Marauders from 2009-2014 and her bond with Erin has only grown stronger over time.
“The older we’ve gotten, the closer we have become and she has just always showed such leadership and such,” Burns said. “She showed me how to be respectful and how to work hard and she’s just been able to push me out of my comfort zone and I’ve always been super grateful to have an older sister.”
As a young girl growing up in Hamilton, Burns was very much part of the McMaster basketball community.
She would watch the McMaster basketball games in the stands at the Burridge Gymnasium and even play in the halftime games. She would go to McMaster basketball camps and dreamed of playing on the varsity team one day.
Burns felt the family vibe around McMaster women’s basketball early on.
“It’s always been a sense of home and you can understand why there’s girls coming far distances and want to be at Mac and it’s because of that sense of community,” she noted.
When her sister joined the team, Burns became even closer with the community. She took part in “the Nest” – a potluck and gathering after every home game for families, coaches and fans.
Burns remembers being in the stands when McMaster hosted nationals in 2010 when Elizabeth was in her rookie year.
“Watching that nationals at McMaster was like ‘oh, my god, I want to be there. I want to be on the court’,” she said. “There was always that feeling whenever I was watching a Mac basketball game, I would always want to be on the court.”
Burns was on the court having success and having fun at St. Thomas More – playing alongside notable teammates such as Kia Nurse and Boiago – as they won three OFSAA titles. “I think having that early experience in high school of winning championships gave me that understanding of ‘ok, I know what needs to be done in order to win,’” she said.
During that time, she also decided to go into life science in university with the future goal of going to med school. When she finally got accepted and committed to Mac, it was a dream come true.
“I was walking into my high school, or walking into basketball practices with my rec team just fulling decked out in Mac clothing even though it wasn’t mine, it was totally my sisters,” she recalled. “I had to steal it but I was just proud and happy.”
Her McMaster career was about to take off just as Elizabeth’s was ending.
Burns’ rookie year was overwhelming. There was the adjustment to university both basketball-wise and academically.
“My first year was definitely the toughest year for me. I think because it was a huge adjustment to everything. Even though I’m from Hamilton, it still was a massive adjustment,” she said.
“First year was very overwhelming but throughout the year, you’re able to lean on your teammates, specifically the older players to help guide you through it,” she added.
She said her time management skills back then were “night and day” compared to now. She’s learned to make lists and be more organized.
“I think if I was able to go back in time and talk to my previous self, I would say, ‘just breathe because it’s just a learning curve and all this struggle that you’re going through right now is just going to benefit you later.’”
One thing Burns continued to struggle with was being too hard on herself mentally.
“If my shot’s not dropping or whatever, it can really bring me down,” she said. “I think that’s one of my biggest challenges, mentally as a player but also translates into anything I do off the court, whether that be in school or work.”
It’s about a balance as she said she’s gotten better at realizing when she’s too hard on herself and overwhelmed as she’s gotten older thanks to supportive friends and family. The tipping point came in her second year as she only played 6.3 minutes-per-game.
“I was working hard but wasn’t getting minutes and then it was like ‘what the heck am I not doing?’”
“I would say that was a really challenging year for me in the sense that I was like, ‘do I love basketball, am I not good at it? I’m at a crossroad right now,’” she recalled. It got to the point where she was debating whether or not she would continue playing.
She did thanks to having teammates who “make basketball fun.” Hindsight helped as well.
“Looking back and reflecting on that now, I realize that the reason I wasn’t getting minutes is because there were so many other players on the team that were even more skilled than me and that’s not something that I can change,” she said.
She realized what she could change after an end-of-the season meeting with coach Burns. She wanted clarity and got it.
“Just having that open conversation with my coach. I was able to see what she expected from me and what I was able to do in order to get the minutes that I wanted and that just came from putting in more minutes outside of practice, whether that be lifting more in the weight room or getting extra shots up.”
Burns decided to continue with basketball and spent the summer putting in more work than ever before. She called it “a grind” as it meant early mornings, hours in the gym and working out as well as balancing that with her summer job.
“The first little bit of it is always tough but as soon as you make it a routine, it doesn’t become work and if you’re surrounding yourself with people you enjoy putting that extra work in with, then it doesn’t become a chore, it’s just something you do,” she said.
In her third season, Burns’ dedication paid off as she put up numerous career highs. McMaster made it to the OUA Final Four before losing to Carleton in the semi-finals. Burns broke her collarbone on the final play.
“We were down, we needed a shot to win and we shoot the ball and there’s a rebound and she threw her little body into the fray and came up with a broken collarbone,” coach Burns said.
“To the buzzer, she was like, ‘I’ll die for the team’ and she came walking out of the big pack with a broken collarbone but I mean she’d do it again in heartbeat, I know she would. She’s fearless.”
Burns called the loss “a super heartbreaking moment” because “that team that we had was a special unit and a lot of girls on that team were graduating. That was their final go at it.”
After recovering from the injury, Burns and the Marauders would enjoy their finest season yet in 2017-18. Not many people expected them to contend, Burns points out, after losing Boiago, Rachael Holmes and others but they did.
“We didn’t have that much pressure on us but then we started performing well and then other teams were getting scared and nervous and we just had so much fire in our guts from the year earlier,” she said.
The Marauders broke their semi-final curse beating the Ottawa Gee-Gees to clinch a spot at nationals. She remembers the final moments of that win.
“It literally was just one of those feelings like ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever experience this again’,” she described. “It was just so much joy, so much excitement. We freaking did it! We did it! I’ve gotten to this point so many time before and we finally did it!”
Although the Marauders lost to the Ravens in the finals and bowed out in nationals after two losses, they gained confidence and motivation. Burns got back to work that summer.
“It’s always a grind but it’s always worth it,” Burns noted. “I think this past summer, it was just pure motivation because we had a taste of what nationals was the year before and so this [past] summer was just, how do we get back there, how do we get back there?”
The life science student continued to excel on the court but also had a change of heart off of it as well.
Basketball has helped give Burns many things, including a new career path. After being in life science, she realized med school wasn’t the right fit for her by her second year.
She enjoyed working at basketball camps as well as the Mac athletes care program so much that prompted her into wanting to become a teacher. Her parents were both teachers as well.
“I think that was when I was kind of like oh, maybe a career in teaching would actually be good for me because I do enjoy working with kids,” she said.
She said she enjoys the interaction of working with students.
“Once you finally take the time and sit them down and help them kind of understand, and once it clicks with them and they get it, that I think is the most enjoyable because you can see the progression of their learning,” she said.
Burns did a placement as a teaching assistant for a grade two class at Annunciation of Our Lord Catholic Elementary School last semester and learned many valuable life lessons from it, such as having more patience and communicating properly.
“I think it’s taught me to be more emphatic for anyone I experience in my life just because being in a classroom, you kind of see different children struggles and strengths and everyone has a different story, everyone has a different background,” she noted.
That has also translated into her approach to leadership as a veteran.
“I just think back to my first year and I think about how the older veterans helped me and what they did and how they assisted me and what was the words of encouragement they gave me and how can I do the same for another player,” she said.
Her leadership is felt by her teammates.
“Erin’s a really great teammate,” rookie Arianne Soriano said. “She’s one of our team captains and she always find ways to give us tips and helps us improve as players, as people.”
“She’s the kind of captain who brings the team together and brings all the energy and she’s the person who’s steps up and picks the team up and she’s always team first,” fellow rookie Kokoro Tsuzuki added.
Burns’ leadership is evident off the court as well, according to team trainer Sydney Hussett.
“Erin really gets the girls to make sure they take care of themselves, on and off the court. She’s always the first one saying, ‘ladies, let’s make sure we do a good cool down, make sure we’re ice tubbing,’” Hussett said. “She’s sort of like a mother to all the girls, really making sure that she takes care of them and that they’re taking care of themselves as well.”
There’s not much time left on Burns’ career and she realizes this. Her parents have been trying to travel to every game this season as she feels the final season urgency along with fellow fifth-years Hilary Hanaka and Linnaea Harper.
“Having that kind of mindset is only going to benefit us,” she said. “It’s like all or nothing. It’s the last go. I think I can speak on behalf of Hilary and Linnaea when I say that we all really want to win. We all want to be there and just finish off our career on a high note.”
Seniors night is just around the corner.
“I think it’ll be a couple of tears shed, and I think mostly from my mom because we’ve grown up with McMaster basketball,” she noted.
Burns added that it’s going to be a big adjustment for her and her family after this season. She said she’s proud to represent the Marauders as long as she has. She is heading to teacher’s college afterwards.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” she said. “You’re not going to remember all the wins and losses but you’re going to remember who you’re sitting beside and who you’re playing with. So I think being away from all my teammates and friends will be tough.”
Until then, she’s still got the playoffs and potentially a trip to nationals ahead of her. The Marauders sit atop the OUA West at 19-3 with legitimate championship dreams. If they do achieve those goals, it would be the perfect closing chapter on Burns’ lifelong McMaster journey.
“It would mean everything,” she said. “I have been a part of the program for a long time and it would just be the best way to end my basketball career so fingers crossed, we can do it.”
– Michael Sun