by Michael Sun, The Charlatan
The end is near for Ryerson Rams seniors Katherine Follis, Cara Tiemens and Sofia Paska with the women’s basketball nationals at Ryerson tipping off tonight.
The three of them came into the Rams program in 2014 and will now finish off their Rams careers in front of their home fans – the first time Toronto has hosted the women’s basketball nationals in 30 years.
“Sof, Cara and I have been through so much together in the past five years and we have such a great opportunity to have the experience to play in a national championship is anything any of us could have ever wanted coming into first year,” Follis said.
They’ve done so alongside Carly Clarke, the only head coach they’ve had at Ryerson. Together, they’ve gone through highs and lows. They won the program’s first OUA championship in 2016 and also finished second at nationals that year. They’ve also gone through growing pains and adversity.
“Certainly they’ve been a big part of building our program to where it is,” Clarke said. “All of them are pretty fun-loving. Sof and Kat stand out as that to me and Kat’s always the one to put a smile on somebody’s face…just positive.”
The seniors have personally grown as people over time as well.
Now, as the Rams are set to face Laval in the quarterfinals tonight, the journey is coming to an end.
The seniors knew each other before coming to Ryerson. Paska is from Etobicoke, Follis from Toronto and Tiemens from Newmarket.
Paska played with Follis at Oakville in JUEL in grade 12. Tiemens played with Follis on the Junior Rams team during the summer while in high school. They also competed against each other in track and field since grade 8. Paska knew Tiemens having been in a basketball development program together as kids.
Follis said it was reassuring having known Tiemens and Paska before Ryerson but their friendship truly developed once they there.
In their first year, the team reached the OUA Finals, losing to Windsor and reaching nationals.
“It was a big excitement for us,” Follis recalled. “I didn’t understand how special it was that year.”
The following year, the Rams went one step further: winning the team’s first OUA title and making it all the way to the national finals before falling to Saskatchewan.
“It just a great milestone for our team,” Paska said. “We just had so many great players on that team.” She called it a great learning experience, one that carries onto preparing for this year’s nationals.
“I think it really helped us grow in our further years since we did experience it in our first two years and really good players,” she added. “I think it just helped us realize what we needed to do to be able to continue to be one of those top teams at nationals.”
Follis said she understood the nationals experience was “not an everyday occurrence” afterwards. The team didn’t make it back until this year.
The 2015 and 2016 Rams teams were led by three seniors as well – Keneca Pingue Giles (national player of the year), Mariah Nunes and Silvana Jez.
“There’s so much respect for them and they just really paved the way for this program,” Tiemens said.
“I think the younger players really wanted to win for the older players because they had come from a program that wasn’t as skilled and wasn’t as successful so we really wanted to do it for them because they had traveled so long and just put in so much work,” she added.
Tiemens remember the seniors taking her under their wing, encouraging her and also pushing her to compete hard in practices. She also remembers the national finals.
“Going into It, we had great confidence,” she noted. “We knew we had the right pieces to be successful and I know at one point we were up and I was like oh, yeah, we got this. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the outcome.” Still, the year was “a huge accomplishment”
Now, the three of them are the leaders, the graduating seniors, passing on their experience to the younger players.
“We know what it takes to win a championship and just being able to see our seniors and how they reacted in tough games like that, just bring that ourselves this year and mentor our younger players and make sure we’re ready to go,” Tiemens said.
To get to this point, each of them have taken a different journey and faced different adversities.
Follis calls herself an very outgoing, fun-loving person. She took part in many sports growing up but also Irish dancing. Her sister still does it competitively.
“I’m too tall to be good at dancing – it’s hard to move your limbs that fast – so I think finding basketball for me was just a way to individually have a sport or a little niche that I was good at individually,” she recalled.
Before switching to concentrate on basketball in grade 10, Follis competed in the North American Irish dancing championships in 2012 alongside her sister.
“It was so cool. I used to see my sister compete there all the time,” Follis said. “She was better than me so just kind of always looking up to her in the dance world, just being able to be on the same level that she was on was very rewarding for me especially because I knew dance was not in the long run for me.”
Unlike others, Follis didn’t have a vision for what she wanted to do growing up.
“I think that’s why this path has been so rewarding because I had to take in everything when it comes to me, being able to take this journey on with both hands and just not have any prior hopes or dreams leading either way,” she said.
Academically, she got involved in broadcasting in high school, which gave her the confidence to apply to Ryerson’s sport media program. As a part of the Junior Rams, she was attracted to Ryerson having had an inside look at university basketball.
Confidence has been a key aspect of success for her. That was challenged with her two season-ending ACL injuries. The timing was cruel as she was developing as a player by her third year – both in performance and confidence – as she was about to fill a starting role.
Then she tore her ACL in a preseason game against Concordia. “I was just in shock and disbelief because I never had a major injury before,” she said.
“I went to go hedge out on a screen defence and then, I remember planting my knee and I felt a pop and I immediately fell to the ground crying and I just remember thinking, oh my gosh, I just dislocated my kneecap,” she recalled. “It was the worst pain I felt in my whole life but it only hurt for about 30 seconds or so.”
She didn’t know it was that serious at the time until she got an MRI. Her surgeon told her she had tore her ACL – “very much a heartbreak.” Part of the shock was because she had a false sense of hope and confidence, according to her.
“I think coming into my first ACL recovery, I was very naïve,” Follis said. “I thought, this will be no problem. I will have the surgery, I’ll go to therapy every day, I’ll do my recovery, I’ll do my exercises and then I’ll be back in nine months.”
“I did not take into account the mental factor that this injury was going to have on me,” she added.
Follis credited her support system – her teammates, coaches and her parents – in her recovery. “My mom was my rock that year,” she said.
“She was a big advocate for me in terms of my recovery, therapy, pushing myself when I needed to push myself in my exercises coming back or telling me to take a break or it’s okay to have a couple of rough days here and there,” she continued. “I think we got into a lot of fights that year but I think I would not be where I am right now without her.”
Follis remembers moments having brunch with Tiemens and teammate Nicole DiDomenico.
“Having that kind of space to step away from the basketball world, step away from the school world and just kind of vent to each other about what’s going on was very good release,” she said. “Where we all consoled each other over what was going on or celebrated each other’s successes and just was there for each other to support.”
The hard part came from not being able to contribute on the court.
“I think just there was a lot of times where it was, I just felt guilty a lot that year because I knew I wasn’t able to give everything I wanted to give,” she said. “I think having my team, having Cara and Sof being able to support me and motivate me and just remind me that I still was an important member of the team and just having that constant reminder really helped.”
It was also difficult later on in the recovery as the signs of progress in her recovery took longer. In her fourth year, she tore her other ACL in a game against Laurier.
“I went down in that game, it kind of knew what happened already but did not want to admit to myself or anyone so I think I remember telling everyone, yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “I don’t think anything serious happened and I kind of wanted to push it to the side especially because my first ACL was so fresh in my mind.”
She played the next game the following week but her knee didn’t feel right.
“I wasn’t able to cut either way, I knew I was able to cut before. I wasn’t able to jog. I just wasn’t the same support in my knee so I remember after that game, I turned to Cara and I’m like ‘something’s not right.’”
She got another MRI and was told she tore her left ACL.
After the second one, I was just more pissed than anything because I think at that point, I knew it was torn…I knew how tough and difficult the road to recovery was going to be,” she said. “I was just more pissed in the situation that I was in again.”
Follis said her second recovery was tougher than the first, since she didn’t have the optimism.
“I think for me, some of the mental struggles was that I’m in my fourth year of university, I just tore my second ACL, a lot of self-doubt was going around and a lot of thoughts of do I want to come back, do I want to play my fifth year out?”
“There was some days where I just thought, there’s no way I’m coming back, there’s no way I can come back from two tore ACL’s,” she said. It took her longer to get her confidence back but she did return.
Clarke recognizes Follis’ impact both on and off the court.
“She’s always had a great presence from the sideline even though she was out injured,” she said. “For her to now be bringing those characteristics and spirit to the floor has helped our team a lot. She’s a smart player along with the energy she plays with is really important.”
Follis did get her confidence back through preparation. She’s also learned a lot about herself through the process.
“It kind of build me into who I am today,” she said. “It gave me more perspective on what I should be worrying about or what I should be upset about. If I have a bad day, I can always go back to, ‘it’s okay, I know I’ve had worse and I know there’s better days to come and I know now in life if something doesn’t go your way, try something else out’.”
“Maybe go down a different path and you never know what’s going to happen, what’s going to come from it.”
She said learned to support people having received that support herself.
“I think throughout my five years here from high school, I’ve just been able to grow into a confident, outgoing young woman who’s able to make her own decisions and able to advocate for myself way more than I was able to back in high school,” she noted.
Her journey has been unexpected, even for herself, having not had any visions of playing university basketball growing up. She now leaves with a university basketball career and a degree in sports media.
“Thinking back on my younger self and me not having any dreams of a certain university or what I wanted to see myself doing, I think I’d be very shocked about where I am but I have no regrets of the five years that I’ve been here, my high school career,” Follis said. “If I could do this all again, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Unlike Follis, Paska calls herself a “mellow” person – on and off the court.
“I’m not very loud or out there very much,” she said. “I just do what I need to do on the court, just support my teammates in a more quieter way but obviously I have a presence because of my height and my scoring ability as well but I’m more of one of the quieter players on our team.”
She recalls being quiet and reserved as a child as well. Like Follis, she also got into dancing at an early age – Ukrainian dancing as part of her family’s heritage.
“It was mostly connecting to my Ukrainian background,” she said. “That was the most important piece that I got out of it. I know it was important for my family as well and I enjoyed dancing too. That’s where I got some of my footwork from for basketball.”
She got into basketball, having first starting playing in Etobicoke because “she really liked the uniforms.” Paska progressed to playing at Oakville JUEL and then Ryerson.
However, she wanted to be a teacher growing up, having been around kids at an early age. Her parents were foster parents so she took children under her wing.
“I think overall to be grateful for the life that I’m living because obviously, not all children have it as well off as I do but also, you need to support and see where other people are coming from and just being willing to help,” she said. “Stepping outside of your comfort zone and giving your all for people who need it the most.”
Paska enrolled into the early childhood program, where she learned and enjoyed helping younger kids. She grew more confident as a person as well through placements.
“Kids are a lot different than adults, they don’t care what other people think,” she noted. “They ask a lot of questions, they’re not afraid to be silly and fun in front of people so I think you can also learn a lot from them, which has helped me grow as a person. Especially teaching young kids, I’m not afraid to ask silly [questions] because they don’t judge.”
She said she learned to take the initiative, help people and become more vocal and comfortable. Paska also put in the work to improve on the court after her rookie season.
In the summer before her second year, she worked with a trainer at seven in the morning every day. She also changed to a stricter diet, fueled by her work ethic.
“I have not met someone who works harder than Sof at basketball,” Follis said.
“She works on her game every single day and it’s not just because of her height that she’s good,” Tiemens said. “She does everything that a coach could want their players to do.”
She also had to develop her confidence over time.
“I think it’s just tough because you’re constantly down on yourself and just especially in practice, if you miss a shot then you don’t want to take the next shot, just because of your fear you’re going to miss it again,” she said of her early years.
Her teammates and coaches had confidence in her but it was also about her finding confidence in herself.
“I remember in my earlier years, I would completely shut down whereas now, if some things aren’t going my way I don’t freak out or stress out about it, just continue to do stuff, find something that will help the team,” she said.
Paska’s confidence was tested coming off a preseason ankle sprain this season.
“The process was very overwhelming because I didn’t know what was happening, when I was going to get better,” she recalled. “It was just a very slow process.”
She came back and now, she leaves as multiple-time OUA all-star as Ryerson’s all-time scorer and rebounder – but not without support from others.
She’s been able to stay home for her five years and credits her parents for pushing her outside her comfort zone and supporting her.
“Just being with my parents, I’m a very family person and I just love spending time and I think that’s also what helped me grow over the past five years was having their constant love and support,” Paska said.
Clarke has also challenged her to get out of her comfort zone over the years.
“We’ve had tremendous conversations throughout her career and it’s trying to find different ways to change yourself year to year and continue to get better and she’s accepted all of those things every single year,” Clarke said.
“She challenges me to be at my best but also when she notices if I’m not focused or not present,” Paska said. “If I’m a down mood, she’ll challenge me to get myself out of it because she wants me to be a very positive teammate for the rest of the team.”
Paska had her senior’s night last season as well, having graduated with her degree in early childhood studies. However, once she found out Ryerson was hosting nationals, she chose to come back. She’s also grown through the sport as well.
“Basketball as an outlet helped me meet new people and just build that confidence because I had teammates around me, I had a good supportive group so I think that really helped to get where I am today,” she said.
“I’m just very proud of myself for putting in that extra work and being able to accomplish all that I have.”
Tiemens was also a quiet person growing up. She described herself as an athletic kid, getting involved in many sports – mainly basketball and soccer.
As an only child in Newmarket, sports provided friendships. “My sports friends really became my family and my sisters,” she said.
Growing up, she had to learn to stand up for herself as well, having been bullied at a young age.
“I got bullied just because I was a tomboy, because I was athletic so that was probably one of the biggest tings I had to overcome,” she said. “It sucked in the moment, but it definitely shaped the person that I am today, made me tougher, made me stronger.”
“When I was bullied, I actually didn’t tell [my parents],” Tiemens recalled. “It took me a couple of years to build the courage to tell them but once I told them, they put the money forward and put me in a private school, which ended up changing my life.”
Her parents ended up transferring her to Country Day private school in grade six, where she stayed until Ryerson, having grown her confidence there. She credits her parents for her success.
“They sacrificed a lot and making sure that I knew that I wasn’t what those girls said I was and I could achieve anything and they were always supportive and encouraging me to do my best and they really did anything for me…I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Tiemens chose to focus on basketball over soccer in grade 10 but had hopes to play both at the university level. Like Follis, she was drawn to Ryerson by being part of the Junior Rams program.
Once she was there, as “a scrawny first year” in 2014, Tiemens remembered being super nervous but also proud of herself. She was recruited as a shooting guard but ended up playing point guard.
“It’s just a surreal feeling knowing you’ve achieved your goal from when you were around five years old,” she said.
Tiemens developed her confidence and leadership through the years as well.
“She’s grown from such a shy, quiet individual to such an I guess you could say outgoing leader on the team and I think that’s translated a lot into her personal life,” Follis said.
“I’ve never been the most talented player but this year, I really tried to take on a leadership role and I won the leadership award for our team this year,” Tiemens added.
Tiemens noted she’s grown as a communicator and leader. “I just want to be there for the girls and make sure I’m a caring and kind leader but when it comes down to it, you got to get the job done,” she noted.
Her growth in confidence also comes from maturity and, as a leader, she tells the younger players about positive self-talk and encourages them, having been in their shoes before.
“Our younger players play a massive role on our team and they’re so talented and sometimes, I don’t think they realize how talented they are,” she said. “Making sure that they stay confident in themselves is just as important as our seniors staying confident in each other.”
Tiemens came into Ryerson studying psychology but switched to English, having developed a passion from writing. She was the copy editor for the (now defunct) Canadian University Sports Network and is now doing interviews and writing for an organization called Let’s Get Together.
“In high school, I kind of went into the writing and I just kind of never stopped, just a very soothing act for me so I think it’s something that I’ll always keep with me, whether it’s my professional career or not,” she said.
As a leader, she gained confidence from seeing younger players look up to her. Tiemens remembers how Clarke would tell players to “be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
“It wasn’t the most comfortable for me at first but with anything, once it becomes habit, once you start talking every day at practice, once you start leading, it just comes naturally after a while,” she said.
She’s learned to be more open with Clarke over time. “Overall, she’s been great for me in my five years,” Tiemens said.
“In my first year, I was quiet, maybe a little shy to talk to Carly but over the past five years, now that our relationship has grown, I’m able to be very open with her, be very honest about how I’m feeling and what I think will work and what I think won’t work.”
The urgency of being her last season motivates her as well. At the end, she hasn’t just developed as a player but as a person as well.
“I’ve become more outspoken, better at public speaking so just growing into the person that I’ve wanted to become from a young age,” she said.
Tiemens said she’s not sure what she wants to do afterwards. She’s planning to move back to Newmarket. “Everything came full circle,” she noted.
Follis and Paska’s futures are still to be decided as well. Follis said she’s considering a graduate degree and her dream job is to be an athletic director one day. Paska said she’s looking to play professionally in Europe and work as an early childhood educator one day. The end is approaching quickly.
“It’s definitely a scary thought to think of as the three of us have been playing basketball for as long as we can remember,” Follis said. “With having basketball been such a big part of our lives for the past five years here at Ryerson, it’s definitely going to be an adjustment.”
They reminisce on their times at Ryerson and their bond with each other, dating back to first year. Tiemens and Follis are roommates but Paska spends a lot of time at their place as well.
“Kat, Sof, and I: we have different personalities but there’s a lot of things that we’re similar,” Tiemens said. “We have the same values and we think the same way, in a lot of positions so it’s just easy to form a friendship.”
They’re in Toronto for one last tournament, the final one of their university careers, in front of friends and family. However, win or lose, the memories over the past five year will remain.
“The friendships that Kat, Sof and I have made will always be there,” Tiemens said. “And always be there for the rest of our life because we went through this experience together.”