by Michael Sun, CCR Canada
It was all over for Marianne Alarie and Maddie Morris.
As the clock wound down into the night on Feb. 20, 2019, so did the Queen’s University Gaels’ chances of winning their Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoff game against the York University Lions. Along with it, so did Alarie and Morris’ university basketball careers.
The Lions won 76-70, their players mobbing each other on the court afterwards. Meanwhile, Morris and Alarie cried and hugged – despite not being usually emotional – after being subbed off with seconds left. “It’s devastating,” Morris said. “It hits you hard.”
“I started crying right away, took a last look at my court,” Alarie said. “It was the last time I get to wear my jersey and play on my home court. Definitely hit right away and hit Maddie too and we definitely had a good cry together.”
They would end their time together at the Queen’s Athletics Recreation Centre (ARC) court, the same floor they made their university basketball debuts on less than five years ago. That was during a 69-62 exhibition win over St. Lawrence College on Sept. 14, 2014.
They also played their first playoff game at the ARC, a 80-54 victory over the Laurentian
University Voyageurs on Feb. 25, 2015. Morris and Alarie both scored four points that night, coming off the bench. Now, five years later, they left as starters, key pieces to their team’s success and culture. Alarie was their lone OUA all-star and leader at point guard. Morris developed into the Gaels’ top three-point shooter and, according to teammate Veronika Lavergne, a constant source of positivity.
Alarie and Morris also became best friends over time, overcoming adversity – but not without each other’s support. They reflected on the end of an era internally, as emotions poured out as the buzzer went against York.
“I remember being on the court and not really thinking about it and all of a sudden, I look up at the scoreboard and I think in my head, I was like ‘this is it’,” Morris recalled. Queen’s was favoured against York as well, making the end more unexpected.
“It wasn’t only the ending of my career but also but also the end of [my time at] Queen’s and Kingston and, you know, hanging out with my friends every day for five years,” Alarie said. “So, it’s a lot of endings that succeeded each other.”
Both before and during their times at Queen’s, basketball became a “huge part” of their identity, of who they were, according to Alarie. Now, that time was over.
Alarie and Morris grew up over 500 km apart, not knowing Queen’s basketball would
eventually bring them together. Alarie grew up in Sudbury, a Northern Ontario city of just over 160,000, coined by some the nickel capital of the world. Morris grew up in Seeley’s Bay, a town of just over 25,000 people alongside the Rideau Canal, 27 km north-west of Kingston.
Alarie calls herself a “very competitive” and “very ambitious” person. That came from
competing against two older brothers at an early age, a desire to beat them and to be the best. Her brothers went into basketball and she followed, playing games against them in the driveway and the Laurentian gym. Fond memories, she calls it. “Definitely getting in the gym and competing with them has made me a better player so I thank them for that,” she said.
Soon, her own basketball career started to take off. Given Sudbury’s location, that meant a lot of travelling but she enjoyed it. She also enjoyed playing in her high school gym at Lo Ellen Park. “A comfort zone,” she calls it.
Basketball became a dream for her, having developed a desire to play at the university level as well as getting an education. She put in the work as well, shooting in the gym at lunchtime and asking her coaches for extra gym time. She also played with the Barrie Royals in the JUEL league, getting more exposure.
During her high school years, she also started to get in touch with Queen’s. She met assistant coach (now head coach) James Bambury in grade 10 and went for a visit in grade 11, where she was hooked. “That’s when I really realized that’s the place I wanted to be,” she noted. “It had every aspect.”
Queen’s head coach Dave Wilson also noticed Alarie. “Watching her play and the competitive drive with which she played,” Wilson said. “We just absolutely loved that.” However, Wilson sensed she still wasn’t sure how her Queen’s career would unfold. He remembers meeting her after a game at Ryerson University.
“We had a chat and the thing that was most notable, aside from all the talent and stuff, was her…uncertainty about how the time would go,” Wilson recalled. “What was the relationship going to be like to go to Queen’s? Where was she going to fit in?”
Wilson assured her she had done everything she needed to be at Queen’s, to have a chance at a pivotal role on the team. Unfortunately, that pressure she said she puts on herself contributed to a rough beginning.
Morris has very much a different personality than Alarie. “Maddie’s a really funny person,” Lavergne said. “She’s really easy to talk to.”
Morris calls herself an easygoing and very family-orientated individual. Growing up in Seeley’s Bay, family became a central aspect of her life. She would spend time with her older brother, parents, grandparents and others cutting wood on Sundays. Her family also came to watch her play in tournaments in different places.
Her family ran a sugar shack, making and selling maple syrup. They all lived on the same road so they would go to each other’s places for big holiday dinners and to hang out. At Rideau District High School in Elgin, with around 500 people, Morris carried that family mentality into basketball.
In grade nine, two of her cousins were on the team as they made the OFSAA finals. “I was
ecstatic,” she said, hooked on the feeling of winning among teammates she loved being around. She also played on Kingston Impact in JUEL.
She sought – and did – to make her basketball teams a second family. “I’m not a very
competitive person so I don’t care if I get all the praise or glory or anything but I like to play for my team, and the girls who I play for are my best friends so I would want to put everything out there to make it okay for them,” she said.
Family was also a key aspect in her choosing Queen’s as she wanted to stay close to home. Morris and Alarie’s lives would intertwine but also change in Kingston – and not always positively at first.
Alarie’s uncertainty about her role heading into her Queen’s career was evident early on. “My whole first year was very difficult,” she reflected. “I struggled finding myself within the team and proving that I always wanted to be a good player.” She wanted to make a statement and put a lot of pressure on herself to do so. She struggled with anxiety. She remembers having bad body language and being closed off to teammates.
“I wouldn’t be smiling as much,” she said. “It wouldn’t be because I’m not having fun but from the outside, it kind of looked like it. I was very much caught up in my own thoughts and thinking ‘okay, I got to do this, I got to prove them.’”
For Morris, Queen’s was an eye opening experience– she went from being confident heading in to seeing a lesser role. She saw more playing time than expected due to others’ injuries and her effort. Her confidence grew from there.
The two of them first met at a rookie dinner early in first year but didn’t really talk. “We didn’t really know what to talk about, we didn’t know each other that well so we didn’t bother putting in the effort,” Morris recalled. Soon, they connected after spending countless hours sitting together on bus trips. They would talk about school and life in general.
Over the years, Morris said she’s enjoyed walking with her to class or to the ARC, a chance to catch up on each other’s days as they don’t text often. She said they are “the sisters they never had.” She also understood why Alarie was closed off in her early years. “She was just very cautious, so I was able to, I don’t know, read the moments and know when to talk to her and when to not,” she said.
Alarie worked out with the team the summer after her second year as she started to open up –thanks to Morris, other teammates and coaches – and became more comfortable. “I’ve been able to confide in her,” Alarie said of Morris. “She’s a very different mentality from mine so it’s always refreshing to hear her perspective on things and really gets me out of my lows.”
As Morris was helping Alarie open up, it was Alarie’s turn to return the support.
Midway through her second season, Morris was progressing well and seeing more playing time. Then, it all changed one day at practice. She went up to block a shot and as she planted her foot to land, there was a loud pop and something tore. “I knew the numbing in my leg, obviously that’s not right,” she said. “There was an instant bruise that popped up which I thought was very weird. I knew something was wrong.”
She tore her ACL. When she found out, at first, nothing went through her head. Then everything did. There was confusion, thoughts about sitting out and missing the rest of the season. “It really devastated me, even if I wasn’t outwardly willing to say that,” she said. “I was distraught by it. I felt like I was playing really well and that I didn’t deserve that.”
She missed the rest of her second year and even though she played a few exhibition games at the start of her third, she missed that one as well. In rehab, she had to learn to walk properly and run again. She also dealt with constant pain and soreness. Along the way, she continued to support her teammates as they supported her.
“No matter what happened, she would always show up and she would always be encouraging,” Lavergne remembered. “She’d always be on the bench with positive energy, regardless of what was going on.”
Morris’ mental struggles didn’t come until she was back on the court. “I realized I had lost all my confidence,” she recalled. “I didn’t think that I was as good as anyone. I was a lot slower because I was still trying to come back.” There was a hesitation in everything she did, the fear of getting injured again looming over her mind. “I remember coming back and not wanting to go into contacts or go into the huddle of people…because I did not want to get touched because I didn’t want to get hurt again,” she described. She also struggled by comparing herself with the player she was before and wanting to be at that level again.
As Morris sat out, Alarie continued to grow as Queen’s made the OUA finals and nationals in 2017, finishing fourth. It was the only time they would do so in their careers.
By fourth year, Morris started gaining her confidence back. This came from playing a
different position, finding a new role. Seeing her teammates and coaches’ belief and trust in her helped as well. “I was like okay, ‘if they believe in me then I should be able to believe in myself’,” she noted.
Her shooting was symbolic of that. By her fifth season, she shot 38.6 per cent from deep, the team’s best three-point shooter and a career-high. This was despite not shooting well at practice. There’s a drill where players have to shoot 50 three-pointers. Her career-high is 35, which is “not good,” according to her. For comparison, Alarie’s is 44. Morris wasn’t sure why she’s shot so well in games.
Wilson had an idea though. He sat down with her in January to talk about her breakout season. “You’re playing such great basketball,” he told Morris.
She shook her head and replied: “I don’t really know [why]. I just feel like I can do it.”
“Perfect. That’s the answer,” Wilson said. “It’s not about a knowing. It’s about a believing.”
As leaders and veterans, Morris and Alarie passed on their experiences to their teammates. They pushed and motivated players in different ways. “Maddie would do it with her words or her positive energy,” Lavergne said. “Larry [Alarie] would do it because she was so good…you wanted to work as hard as she was.”
Alarie reached 1,000 points against hometown Laurentian at the ARC this January– a “really heartwarming” moment, she called it. Players and coaches from both sides congratulated her.
The team celebrated a senior’s night victory over Carleton – their first win over the Ravens since 2015 – as Morris and Alarie were handed their framed jerseys and Wilson spoke about them in front of the crowd. The team was started to pick up steam, winning six out of their last seven regular season games to secure one last home playoff game.
Alarie and Morris knew the end was coming and it would be difficult to deal with but they couldn’t fully prepared for it. It was fast approaching.
As Alarie and Morris shook hands with the Lions after their playoff loss, reality sunk in deeper and deeper.
The fans thanked the players for the season and the players did the same. Morris found her mom afterwards. “It was very devastating for her, and for me, so she gave me a hug,” Morris said.
In the team room, Wilson gave a short speech, thanking them for the dedication. The players then linked arms in a big circle. “We were all just reiterating that it goes by a lot quicker than what you think,” Morris recalled. “We remembered our first year like it was yesterday and to have it be taken away is awful.”
Alarie recalled rookie guard Laura Donovan coming up to thank her, before telling her she would be taking her number 10 jersey next year. “It meant a lot to me but it was kind of a funny thing that happened,” she said.
For them, it was about loss: losing the chance to continue being part of the team, to share
experiences – on the court and in the locker room. The chance to be part of the family and to be a basketball player. To be who they were.
Morris’s sadness continued into the night and beyond. She found herself tearing up when going to sleep. The next morning, she was having lunch at a restaurant when she heard someone mention basketball. She cried once more. “It’s kind of like a forced retirement, like this is your life,” she said. “I don’t think I’m still quite over it.”
Alarie was invited to the OUA all-star game in May – one final chance to play in the Queen’s jersey. “It was a nice way to get some closure,” she said. Her graduation ceremony was emotional, according to her. It gave her closure on her academic and student life.
Symbolically, they had their convocation one day apart in mid-June at the Queen’s ARC. At first, they were upset about not having their ceremony in the main convocation building but then the feelings turned to reflection. “It helps with the closure because I had started my five years there and ended my five years there,” Morris said.
Her parents sat in the same seats for the ceremony as they did during basketball games. The ARC, Queen’s and Kingston had become “a home away for home” for her. “You make it a home because you have to make the best of it, no matter where you are,” she said.
Morris and Alarie went on a trip to Ireland before graduation, marking the end of that chapter of their lives and the start of their new ones. Morris called it a “bittersweet trip.”
That was the last “big” time they would be seeing each other. “It was lovely when we were there,” Morris said. “When we had to say goodbye, it was very tough.”
Lavergne is also leaving. The Ottawa forward is departing the team with one year of eligibility left – like Morris. Having transferred from the University at Albany in 2016, she spent three seasons as their teammate. Her first impressions of them remain the same ones today.
“My first impressions of Larry was just that she’s very dedicated to what she wanted to
accomplish. Like, there was no question she was going to accomplish it,” she said. “Maddie was very very nice, very funny. She would just lighten the mood.”
Lavergne remembers Alarie helping her out in the weight room, while being motivated by Morris’ positivity. She remembers their “off-beat” humour, their countless jokes and laughs.
“They just balance each other out really, really well,” she said.
Lavergne herself chose to leave to focus on her growing passion and undergraduate degree in philosophy. She plans to pursue a master’s degree and possibly a PhD in philosophy afterwards. “I’m sure Maddie probably feels it a little bit harder than I do,” she said of their decisions to depart and the transition that followed.
Lavergne said her choice was based on her passion for philosophy overtaking her love for basketball. “Once you find other interests and you kind of realize that being a basketball player isn’t a part of who you are, it’s something that you did, I think it makes the transition a lot easier,” she said. Now, her teammates are trying to do the same.
“Maddie and Larry are great people,” Lavergne added. “They’re going to do really well in life.”
Morris and Alarie have other passions, but how much it will fill the void left by basketball remains unclear.
Alarie talked with family and friends about possibly pursuing a pro career but opted against it, focusing instead on her long-term goal in healthcare, a passion that’s grown over time. She will be going to Michener Institute in Toronto this September for a 19-month program on cardiovascular perfusion. “It offered me everything I was looking for in terms of working in healthcare and helping people, so I’m excited,” Alarie said.
Her life has come full circle as she is back in Sudbury coaching and working out, getting into cross-fit.
Morris has had more chances to return to Seeley’s Bay, spending time with her family on
weekends. However, she’s still in Kingston, beginning her one-year teacher’s college degree at Queen’s this summer, with hopes of becoming a guidance counselor one day. She’s had a passion to be a teacher and work with kids. She’s tried to develop other interests, such as music and possibly coaching, and still works out with the team. It feels different, though.
She’s thought about returning for her fifth year of eligibility. “I still think about it to see if I’ve made the right decision or not,” Morris noted. “It ping pongs back in my head.” For her, the difficulty is letting go of her identity as a basketball player, one she’s known for 12 years.
“I would love to still do it but it’s also just physically and emotionally and everything,” Morris continued. “It’s just very demanding so it’s nice to move on and do something else.”
At the end of it all, both Morris and Alarie said they’ve found internal happiness and
satisfaction from their time at Queen’s.
They’ve found perspective as well, especially through their low moments. Morris realizes how she’s taken her time at Queen’s for granted when she was there, not realizing how fleeting the moments were.
“It helped me discover who I am and a huge part of my identity,” Alarie said. “I think a lot of people search for that identity past university, so to be able to have found that identity through basketball and through Queen’s is a huge, huge thing and I’m really grateful for it.”
The “basketball-sized hole in your heart”, as Morris calls it, from that time in their lives might never be fully replaced, regardless of other passions.
“I think it’ll be okay if it’s never quite filled because I had the opportunity to be able to play and be able to experience the loss of being retired and not playing anymore,” Morris said. “I had the opportunity to do that and not a lot of other people do. So I think I’ll be very grateful and I am very grateful for having experienced that.”
– M. Sun