Canadian women’s basketball team makes bold move with hiring of Lapena

The Canadian women’s national team is looking to go from very good to great on the global stage, and decided it needed to go out in the world to get the right coach to take the squad there.

On Thursday morning, Canada Basketball announced it had hired former Spanish women’s team assistant Victor Lapena as head coach, replacing Lisa Thomaidis, who had led the women’s team to consecutive Olympic appearances and was an assistant when the women’s team broke through and qualified for the London Olympics in 2012.

Lapena will be joined by Noelle Quinn, an American who is head coach of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and had a long player career in the world’s top women’s league as well as overseas.

They will be joined on the bench by Carly Clarke, the head coach at Ryerson University and a holdover from Thomaidis’ staff, as well as Steve Baur, formerly of Acadia University.

The pair of international hires is a significant change for Canada Basketball, particularly on the women’s side.

The team is ranked fourth in the world and has consistently been able to compete at the top of women’s game, but missing are the podium finishes that are a stated goal.

Canada finished eighth in 2012, seventh in 2016 and ninth this past summer at the Olympics as the team failed to advance out of the group stage in a disappointing showing in Tokyo. Thomaidis stepped aside afterwards in what had been a planned parting with the University of Saskatchewan head coach, and the search began, with Canada Basketball looking almost everywhere but Canada for a new coach for the upcoming Olympic cycle.

“Coming out of Tokyo as an organization we had some very tough conversations with ourselves, with our leadership team, with our athletes, with our alumni and our advisers,” said Canada Basketball president and chief executive officer Michael Bartlett on a conference call. “And we’ve talked a lot about what it would take to get this fourth-ranked program to the next level and to achieve our podium ambitions. Our athletes are world class. They’re playing around the world, they’re a leading club representing Canada every time that they get a chance, and we need to match their best with our best resources. And that’s a promise we’ve made to them time and time again over recent months. Today’s hiring, I think, reflects that commitment.”

The hope is the blend of Lapena’s background with one of the top federations in the world and Quinn’s long experience in the WNBA will help accelerate Canadian talent and coaching development.

“One thing that I know of women’s basketball in Spain is that they do a tremendous job of developing the younger players in terms of the skills, the decision-making, the basketball savvy … Having the full strategic focus of coaching in this area combined with our length, size and speed gives our athlete pool, over time, will impact the overall level of the players on our teams to compete against the top teams for a medal,” said Denise Dignard, the women’s program general manager, who led the search. “…. So, certainly, that combined European and American experience will also be an asset invaluable for our women’s program, for our athletes, but also for this coaching community.”

The work starts immediately. Canada is in Group C for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022 Qualifying Tournament beginning Feb. 10 and will face Japan (Feb 10), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Feb 12) and Belarus (Feb 13) in Osaka, Japan.

Three teams from each of the four qualifying tournaments will advance to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022 in Sydney, Australia, beginning in September.

Canada’s path to Australia will be complicated because national team star Kia Nurse is out with a torn ACL and Canada’s top NCAA talent — Aaliyah Edwards, Laeticia Amihere and Shaina Pellington — likely won’t be available for the qualifying tournament.

Lapena’s first opportunity to work with his new team — and his new staff — will come when the women gather in Osaka for what will be a strict bubble early next month.

“I’m not a wizard, for sure, it’s not possible to say ‘hey, come on, let’s go to play Victor Lapena basketball,’ no, this is very difficult,” said Lapena, 46, who is the head coach of the powerhouse women’s program at Fenerbahçe in Turkey and hasmore than a decade of experience with the Spanish national teams, both as an assistant at the senior level and a head coach with their age group programs.

“…I want to try to find how it’s possible to play with this energy in a short time … so if we will be able to do that … in one month, we will see the result. It is very difficult, but I love it.”

The hires were closely guarded with even long-time national team veterans only being apprised Tuesday morning on a conference call.

The early returns are positive.

“I was excited to hear about the additions to our Canada Basketball family with the hiring of coach Lapena and coach Quinn,” said Natalie Achonwa, the WNBA veteran from Guelph who is hoping to play in her fourth Olympics in Paris in 2024. “Their resumes speak for themselves and I can’t wait to see how their professional and international coaching experience impacts our program.”

Achonwa also made a point to add that having Quinn — a Black women — in such a prominent role was significant.

“I have tears of joy in my eyes right now. I know I probably sound like a broken record, but representation matters. The hiring of Coach Quinn matters. Having a Black woman — a competitive, experienced and successful Black coach at the highest level in our country is significant,” said Achonwa. “Imagine the impact it will have on the next generation of of black athletes to grow up and finally seeing someone that looks like them coach the SWNT … I can’t wait to see the (impact) this has on basketball in Canada for years to come.”

Lapena is the first non-Canadian head coach the women’s program has ever had and breaks uninterrupted path of coaches who had deep existing ties to the program.

In 1997, former women’s star Bev Smith of Salmon Arm, B.C., was named head coach, with Allison McNeill as her assistant. McNeill, also from B.C., took the top job in 2001 and before giving way to Thomaidis in 2013. The last man to coach the women’s program was Peter Ennis — also a Canadian. He passed away in 1997 after leading the women’s team — which included Smith as a player — to the Olympics in 1996.

In addition to earning a medal at the World Cup or the Olympics in the coming years, Bartlett said another goal is to have more Canadian coaching candidates that fit the profile of what Canada Basketball sees as a head coach at the senior team level in the future.

“Certainly, as we refined the criteria for our head coaching search, the pro and international women’s head coaching experience was really at the top of the list. And the reality of that situation is that the Canadian coaching tree right now isn’t deep with that experience,” said Bartlett.

“Us as an organization … we’re going to double down on our investment to make sure that we’re developing that next generation of Canadian coaches so that many years down the line when we’re doing another search like this, Canadians have pro and international head coaching jobs and are part of that candidate pool for us. So that if that criteria becomes the primary criteria, again, there’s a deep pool of candidates coming from this country that that meet that criteria. But that’s on us as a as a Federation to make sure of that. We can’t just expect people to achieve it. We have to invest in them to be able to do so.”

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