Two 2019 Whistler Secondary School grads have decent odds at hoisting the Bronze Baby trophy as U Sports women's basketball champions at the end of the season.
Ayden Kristmanson, suiting up for Toronto's Ryerson Rams, and Pietra Kamstra, with the McMaster Marauders, are both part of strong programs in their respective freshmen seasons.
Kristmanson finds herself in a solid situation in her rookie season as the 8-2 Rams sit as the fifth-ranked team in the country.
"I'm loving it. Obviously, going from Whistler to the big city is a big change, but I really like it. I've made new friends. The team is awesome and the team dynamic is amazing," she said. "The coaching is amazing and everything is really good."
Kristmanson, a guard, has appeared in seven games so far, scoring three points in 29 minutes.
"I'm still developing, like every first-year player," she said. "I'm definitely not playing as much as anyone would hope, but it's definitely a process.
"I'm definitely right where I thought I would be."
Kristmanson has noticed a couple of significant differences between the high-school and university levels, namely the increased physicality and the technical chess match that the higher level is proving to be.
"There's a lot more defensive strategy and thought that goes into the game and the preparation for these games," she said. "In high school, they keep everything really simple.
"That's one of the biggest jumps that I've felt, having to use your brain a lot more while you're playing, thinking a lot more while you're playing."
The adjustment hasn't been easy, she said, as she initially felt deluged by new information early on. However, Kristmanson was given time and space to learn, and now has the strategies down pat.
"One of our first practices, we introduced defensive principles, our rules on defence and how we want to force the opposition to play on offence," she said. "I was so overwhelmed. I was looking around and [thinking], 'I'll never get this. I will never figure this out.'
"Now I'm totally fine with it. I understand what we need to do on defence. It's just something that comes the more time you spend with the team and more time you practice it with the entire team.
"There's a lot of opportunity to learn and grow. The quicker you can apply those things they teach you, the quicker you'll play ... It's kind of a give and take. The more you give them, the more they're going to trust you."
While not her debut, Kristmanson looked back fondly on her fourth game against Ontario Tech University, an 82-33 win in which she logged her most significant floor time, playing 14 minutes in the second half.
"We have nothing to lose here. I can go in and show the coach everything right now," she recalled thinking. "I was definitely nervous when I first got out there. It kind of felt like my body wasn't even there.
"After you get the first few minutes under your belt, I felt so much more free."
Kristmanson has been impressed with the resources available to the team, noting the physio staff helps keep players on the floor, while there is a mental training staff of three, with one dedicated to team dynamics, one to players' mental health and one for each player's basketball goals.
While Kristmanson started out taking classes in architecture, she quickly realized it wasn't for her and will switch to environment and urban sustainability for the next semester.
Meanwhile, less than an hour to the southwest, Pietra Kamstra is adjusting to life at McMaster University in Hamilton.
Similarly to Kristmanson, Kamstra also feels that developing the mental side of the game has been the element she's had to progress the most quickly.
"One of the biggest changes, I'd say, is the pace of the game," she said. "It's not physical speed—I can run as fast as the girls—but decision-making is a lot quicker. Having to read the floor and make those decisions at a higher level has been tough, but a good adjustment."
Kamstra said she's been given the opportunity to evolve her game in practice so far this season.
Kamstra, a forward, has played in six of McMaster's 10 games so far, tallying 11 total points and adding two assists in 50 total minutes of floor time.
"I can definitely see that I've improved from the beginning of the year. In the day-to-day, it's hard to see if you've improved, but looking back compared to where I was at the start of the school year and even the end of last year in high school, I've definitely improved," she said.
In her debut, Kamstra played eight minutes against the Lakehead University Thunderwolves, chipping in two points.
"My very first game, I was very nervous, but my coach [Theresa Burns], she's amazing. She had complete faith in us and if we made mistakes, she kept putting us out there," she said. "In my second game, I felt a little bit more comfortable.
"It's such a great experience being put out there and given a chance to learn and get comfortable on the floor. Eventually, I scored a couple points and got into the swing of things."
Kamstra said she's felt lucky to join McMaster, the defending national champion, as she's learning from the best in her rookie campaign.
"The coaching staff is all amazing and even our sports staff, our trainers, the physios, have been great," she said. "The girls on the team have been so helpful. Going to university, for anyone, is an adjustment, and playing at a high level in sports is a huge adjustment as well.
"The older girls have all been through it and they've all been so helpful. It's all really made me feel comfortable, and pushed me in practice."
Kamstra, a business major, took four classes in her first semester and has enjoyed postsecondary academics.
"I've had to adjust my study habits since the beginning of the year. I learned what works for me, writing out my notes," she said. "I actually enjoy playing sports with school because of course, I put in all the time studying, but going to practice takes my mind off of school.
"Then I can come back after practice with a fresh head and I don't get too tired of doing the same thing over and over."
Kamstra and Kristmanson will meet again later this week as the Rams visit the Marauders in Hamilton on Jan. 8.