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Masters student does masterful job rebuilding Lakehead hoops team

Gia Spiropoulos has rebuilt basketball program; 'Hopefully, this legacy that we’ve built can continue ...this is just a stepping stone for bigger and better things'

The Lakehead University women's' basketball team has come a long way in two short seasons.

This past season the Thunderwolves played in three Ontario College Recreation League (OCR) tournaments. They came home from each tournament as an undefeated champion.

One of the keys to the Thuderwolves' success is player-coach Gia Spiropoulos.

Before arriving at Lakehead in the fall of 2018 to complete her masters of education, Spiropoulos played basketball at the University of Waterloo and Queen's University. Unfortunately, her career was shortened after suffering multiple concussions.  

Spiropoulos still had an itch to be part of the game, so she transitioned into a coaching role with a couple of teams in her hometown of Belleville.

When the 25-year-old Spiropoulos arrived at Lakehead's campus in Orillia, she was hoping to continue her coaching career. However, both coaching roles had already been filled. The Thunderwolves instead offered her the opportunity to return to the court as a player.

“I was truly hesitant at first, but I thought you know what let’s give it a try,” Spiropoulos said.

“As soon as I started playing with the girls, I fell in love with it again." 

When Spiropoulos joined the team, the women’s basketball program was in the process of a rebuild. It was the program's first year after taking a few seasons off, and both coaches that were slated for the job had to step down for personal reasons; the team only had five players.

With the program being at a high risk of folding once again, Spiropoulos stepped up after being asked by athletic department personnel to be a player-coach.

“I was thrilled that they had asked, but I first wanted to ask my teammates if they were OK with it,” Spiropoulos explains.

 “My teammates were extremely supportive of it and respected me as a person, a player and a coach, which was huge.”

Spiropoulos had the trust of her teammates and the athletic department, giving her full control to run the team with her own vision and make the tough decisions in order to be a successful team. 

Under her leadership, the team was off and running and they visited Humber College for their first tournament of the 2018 season. With only five players on their roster, the Thunderwolves made it to the semi-finals.

“It was challenging, but the girls we had on our team were amazing and we ended up getting a fair play award for playing four games with five players,” Spiropoulos reflected.

At that tournament, Spiropoulos saw the team’s potential and took it upon herself, with some of the veteran players on the team, to try and improve.

“We were very accepting that we might only have five players all year, but we didn’t care. It was a start,” Spiropoulos said.

As the 2018 season went on Spiropoulos and her teammates reached out to some potential players around campus and built a roster of eight. In their last two tournaments of the season, they made it to the championship game.

“In sports, especially with girls, there is always room for conflict and a mix of personalities. With our team, we never had any of those issues,” Spiropoulos said.

“These girls were so selfless, and from the beginning, we built a close relationship with one another. It was like a family.”

The 2018 Thunderwolves team had to overcome a lot of adversity and was built with lots of diversity. The oldest player on the team was 34, the youngest was 19 

“Despite a very wide range of age we were very close from the beginning,” Spiropoulos said.

“There was no ego involved, everyone on the team wanted to help each other and that’s what brought us so close together.”

After a surprisingly successful season under her leadership on and off the court, Lakehead University named Spiropoulos the female athlete of the year.

“It was really special because the award is about more than just being an athlete,” Spiropoulos said.

“To be acknowledged as a student-athlete, for my coaching role and as someone who represents the university, that was something surreal and it was special to feel the support of my teammates and the university.”

Spiropoulos never expected to be recognized, and winning the award isn't how she measures success.

“Seeing smiles from my teammates and seeing the program grow is all the recognition I will ever need,” she said.

It was a no-brainer for Spiropoulos to return to the Thunderwolves for a second season as player-coach and, thankfully, some of the weight was lifted off her shoulders as the Thunderwolves brought in well known Orillia Secondary School (OSS) basketball coach Dan Fournier.

Spiropoulos and Fournier had little issue putting together the 2019 team, after taking the OCR by storm the season prior.

“Girls are buying into the program, buying into the culture and I’m proud to say it’s a culture that we have developed,” Spiropoulos said. 

 “Other teams are noticing how positive we are, how encouraging we are, how selfless we play; our culture is special.”

Although the Thunderwolves core values are focused on building relationships, being encouraging and having fun, the team wanted to turn it up a notch this year.

“For basketball, it all kind of ends after high school for most females,” Spiropoulos explained.

“It’s a rare opportunity at the post-secondary level to play women’s sports, and for this opportunity, for this group of women to come together while playing a sport we love, a lot of girls respect that.”

The Thunderwolves played with a competitive edge, but still kept their reputation of being a fun team intact. The Lakehead team had an undefeated season at OCR tournaments going 12-0, winning three straight championships.

“Only now that we just finished our second season, I’ve been able to come down from the high and take a step back and look at everything we’ve accomplished over the past two years,” Spiropoulos said. 

“I’m at a loss of words to be honest. Hopefully, this legacy that we’ve built can continue on for the next 20 years. This is just a stepping stone for bigger and better things," said Spiropoulos.

Those bigger and better things have been on Spiropoulos mind ever since she stepped foot on campus. She has always had a vision for the future of Thunderwolves women’s basketball.

“Hopefully in the next ten years, Lakehead in Orillia will have built a facility that we can call our home gym in partnership with the city,” Spiropoulos explains her vision.

“I also want to see the program reach a varsity level, playing league games in the OCAA (Ontario Colleges Athletic Association) against Georgian, Humber, and Seneca.”

Spiropoulos sees a bright future for Lakehead women’s basketball and is hoping to see local girls involved. She has high hopes, especially after seeing the OSS senior girls' team, which won a silver medal at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic tournament this past November, approaching their post-secondary careers.

As for next year, every player from the undefeated Thunderwolves squad could return. However, Spiropoulos herself is undecided if she will continue her education and return to Lakehead next season.

Regardless, even if she isn’t playing next year, she hopes to stay involved in the program and contribute as a coach.