TORONTO — The pride in playing for Canada was nurtured from a very early age, says veteran forward Natalie Achonwa. And so, when the big guns of Canada's women's basketball team gathered for training camp on Thursday, they said there was nowhere else they'd rather be.
"That commitment level, that dedication, that's always there, that's the best part of Canada Basketball and our women's team," Achonwa said. "The big tournaments, everyone answers, everyone comes, and that's because we've been in it from a young age. I grew up in Canada Basketball since I was 13, 14 playing on the junior team.
"That love for putting the Canada jersey on, that's embedded in me, that's who I am. It's never a task coming back, it's always refreshing coming back here."
The Canadians tipped-off their six-day camp Thursday at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre — the same building in which they won gold at the 2015 Pan American Games — in their final push toward the World Cup, Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Spain. Among the 15 players assembled, there was no big name missing.
"There's nothing like coming home and being able to play on your home soil, eat your home food, but also with so many people who are so passionate about the game and with so much love to come here and put their heart and soul into Canada Basketball," said guard Kia Nurse.
Coach Lisa Thomaidis credited the women who toiled for Canada in leaner times.
"They get turned on early, they've had some pretty amazing role models that have come before them, so being exposed to them early has played a part," Thomaidis said. "And they enjoy it here, they've come from NCAA or professional context, they really see the value in being involved, and they see that we care about them, we care about their development, and they've seen success."
Canada will play Japan on Sept. 7 and world No. 1-ranked United States on Sept. 8 in an exhibition series in Bridgeport, Conn. They'll also face France, the U.S., and Senegal in a four-team tournament in France, Sept. 15-17 before travelling to Tenerife.
"Canada Basketball has put together a great schedule for us to be able to measure ourselves against the U.S. a couple of times – once might have been enough, but we're going to play them twice," Thomaidis laughed. "And then France and Japan. These are key match-ups because we're going to see different styles of play and test some things out and see what's going to work and what we need to modify before worlds."
This camp marks the team's third phase of preparation this summer, but the first for Achonwa and Nurse, who just finished their WNBA seasons. With a large roster of talented youngsters at her disposal this summer, Thomaidis allowed veteran players to sit out one of the early phases to avoid a long grind.
Achowna laughed when comparing it to the tough slog of a few years ago.
"We used to do 40 days, 40 nights training camps, out in Abbotsford, B.C. They'll never let me forget it — only Kim (Gaucher) will remember it now but I cried that training camp. . . It was a lot for a 16-year-old," said Achonwa.
Canada was fifth at the 2014 world championships, but left the 2016 Rio Olympics wanting more after they dispatched by France 68-63 in the quarterfinals.
The Canadians, ranked an all-time high of fifth in the world, would love to climb the podium in Tenerife, but they have to win a quarterfinal game first — something this team hasn't done in a major international event.
"We haven't proven anything yet, that's a big part of it. We have a chip on our shoulder and a ways to go," Thomaidis said. "The next step for us is we need to be playing for a medal. Our eyes are on that prize and it's going to be a tough road to get there. World Cup, every team is going to be solid and we have to do a lot of work to get there, but we're happy with the process and who we have here."
Thomaidis, who also coaches the University of Saskatchewan, faces a tough task in slicing her roster to 12 players, but said "it's a great problem to have.
"It's probably something we haven't faced in a long time now . . . It's a matter of putting the best pieces together to create the strongest, most efficient, coherent group we can put forward," she said. "We're competing right from the start, we're putting them right into the fire, so we'll see what we can evaluate from that. Not a fun position to be in. All these women have shown their loyalty and pride playing for Canada and have come every time we've called, so it's going to be a tough one for sure."
Canada is in Group A at the World Cup with No. 3-ranked France, South Korea (16th), and Greece (20th).
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press