Photograph by Tyler Webb
[C]arly Clarke’s experience and skills as a coach have taken her to the helm of the Canadian women’s national team, a role she relishes. This year, she has taken on an arguably tougher role as head coach of the women’s basketball team at Ryerson. This means that for the first time in CIS history a university program has two national team coaches in its ranks, with Clarke one, and men’s basketball coach Roy Rana the other.
Combined their experiences building programs promise to lift Ryerson basketball to new heights, and Clarke has come to her new post having already overcome many of the challenges she faces at Ryerson throughout her career.
When Carly Clarke was given her first job as head coach in 2009, she was challenged to create a full roster at the University of Prince Edward Island. The difficulty there was that she had only two returning players from the last year. Scrambling to get a full 12-woman roster, she started looking within, from the small island, and in bigger high school markets like Ontario and Quebec, where the talent runs deep.
“My first year at UPEI was probably my hardest year in coaching because our team was very weak and we were getting beat soundly on a regular basis. In PEI it’s hard work because the number of players on the Island are not that many so you have to get creative and look elsewhere.”
That season she was mainly focused on getting a roster together, who could compete every day, despite their lack of skill. By the end of her tenure at UPEI, she still hadn’t made the playoffs but they were competitive and winning games.
Her journey started at the age of six, when she was told she had an immediate love for the game, playing basketball on her driveway. As a CIS player she played at Bishops University in Quebec for five years, before moving back to Halifax.
It wasn’t an easy journey for the 29-year-old Nova Scotian. But she endured two years on the Island, and now is the woman in charge of the Rams women’s team.
While assisting at Dalhousie University she did some coaching with provincial teams and regional Canada Basketball programs, including Centre for Performance, through which she was identified as “an up-and-coming female coach” and was awarded the opportunity to work there.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated from university. I knew that I loved basketball and I had a sense for the game. I had been thinking about doing a Masters [for business administration] and the Dalhousie Coach at the time asked if I wanted to come be her assistant.”
Clarke jumped at the opportunity.
She then became an apprentice assistant coach for National Elite Development Academy, a basketball program which brought all the best high schools players in the country to train in Hamilton for the school year. After a year she was hired by UPEI.
Clarke’s style of play is one of speed. She tries to play at an up-tempo pace, with an offensive transition, and mixing things up defensively with the core of man-to-man defensive principles at the base. She also runs a type of motion, with specific sets to suit the strengths of her best players. For instance, for a player like Kelcey Wright, she’ll have specific plays to get her open shots to allow her to play to her strength.
“I think that I am able to relate to the players as a female and a female whose competed in the CIS and been through what these players have been through. I think I can help share my experiences to ensure that their’s are positive. I think I have a passion for the game that’s contagious, which inspires people to work hard- at least that’s my hope. And I think just hard work, in general, is one of my characteristics that will rub off on my girls on and off the court.”
Former players say her openness as a coach and mentor is her greatest attribute. For UPEI ‘s Carly LeFave, Clarke was always there to talk to, “an open-door policy,” she called it. Jenna Jones, a third-year UPEI player, remembers Clarke for her ability to teach the game and improve her players; the hallmarks of a quality coach.
“She actually changed one of my shots to give me a better jump, she helped with my pull-up, instead of a jump-stop we did a 1-2 and that helped me a lot. My shot was always short, but this allowed me to get higher and release it at the right point,” says Jones, who was recruited by Clarke after high school.
At every stage in her career, Clarke has had to come into young teams and take them to the next level. By her third year at Bishops, the team were Conference Champions. There was a similar experience of rebuilding at UPEI when she was hired there as a coach, having only two returning players on the roster by June, and needing to get a roster together. Clarke thinks she knows how to create a successful team from the ground up.
“For me, creating a successful program takes a few things. Accountability is a huge thing. You need to have players and people involved in the program that are accountable for themselves and who will hold each other accountable. Discipline, hard work, commitment and team work are all words that we would use on a daily basis. And combining that with mental toughness in all aspects. It’s a tough thing to be a student athlete so you have to have mentally tough players to be able to survive the discipline and hard work and commitment required to be successful.”