Photo by Niagara RiverLions / CEBL
To say that Victor Raso is passionate about Canadian university basketball would be a huge understatement.
The former national champion with the Carleton Ravens now has a new role in the game. He is the coach and general manager of the Niagara River Lions of the Canadian Elite Basketball League. It is the next chapter in his life in Canadian basketball, and it keeps him connected to USports basketball and to Carleton.
“I have a disproportionate love for USports basketball,” Raso said. “I know way too much about it. I knew about the players who played, and which teams were good. It’s in my blood.”
The Niagara roster has a heavy Carleton influence. Former Ravens Phil and Tommy Scrubb, Emmanuel Owoo-toah and Guillaume Boucard are on the River Lions roster. The team’s two USports development players, Lloyd Pandi and Grant Shepherd, are both coming back to Carleton in the fall. Dave Smart is on the River Lions staff as an executive coach and regional scout.
Left to Right: Tommy Scrubb, Phil Scrubb, Guillaume Boucard, Lloyd Pandi & Grant Shepherd (Photo: Trung Ho / @InTheFourthU)
In other words, St. Catharines is like the Niagara region’s little enclave of the Carleton campus.
Raso grew up in Hamilton, and his father, Joe Raso, was a longtime basketball coach at McMaster University. He was one of the most successful head coaches in the OUA, making it to the Final 8 tournament 13 times and reaching the final four times. Winning a national championship eluded him.
“When I was a kid, McMaster basketball was my life,” he said. “I lived through all those losses.”
Raso dreamed of playing university basketball for the Marauders, and he got his opportunity. After his first year, Raso had a wrench thrown into his university basketball experience when his father was let go by McMaster. At a young age, he was facing more adversity than he had ever faced as a basketball player.
“I stuck around for a couple years,” Raso said. “I did my best to be a leader of that team. I didn’t have a great relationship with my coach, and it was tough. My family wasn’t there anymore, and it was difficult.”
McMaster was ranked third in Canada during Raso’s first year there. Their top player suffered an injury and was unable to play in the Final 8.
“We didn’t get to reach our full potential that year,” Raso said. “We probably wouldn’t have won anyway, but it was a good place to start. Then my dad got let go. He built a program from nothing to one of the best in the country. It was hard on my family. At that point, I didn’t want to go anywhere else because it was all I knew.”
Raso continued on at Mac for two more seasons and was an OUA all-star. He silenced the critics who said he only made the team at McMaster because of his father. But deep down, Raso knew he needed a change. He started looking at other programs he could possibly transfer to. All roads led to Carleton.
“I talked to Dave (Smart) and I went on a visit to Carleton, and I fell in love,” he said. “They played basketball the way I wanted to play. Dave and I had a good connection right from the start. I ended up at Carleton and it changed my life.”
When student-athletes transfer, outsiders don’t often see the emotional toll it can take on them. Raso left a program that he had grown up obsessed with, and was also dealing with the ties that were cut between his team and his family. When he left McMaster, he also lost a lot of friendships and relationships.
“To them, when I transferred to Carleton, I was going to the dark side,” he said jokingly. “Back then, when social media wasn’t as big as it is now, everyone (in southern Ontario) had this intense hatred for Carleton. All they saw was Carleton winning. When I told everyone I was going there, I heard everything.”
Raso didn’t just transfer to Carleton to play and to try and win the national championship that escaped his father’s grasp. He also chose Carleton because he knew that he would soon be a coach himself. He wanted to learn that side of the game from the most successful head coach in USports history.
“My dad won a lot of games but he didn’t win a championship,” Raso said. “When I first talked to Dave about transferring, I was instantly drawn to what it is they did differently to get them over the hump every year that my dad could never do. When I got to Carleton and saw what they do and their no-nonsense approach, I was instantly drawn to it.”
2014-15 CIS National Championship Celebration
As a player, transferring to Carleton was an eye-opener from Raso. Despite coming from one of the top programs in the province and country, he quickly learned that the line between being one of the best and being the best was not a fine one.
“The standards at Carleton are way beyond the average person’s perception of standards,” Raso said. “When I was at Mac, I would win awards because I was the hardest working player on the team. When I got to Carleton, I was in the bottom half on the team for the amount of work guys would put in. It was mind blowing that they worked this hard.”
Raso said that during his first season at Carleton, one conversation with Smart changed everything for him.
“My first year at Carleton was really hard,” he said. “Dave pulled me aside and told me that if I couldn’t handle it as a player, I could never handle it as a coach. He told me that the players would remember how I handled everything when I became a coach. That completely changed my mindset and turned me into more of a leader.”
One of the most emotionally charged moments for Raso was when the Ravens faced his old team from McMaster in the first game at the Final 8 tournament.
“That was all the guys who I had just left,” he said. “That was emotional. Earlier in the year, we had played at Mac. I was still learning the system and I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. There were lots of fans at that game and they were heckling me. I didn’t play nearly as well as I should have. At the nationals, with so much on the line, that could have gone bad – losing to the school I had just left in the nationals. We couldn’t lose that game.”
After the game, Raso made the mistake of saying in the locker room that they had two more to go. He was corrected by his roommate, fifth year player Kevin Churchill.
“He stopped me in my tracks and said, no, we have one more game to win tomorrow,” Raso said. “I was like, okay, that’s the Carleton way. Don’t get ahead of yourselves. We have a semi-final game to play next.”
Winning a national championship was a special moment for Raso. The Ravens beat uOttawa at Canadian Tire Centre in the championship game.
“My family was there,” he said. “My dad spent all these years trying to win a national championship and then I won one as a player. That was really cool. It made all the hard work worthwhile.”
After winning two championships at Carleton as a player, Raso transitioned into being an assistant coach and won another championship under Smart. Because he had been an older player on the team, it was an easier transition for him to go from player to coach than it was to come to Carleton from McMaster as a player.
“I wasn’t a highly athletic player, so I had to rely on communication and on my mind,” he said. “That’s what being a coach is about.”
Raso eventually moved back to Hamilton and has stayed involved as a coach at various levels. Although he is still young enough to play, he is now a veteran head coach in the CEBL. He joined the River Lions as an assistant coach in 2017 under his father, and became their head coach in 2019.
After 11 games, the River Lions were in third place in the seven-team league. He said the roster heavy with Carleton talent is very deliberate. He was teammates with the Scrubb brothers and Boucard. He knew firsthand the type of talent they had and the work ethic they brought with them.
“I know what it takes to go to Carleton and come out of Carleton and be successful,” Raso said. “I know the type of person who can get through that and the type of person who can’t. I want to build a culture of people with that level of discipline.”
Grant Shepherd, a transfer student who came to Carleton last season, and Lloyd Pandi will be rejoining the Ravens in the fall after spending the year under Raso as USports development players.
“I take a lot of pride in being responsible for Grant’s and Lloyd’s development,” Raso said. “I know what would be happening if they were at Carleton and I feel like I’ve got to live up to those standards.”
Photo: Niagara RiverLions / CEBL
In the fall, Raso will be watching the Ravens and all OUA teams closely.
“I will watch way too many games,” he said. “I will know what’s going on with every team and every player. We’ll all be super excited to see how Lloyd and Grant do at Carleton, so I will be even more tuned in than usual.”
And if Carleton ends up playing McMaster in the final, who is Victor Raso cheering for?
“That’s not even a question,” he said, laughing. “I’m a Carleton guy now.”