Campus Life

Taal family influence a Pronghorn tradition

When Lauren Taal chose to attend the University of Lethbridge and play for the Pronghorns women's basketball team, to everyone looking in, it seemed like the easy decision. But make no mistake, beginning with that decision and the ensuing five years that followed, Taal's time as a Pronghorn has been anything but easy – and she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I am happy that this is the path I chose," says Taal, a third generation family member to attend the U of L. "I don't think it turned out the way I thought it would but as you grow up, I guess you realize that things aren't always what you expect."

Taal's family tree has an indelible University of Lethbridge branch to it, beginning with her grandfather Jack Lilja Sr., who coached the Horns women's team for four seasons in the 1970s. Her mother Lynette Taal (Lilja) played for the Horns from 1978 through 1983, while her aunts Lorell (1973-77) and Leslie (1974-79) also wore the blue and gold. Her uncle, Jack Lilja Jr., played both basketball and soccer for the Horns and her father Clarence Taal is another U of L alumnus.

Lauren Taal
Horns' guard Lauren Taal drives the lane in a recent Canada West game at the 1st Choice Savings Centre. PHOTO courtesy of Paula Gorman.

Given the family lineage, it seemed natural that Lauren would choose to attend the U of L, yet she seriously entertained offers from both the University of Alberta and University of Saskatchewan.

"It was a difficult decision for me because I knew how important it was and I knew how long the family tradition was to come here," says Taal. "At the same time my parents would have supported me any place I went."

In Taal's time at the U of L, the Horns have never finished above the .500 mark and made just one playoff appearance. Teammates have come and gone, she lost a close friend and mentor, suffered a major knee injury that cost her the second half of her fourth season and veered away from her intended major. Only now, in her final year, can she see the all their hard work starting to pay off and the team making huge strides forward.

"Looking back now, I'm still really glad that I came here," she says. "I don't think I would have learned as much going to programs that have seen more success. I think the people I've met here and the experiences I've had through the school and through basketball, playing with all the people I've played with, they've all had a great influence on me."

Taal has grasped adversity and made it work for her, learning more about herself in times of challenge than she ever learned as a high school star at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute.

"I had been pretty fortunate before coming here," says Taal. "I'd always played on teams that were pretty good and always been one of the better players, thanks a lot to my mom's influence. Then to struggle the way we did as a team and to get injured – when you lose something that's been such a big part of your life it makes you stop and realize all the things you need to be grateful for because just like that, they can be taken away from you."

Losing her friend Krista Heidinger (née Robson) tragically, a former Pronghorn her mother had coached, and whom she knew and looked up to since she was four years old, was another tough blow. Yet Taal, approaching her final games in a Horns jersey and ready to graduate with a degree in kinesiology this spring, is still thankful for the opportunity to have played in her hometown for the family program and with her younger sister Cassidy (second year).

"After we lost against University of Calgary this year, making it tough for us to get into the playoffs, I was pretty upset," says Taal. "I remember coming out of the dressing room and my little cousins were there saying, "You played so well" and they were so excited. Knowing they support me and come out to games and look up to me and Cassidy, I'm very grateful to have a family that is behind me, that I'm getting an education and playing the game I love. It really puts things into perspective."

After convocation, Taal will explore professional basketball opportunities in Europe, with plans to eventually pursue a master's degree in sports management or administration. There's also a good chance she'll follow another family tradition and turn to coaching.

"I've gotten so much from this game, I feel a responsibility to give back to it," she says. "My granddad passed it on to my aunts and my mom, and she passed her love of the game on to me. Lots of people might not understand that just because they haven't had the same upbringing but I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have basketball, so I can definitely see myself coaching."

Whether it leads her back to the U of L once again remains to be seen.


Taal set a Canada West single-game record for steals recently, nabbing 13 steals against the University of Manitoba Bisons

Taal has already dabbled in coaching, teaming up with former Horns women's head coach Dori Johnson to guide a youth league team last summer

Her grandfather Jack Lilja Sr. played for Canada's 1963 World Championship Men's Basketball Team. He wore jersey No. 7, as did Taal's mother Lynette and as she wears today for the Horns

Her mother Lynette was a two-time Canada West all-star and named Pronghorn Female Athlete of the Year in 1983

The Lilja family was inducted into the Pronghorn Hall of Fame in 2002

This story first appeared in the February 2012 edition of The Legend. To view the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.