WESTLOCK – Although R.F. Staples School’s senior girls basketball team was the heavy favourite heading into the 3A North Central Zone championship March 10-11 in Whitecourt, their quest to claim the school’s first zone banner since the 1980s and erase the sting of losing in the zone finals at home last March, was far from a cakewalk as they faced injury and adversity that would have stopped most teams dead in their tracks.
Coach Wade Hicks said the tourney couldn’t have started any better as coming off a two-week layoff, they opened Friday with a 58-6 win over the rebuilding Edwin Parr Composite (EPC) Predators that allowed them to shake off the rust. Into the semifinals, the T-Birds faced Edson’s Parkland Pacers and that’s when, for lack of a better phrase, all hell broke loose.
The girls came out on fire and had a 13-1 lead only minutes in and looked like they’d walk away with the game before senior Hailey Keith took an elbow to the face which knocked out her two front teeth.
“And the game just stopped,” said Hicks. “Parents and tournament organizers are running around trying to find milk to put the teeth in and making calls to try and find a dentist. And Hailey, who is one of our leaders, is on the end of the bench and there’s blood everywhere.
“So, it was incredibly tough. A lot of the girls were just worried about Hailey and rightfully so.”
But to their credit, the girls were able to pull together, refocus and grind out a 35-34 victory.
“That was a tough semifinal, we did really well just to get out of it,” said Hicks.
The zone final pitted the T-Birds against the surging Barrhead Composite High School Gryphons and again, it wasn’t easy. While the T-Birds were able to hold the lead for most of the game, the Gryphons “were always pushing us and wouldn’t go away and always seemed to get to within two or three.”
To make matters even worse, the T-Birds lost Dorothy Letts to a knee injury, who’s “one of our best defensive players” during the contest.
“But we were up six points with 19 seconds to go and they got a steal and brought it down the floor and then one of their kids stepped out and nailed a three with 3.5 seconds on the clock,” said Hicks recalling the final moments.
But as they’d done all day, the girls took a deep breath and locked it down for the final seconds to score a 41-38 victory and claim the school’s first girls basketball zone banner since “sometime in the 1980s.”
“We took some blows this weekend, but they were just able to keep battling through. I think it really shows how deep our team is as we play with that ‘next player up’ mentality,” said Hicks. “I was incredibly proud of how they kept battling all weekend long.”
There’s little time for the T-Birds to savour this triumph as they’ll be heading to Wetaskiwin Wednesday for the 3A Alberta Schools' Athletic Association 3A Girls Basketball Championship March 16-18. Hicks said they’ll probably be ranked eighth coming in and may end up playing two games on Thursday if they win their 10:30 a.m. opener versus the ninth-ranked club.
“All the games we have this coming week are going to be tough, no doubt about it,” he continued. “Our record this year was 16-11, but we’ve played some of the best teams in the province … we lost to the top-ranked team in the province a few weeks ago by only one point. So, I think we’re going into this weekend just trying to win some games and see what happens.
“We definitely have earned the respect of teams across the province and I think it’s well deserved for this group of kids as there’s no limit to what they can do.”
Senior boys 1-2 at zones
Meanwhile, the RFS senior boys were in Morinville for their 3A zone tournament and went 1-2.
The boys fell by seven points to EPC in the opener, then rebounded with a 61-60 victory over Drayton Valley in Game 2 to propel them to the consolation final versus Whitecourt.
There, the boys put up a good fight but just ran out of gas and dropped another seven-point decision.
First-year head coach Randy Pidsadowski said he was happy with the results as the boys saved their best for last.
“I think we played our best basketball of the year at this tournament, so they definitely peaked at the right time. Offensively I saw a lot more patience this weekend, especially from our post players,” said Pidsadowski. “It feels like we’ve come up a notch and we know what we need to work on for next year.”
Heading into the offseason, the club will lose its only Grade 12, plus a Grade 11 player, but will have the eight Grade 10s back, plus an influx of talent from the junior high ranks.
“And I’m going to have a practice this week to meet some of the kids coming up from junior high. I’m already looking forward to next year,” he added.