The Notre Dame Cougars boys handball team are hoping their home court advantage carries all of the way through Saturday.
The Cougars are hosting the tier I provincial handball championship this weekend are one of the favourites heading in, standing in their way, however, are two teams from Edmonton — the Bev Facey Falcons and the Eastglen Blue Devils.
On Friday, the hosts got off to a good start, beating the Frank Maddock High School Warriors out of Drayton Valley 31-23. In their evening match, they got their first shot at Eastglen, losing 25-24 despite getting 12 goals from Keegan MacDonald.
“This is the first time we’ve had a veteran lineup of any sorts . . . we’ve had a strong year, we’ve grown a ton, we have a couple of really strong returning players and we’re looking forward to the weekend,” said Cougars head coach Dale Henderson.
The team has had a fair bit of success this season, considering they have only played in a couple of tournaments and have no local league to play in. They finished third at the Falcon Cup in Edmonton, but more impressively won gold at the Cougar Classic and then beat the Lindsay Thurber Raiders to take the zone title.
The Cougars biggest strength is their depth throughout their lineup, an impressive feat considering their program has only been around for three years.
Leading the pack is a trio of stars who are already playing on provincial teams — MacDonald, who led the Cougars with eight goals in their win over the Warriors, Jackson Haddow, who scored four times and Liam Standish, who was held off the scoresheet.
But there is not a lot of drop off after that group, either, says Henderson, including Jesse Muirhead who scored six times in Friday’s early game, Nic Walker who scored four times while Jordan Muirhead and Mike Ozga added three more goals each.
“A lot of teams that have two or three or four players, I think our depth is excellent and I think it gives us an opportunity to be there at the end this weekend,” he said.
The Notre Dame girls are also coming into the provincial tournament with some success during the season, having earned silver at the Cougar Classic and also showing strong in an Edmonton tournament.
This provincial tournament is all about taking the next step in their own development, as they split their round robin games, beating the Westwood Community High School Trojans out of Fort McMurray 36-4 on Friday morning, but losing 34-19 to the Eastglen Blue Devils — the top ranked team in Alberta — in the afternoon.
“We’re really proud of how we played today,” said head coach Mandy Reed, adding they are hoping to at least get into the bronze medal match on Saturday.
“I think our girls were a little overmatched (in the late game) but I think our girls showed skill, heart and passion out on the court.”
The Cougars are built from the back end out, with the top goalie in the province in Chelsea Antonio. The stability in net is huge as they develop the rest of their roster, including Autumn Letkemen, Jade Lee and Sarah Koopmans, who is returning from an ankle injury.
“(Antonio’s) one of the back bones of our team, she supports our team, she tells them where to go and what holes she seeing,” said Reed. “She’s a real mentor on our team.”
In their win over Westwood, Bryndell MacDougall led Notre Dame with seven goals while Lee and Letkeman both had five. In their loss to the Blue Devils, Lee had a team-high six goals while MacDougall added four.
The opportunity to host provincials is big for Notre Dame. With a developing program, the more people they can introduce this Olympic sport to, the better.
“It’s not brand new to everybody, but for a lot of (the students) it’s their first time and we’re teaching rules and all of the kids that play love it from the moment they start,” said Henderson. “It’s really nice to have the opportunity to introduce it to the school.”
Action continues today at Notre Dame with the girls playing at 9:20 a.m. and the boys at 10:40 a.m.. The girls’ gold medal game goes at 7 p.m. and the boys’ at 8:30 p.m.