The first of three steps to stardom for the St. Albert Skyhawks starts today in the metro Edmonton premier women's final.
Game time is 5 p.m. at O'Leary High School between the Skyhawks, the number-one ranked 3A team in Alberta, and the O'Leary Spartans, ranked third in 4A.
"We were always focused on provincials but to have this as well is really exciting," co-captain Hilary Annich said after the Skyhawks hammered the Archbishop Jordan Scots 86-62 in Wednesday's semifinal at the SkyDome. "It's going to be hard competition and were expecting that wherever we go from here on in. It's definitely going to help us and prepare us for provincials."
Next week the Edmonton zone 3A elimination tournament tips off and the powerhouse Skyhawks — 13-0 in premier and 27-5 in league and tournaments combined — are seeded first out of eight teams. Their quarter-final goes Monday at 4:45 p.m. at the SkyDome. Semifinals are Wednesday and the final is Thursday.
Rounding out the draw are seven city conference entries: Leduc Tigers (14-1), Beaumont Bandits (13-2), Louis St. Laurent Barons (10-5), Ardrossan Bisons (7-8), Austin O'Brien Crusaders (7-8), Holy Trinity Trojans (9-7) and the Oscar Romero Ravens (8-9).
The zone winner advances to provincials, March 18 to 20 at Medicine Hat. The Skyhawks are striving for their sixth straight trip to provincials and their fourth in a row as zone champs. Previous appearances were as wild cards as zone finalists. This year only one zone team will represent Edmonton at provincials.
"We're definitely looking forward to each game coming up and finishing these last couple of weeks off strong," said Annich, a dynamic Grade 12 point guard. "It's definitely getting exciting. The nerves are just flying everywhere right now. I'm almost terrified it's going to blow by so fast because this is a great team."
By finishing on top of premier with 12 wins, the Skyhawks are the first varsity basketball team at St. Albert Catholic High School to go undefeated in premier in the regular season.
"We've worked hard throughout all of our practices and that's what has got us here today," said Annich, the team's MVP last year.
The Skyhawks are also gunning for the first premier women's championship in school history. The guys won the 1997 premier title en route to a silver medal at the 3A provincials under the direction of John Dedrick, the architect of the lady Skyhawks' rise to prominence as the most prolific high school women's hoops program in St. Albert.
If successful against O'Leary, the Skyhawks would also become the first St. Albert team to win premier women's honours in the metro league, which was formed in 1988/89.
"We're excited. We're ready to go," said Courtney Gogowich, a tenacious Grade 12 post. "We're really focused. It's a big one and to win it would be awesome."
O'Leary (11-2) is no slouch as perennial premier and 4A championship contenders. Grade 11 standout Adut Bulgak, a six-foot-three post, is the straw that stirs the drink for O'Leary. Bulgak sat out the Feb. 22 first-place showdown at the SkyDome with a separated shoulder as the Skyhawks cruised to a 77-57 victory but is expected to be in the starting line-up today.
"Not only do they have Adut but they've got speed and they're really tough on us," Gogowich said. "Offensively we have to be tough for the ball and defensively we need to have help with Adut and every other player on their team."
Previous tilts with O'Leary included a two-point loss in the third-place game at the Jasper Place REB tournament in December and a thrilling come-from-behind 61-55 win Feb. 1 at O'Leary. The Skyhawks clawed their way back from deficits of six at halftime and 15 in the third quarter before lighting it up from three-point territory. In the final quarter the Skyhawks outscored O'Leary 20-5 on the way to their first victory in premier against O'Leary.
"It was an awesome feeling each time we won," Gogowich said.
How the Skyhawks react to the pressure of playing on the big stage against a well-coached O'Leary team in its home gym will set the tone for their provincial run.
"We don't necessarily want to lose our undefeated title but rather prove to ourselves that we have the mental toughness to keep it," said Annich, 17, who poured in 15 points in both wins against O'Leary. "Usually when teams get on top of everything and they're undefeated it might get to them and they might buckle under the pressure. We want to make sure that we have that strength, not just on the court with our skills but mentally as well."
In Wednesday's playoff the Skyhawks never trailed the Scots (7-7) while posting leads of 21-15 after the first quarter, 45-30 at halftime and 66-42 after three quarters despite some questionable officiating that left Dedrick in a foul mood.
The Skyhawks jumped ahead 14-4 before the five-minute mark and kept on motoring.
Annich and Kendall Lyndon scored 19 points apiece to pace the attack. Lydon's output included 11 points in the first half. The foul-plagued Grade 10 guard/wing finished the game with a pair of three-balls.
The second three-pointer of the game by Annich was a rim roller that triggered a 19-8 point run to start the second half. The scoring spree saw Lydon sink three free throws in a row to make it 56-38 after being fouled while attempting a three-ball with 3:41 left until quarter time.
Grade 11 guard Shelby Hucul was a going concern all over the court while tacking up 11 points in the first half and 15 overall.
Gogowich added eight points and Andrea Heavener had seven. Jenn Larison tossed in six points in the second half.
"We did a pretty good job. We were slow at the start but we pulled through in the end," said Gogowich.
She joins Annich and Heavener as third-year Skyhawks on a roster brimming with six Grade 12s. Eight players are returnees from last year's two-game winless effort at provincials in which the Skyhawks were seeded fourth out of 12 teams.
"Coming out of provincials our goal this year was to have an awesome year," Gogowich said. "We wanted to do the best that we can, and that means win provincials."
The Skyhawks' most physical player played through pain against the Scots while recovering from a strained shoulder and a rib injury that kept her out of a number of games recently.
"It was all adrenaline today," said Gogowich, who took a nasty spill while taking a charge that wasn't called in the opening seconds of the third quarter and didn't return to the floor until two minutes into the fourth quarter. "It sort of sucks with these injuries because I couldn't go as hard as I could."
The Skyhawks were coming off a major tournament triumph last weekend at a 3A-level competition hosted by the Wetaskiwin Sabres. They defeated Holy Trinity Academy of Okotoks 75-49, rallied in the fourth quarter with some clutch jump shots to knock off number-two ranked Camrose 62-55 and in the final beat the sixth-ranked Sabres 66-38. It was the third tournament victory of the season, in addition to one third-place finish and two fourth-place results.
"We started off really strong at the beginning of the season with those two tournaments [first place at Medicine Hat and fourth at the REB] and we just kept on pushing harder in every practice and in every game," said Gogowich, who sat out the Wetaskiwin tournament to heal up for the playoffs.