O’Leary High School – The St. Albert Skyhawks duplicated last year's championship season in Saturday's showdown in premier junior women’s basketball.
And for the second-straight year the Skyhawks stunned the first-place Archbishop Jordan Scots in the metro Edmonton final.
“It’s an amazing feeling to do it two times in a row. Everyone put in such a good effort and contributed to the win. It was a great team effort,” said an overjoyed Nathalie Hajek, a Grade 11 Skyhawk, after the hard-fought 56-42 decision.
The Skyhawks refused to lose after falling to the Scots 66-38 and 59-45 in league play.
“We had a rough time playing them during the season but this time we just pulled through,” Hajek said. “We kept our focus and played a full game of basketball.”
The win also set the stage for St. Albert Catholic High School to sweep the premier finals for the second consecutive year. Later in the day the senior Skyhawks repeated as premier champions with their second undefeated campaign in a row.
“There was a lot of pressure on us because our senior girls are in (the finals) too and we want to bring home two banners. It’s that whole school pride thing. We just want to make everyone proud of us,” said Carly Zimmer, the Skyhawks’ top scorer in the final with 17 points. “We were all still pretty confident though because we finally had our full starting line-up. We’ve had a lot of injuries throughout the season.”
In a battle of attrition, the Skyhawks persevered despite Nicole Brown, a rugged Grade 11 post, and offensive threat Abby Schneider fouling out in the fourth quarter and the Scots within striking distance of the leaders.
“It was a big team victory. Our bench stepped it up when our starters were in foul trouble,” Zimmer said. “We all came together as a team because we all really wanted it.”
Subpar officiating turned the final into a marathon affair as the teams combined for 66 fouls and what seemed like an equal number of travelling calls.
The first half took double the time to complete with 36 fouls called.
Overall, three Scots fouled out and four more players were saddled with four apiece as the Sherwood Park team finished with 37 fouls.
The Skyhawks were leading by seven with 6:39 to play when they lost Brown, who had three fouls in the first half, after six points and gritty board work at both ends of the floor.
Schneider, a Grade 10 guard who was tagged with four fouls in the first half but still tacked up six of her 15 points in the fourth quarter, left the game with 2:33 remaining and the Skyhawks up 53-39.
Zimmer, Hajek and Brianna Brand were also on thin ice with four fouls apiece in the late stages of the match.
“It was a hard game of basketball because of all the fouls but we stayed with it and we ended up pulling through,” said Hajak, one of five returning Skyhawks on the roster from the team’s first premier junior championship in school history.
There were more foul shots made than field goals during a lengthy opening period that ended with the Scots on top 17-16.
“We were kind of nervous but after the first quarter we kind of calmed down and just took control of it,” said Zimmer.
The Grade 10 Skyhawk was pointless in the 10-minute frame but whipped up seven points in the next quarter to lift the defending champions into a 28-24 halftime lead.
Her field goal to start the second quarter not only put the Skyhawks ahead to stay in the match, but also triggered a six-point run in a half where points were hard to come by.
After the Scots pulled to within one, the Skyhawks rattled off five consecutive points, capped by Zimmer’s offensive rebound. Blocked shots by Hajek and Robyn Kelly during the memorable stretch late in the half solidified the team’s lead.
“We had a couple of runs here and there that got our confidence up and it really pushed us,” said Hajek, 16, a versatile Skyhawk who finished the win with 10 points.
After a scrappy third quarter, highlighted by quality minutes from Brand, Emily Groenenboom and Callen Predinchuk coming off the bench for the foul-plagued starters, the Skyhawks clung to a 36-35 advantage after the Scots closed out the period with five unanswered points.
Nine seconds into the last quarter, Zimmer nailed the game’s only three-pointer from in front of the colourful Skyhawks’ cheering section to kick off a six-point run before the Scots replied with a field goal with 5:52 to go.
“That gave us our momentum back,” said Zimmer, who was responsible for eight of the team’s 20 points in the quarter.
Her three-point play with 4:26 to go, a bank shot off a spin move in the paint followed by a free throw, made it 48-39.
Clutch free throws by Andrea Durocher, Schneider (before fouling out) and Hajak in the last three minutes kept the Scots at bay.
The win was the 13th in 15 games for the Skyhawks, the top defensive team in premier, against the 12-2 Scots, the league’s most explosive offensive team.
The Skyhawks’ overall record is 31-5.
“What we did today was such a big accomplishment because not many people get this opportunity in their lives. It’s fantastic and it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” said Zimmer, 16, who rotated between post, wing and guard in the final.