While the provincials rage on in local school gyms today, the teams will be hard-pressed to match the passionate witnessed this season between the Cochrane Cobras and Bow Valley Bobcats junior girls basketball teams this season.
It was a storybook finish for the Bobcats who have pushed all year to beat the Cobras, only to lose or finish second in tournament play. On Mar. 10, it was their turn to wrap a gold medal around their neck and receive the coveted zone championship banner.
The game was another thriller between the two closely matched teams and that excitement poured into the packed stands, many realizing they were experiencing something special. Mere points have separated the two in all previous encounters and what they may lack in skill as young budding players was more than compensated for by the passion displayed on the court.
The Cobras were leading 49-48 when Bobcat Jorga Powers sunk a pair of free throws with 21.7 seconds remaining to take the lead. Two free throws by Ellie Bates with 6.6 seconds padded the lead and she also intercepted a pass in a last-ditch effort by the Cobras to help burn valuable seconds off the clock.
For Bobcats Head Coach Kris Nielson, this was the game they built their whole season around.
"This was our goal at the beginning of the year," says Nielson. "We wanted to put a banner in that blank spot right there."
With 80 per cent of their players in grade 9, the Bobcats spent the season grooming the players and mentally preparing them for this one match. They used their tournament play to give the players game experience while building towards a zone defense they unleash in the final. Nielson said they safeguarded part of their playbook to pull out exclusively for this one game
When the Cobras ran into foul problems late in the game, the Bobcats had their shooters on the court and they came through.
"You could see the last few minutes we kept our composure, we made our free throws. It was a very good finish."
The mental part of the game doesn't receive the emphasis it deserves, he believes.
"I think the big thing as a coach or as a fan is we put a lot of emphasis on how big the athletes are, how strong they are, how fast they are, but we don't put enough emphasis on the mental side of it. So in grade 8, they don't have a lot of the mental preparation, they don't have the composure or the confidence or the assertiveness they need from a mental standpoint. Those are big parts of the game, so we've been teaching them that this year. That's been one of the big things."
He believes the basketball culture is changing at Bow Valley High. While he's moving on to coach the seniors' girls team next season, along with his with his daughter, Sadie, a top scorer on this year's juniors, he believes the team he leaves has a promising future ahead.
"With 80 per cent of grade 9 players this season, they'll have a great team next year."
The matchups against the Cobras were the highlight of his season and he praises Cobra Head Coach Tom Knitter.
"These games have been fantastic. Cochrane did great. I think Tom did a fantastic job. He's a really competitive guy, he's fiery competitive. Tom competes hard so it's good to have that competition because it makes you a team better."
This was the Bobcats first basketball banner in 16 years. Their only other basketball banner came from a 2002 zone victory in 2A basketball, also by their junior girls.
Cobras head coach Tom Knitter has every right to be proud of the accomplishments of his team. They won gold in several tournaments and claim the divisional championship, plus they were undefeated in divisional play, including the playoffs.
"I wouldn't trade one minute of this season and I wouldn't trade one of them for anything. I didn't change much of who I am as a university coach and I can be brash and I can be intense and I can be enthusiastic. Their ability to respond in a positive way speaks not only of them as players, but to them as people. They're a strong group of women and they're going to do incredible things whatever they choose to do with their lives."
He says the difference in the zone final came down to coaching and spoke highly of the Bobcats team.
"They're an excellent team and I think what showed today is they are really strongly coached. I think I let our team down today. We got in a little trouble in the fourth and I didn't do a good job adjusting. This one is on me."
In the zones, the Cobras went through W. H. Croxford to earn a berth into the finals while the Bobcats downed the Brooks Buffalos.
While both Cochrane teams dominated their semifinal opponents, Nielson noted both of those teams were missing key players from their lineup. Both Croxford's starting and backup point guard didn't play in the zones. The Brooks team was late due to an accident on Hwy. 1 and didn't get a pre-game warmup. They were also short their starting point guard.
One thing is certain, the big winner in the matchup between these two local teams is basketball. The players were fierce competitors on the court but their display of sportsmanship and camaraderie off the court speaks volumes.
Both teams have much to be proud of this season. Hats off to all involved.