Staking claim to the Cochrane Classic championship is no longer on the wish list for the Strathmore High Spartans.
On Feb. 11, they checked it off with a 60-33 win over the Cochrane Cobras in the final. They faced an even greater challenge in beating the Bow Valley Bobcats, 83-73, in overtime in the semifinals the night before.
Spartans head coach Matt Laslo says the victory was sweet.
"The two years before COVID we were in the final both years. We lost to the home team, so it's nice to get a win for a change."
Currently, the Spartans are the top-ranked varsity boys team in the south-central zone of the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association (ASAA).
"I think we're as good as anybody in the province. I think there are seven or eight teams, and I kind of count you guys in that group, too, who can win the whole thing."
"We've got a lot of depth of talent. We've got a team of boys that have played together for a really long time and they're out there working hard. All of the credit goes to the boys."
He says advancing to the provincials from south-central is tough.
"It's always the hardest to get out of this zone. We have five of the top 10 ranked teams in the first rankings, so just getting out of this zone is hard. To come in here and get a couple of victories and get some confidence for ourselves is a pretty good thing."
Cochrane Classic organizer and Cobras head coach Patrick Court agrees with Laslo on the stiff competition in the south-central zone. Last year, the Cobras went all the way and claimed the provincial championship.
Hosting the tournament and getting a preview of some of the teams they may meet down the road is beneficial for all of the teams at the Classic, he says.
"It's a lot of fun getting to see all these different teams, whether they're from the zone or out of the zone," says Court. "It's great to get a look at the provincial-ranked teams just to know where we stand and know what we need to do to get to the next level."
Court says the Spartans are big and strong with plenty of solid shooters.
"They executed their game plan. They held us to 39 points. For us, it's been a long time since we scored that few, so kudos to their defence."
He says the Cobras shots just didn't fall, but believes their defence did a good job of limiting the Spartans to 60 points.
The Bow Valley Bobcats wrapped up first place in the Rocky View league on Feb. 13 and came third in the Cochrane Classics with an 83-64 win over the Canmore Wolverines. Head coach Kris Nielson says their defence came up big in that game.
"They have two really talented players and you have to keep them in check, and I thought our defence did a good job of that today. If they aren't kept in check, they'll blow up on you."
Nielson praised guard Gurshan Badesha as one of the defenders who held the fort.
Badesha says the preview of teams they may see down the road in zones and possibly provincials is valuable.
"I think we're really solid this year," says Badesha. "I think we have a good chance to not only win zones but go to provincials and make a solid run."
Nielson says they came out flat against the Spartans early in the semifinal game, but we're able to turn it around and force overtime.
"Our shooting percentage was really low. We moved the ball really well, we got good looks but nothing would go down for us."
Bobcat Ethan Horb says there was much to be learned from seeing the Spartans for the first time this season.
"We just had to learn how to handle bigger guys 'cause we're definitely outsized math-wise. We just have to learn how to take that on and double, along with covering their shooters, and they could shoot."
All agree playing in front of a full house at Bow Valley High for the semifinals was a thrill.
"We're grateful to the community of Cochrane because we had a lot of fans at Bow Valley last night, and that was awesome," says Horb. "That was the first time in my high school career we've had that many fans out."
Nielson says the Cochrane Classic was a great way for the Bobcats to kick off a tough schedule leading up to the zones. Among them is the possibility of matching up against the Spartans a couple of times before zones.
The second 3A provincial basketball rankings were just released by the ASAA. The Spartans are ranked third, Brooks Composite fourth, and the Bow Valley Bobcats ninth. Both Canmore and Cochrane High are honourable mentions.