The Zone 2 U19AA Blaze ringette team, which included four players from Cochrane, has returned from Regina with a silver medal at the Canadian Ringette Championships to cap off a historic and highly-successful season.
It came in a season when some of the players and their head coach questioned if they had enough passion to continue, but rose to the challenge like a Phoenix from the ashes.
The Blaze won all five of their round-robin games against teams from Saskatchewan, Ontario, Manitoba, PEI, and Quebec then defeated Team British Columbia, 6-4, in the quarterfinals. They had a sweet win against Team Alberta in a close 2-1 battle before losing the gold medal game to the St. Albert Mission, 8-1.
The silver medal performance at nationals was a thrill for team head coach Siobhan Olfson, who is stepping back after seven years of coaching and many more years of playing.
"I had a pretty good mix of players this season, a very talented group and I mean that was always the goal all along to make it that far," says Olfson. "But to have it happen was pretty amazing for all of them. One thing I didn't know going into the season was that at the U19 level, the Zone 2 association had never qualified for nationals previously, so to qualify and to obtain silver was pretty cool."
She says there have been some amazing seasons before this, but this one was particularly special.
"We were kind of in a strange position this season where I think myself and a few of my players were unsure if we still love the game and if we still wanted to continue doing this. I had fielded quite a few phone calls this past summer from players that had just been burnt out by previous seasons and different things like that, including myself.
"Throughout this year, we found a love for the game again and it was nice to get the results, but there were a lot more wins that happened than those on the ice.."
Zone 2 president Aaron Cowley says it's been an exceptional season for the team. They won two tournaments and came second in three, including provincials.
"We had a habit of coming in second quite frequently this season. We never finished lower than second in any tournament we entered, so I would say overall it was a very successful season."
One of the gold medals came in a Whitby, ON tournament, where they went undefeated. Typically, both their U19 and U16 travel east to test the competition to be prepared should they advance to nationals. The U16 team went to a Montreal tournament.
Alberta teams dominated the U19 national championship this year. All four teams in the medals rounds were from the province.
"It was a coin toss every time we played either of the two Calgary teams or St. Albert. You never knew what the outcome was going to be."
Cowley believes the U19 Blaze will remain a team to contend with next season.
"I think with some players from that group coming up, we'll definitely have strong showings in the future. I don't think we're going away."
While Coach Olfson is stepping back for now, it might be a case of never say never again.
"It always seems to call me back. There's something about this sport, so I wouldn't be surprised if in some way or at some point, it'll be back in my life in some capacity. But at least for now, I'll push pause, at least on the head coaching portion of my life."
Cochrane players Presley Stene, Liah Wagner, Millie Teskey, and Dylan Pighin were on the U19 team.
The Blaze hosted U19AA provincials in Cochrane earlier this spring.
"It was a good success for us as an association," says Cowley. "That was a positive event for us and we had a lot of young ladies from there lending us a hand.
That included cheering on teams as ambassadors.
The U14AA Blaze doesn't go to nationals but does compete in the Western Canadian Ringette Championships. Cochrane's Alli Lysak played for the team in the 2022-23 season. They went 4-2 in this year's Winnipeg tournament and finished fourth overall.
Preparations are now underway for next season. Registration opens June 1, and on June 14 they are holding a come try event.
Their catchment area is large. Currently, they have athletes who come from Airdrie, Cochrane, Indus, Rockyford, and Strathmore. There's the potential for some players joining the team from the Okotoks in the future.
"Any U12 players or U14 players who have not played AA can come out and try it. We do a little information session and get them excited and hopefully, they'll come to try out for the teams in the fall."
The tryouts happen in Chestermere from Aug. 27 to Sept. 1.
Cowley says they have been light on Cochrane registrations lately for U14 and U16.
"It's unfortunate. Hopefully, we can get some more interest from Cochrane, in general, to dream big and play at a national level."
The Zone II program was established in 2015 with teams in the U14 and U16 divisions. A U19 team was added in 2018.
You can find more information here.