Could there be some March magic in store for the Oak Park Raiders?
If the latest Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association rankings are to be believed, the Charleswood school is the favourite to win both the varsity boys’ and girls’ provincial basketball championships. The last school to pull off that trick was Dakota Collegiate in 1977.
The girls, who are working on an undefeated season, and the boys, who recently won the Luther Invitational Tournament in Regina, are both sitting at No. 1 as the playoffs get going.
Murray Brown, the coach of the girls’ squad, said his team started the season highly motivated after losing in last year’s provincial final to Glenlawn – the third consecutive year the Raiders came up one game short of a title.
"Early in the year that was a motivator," Brown said, "but at this point it’s all about this year."
The girls have six returning players from a year ago, including three starters. For Brown, the biggest difference this year is that standout point guard Jenilyn Monton is finally at full strength after tearing her ACL two seasons ago.
"We’re able to push the ball much more effectively than last year," said Brown, who considers Monton the best ball-handler in the province.
"One of the things we’ve done effectively is push the ball after being scored on. Our goal is to attack them while they’re in transition."
The girls have won four tournaments, including the Harry Ainlay Tri Prov event in Edmonton, and are a perfect 3-0 against No. 2-ranked Glenlawn.
"Glenlawn and Oak Park games are always pretty hard fought, and it’s just a rivalry that’s gone on for years and years," Brown said.
If Glenlawn would be the most fitting championship-game opponent for the girls, Garden City (currently ranked third) would likely produce the most compelling boys’ matchup. The Raiders and Fighting Gophers have combined to win the last seven boys’ championships.
"If it was a final against them that would be great," said shooting guard Junior Sesay, a West End resident. "We’ve lost to them two times this year, but we’re a way better team now."
Coach Jon Lundgren said the key to his team’s success has been continuity. He’s worked with some of the players since they were in Grade 8 as part of the provincial team program.
"It’s been fun to see them grow up… and develop into solid young men," he said.
In a one-game playoff scenario Lundgren knows that shooting can be fickle, but he’s expecting his team to rely on less-streaky factors such as defence and rebounding.
"It’s tough to play in the last game, and it’s even tougher to win the last game," he said. "Obviously our goal is to play our best basketball at the provincials, but it’s tough to plan it out that way."
Sesay said the Raiders would find success if they remembered some of the things that served them well all winter.
"Playing for each other," he said. "We’re very unselfish, we play off each other and play to each other’s strengths."