Huskies look to top undefeated season with provincial title
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Win together today, walk together forever: it’s a quote Stephen Tackie has reinforced to his varsity boys as they prepare for the biggest moment of their basketball careers.
Tackie and the Sturgeon Heights Huskies are two wins away from accomplishing a rare feat: an undefeated season, capped with a provincial championship.
“I want them to feel like they can walk together forever,” Tackie said.
The top-seeded Huskies are 21-0 this year and seeking the program’s first AAAA boy’s provincial championship. They’re one in a daunting group of final-four teams remaining in the boy’s bracket, along with the reigning provincial champion St. Paul’s Crusaders and a pair of hungry squads in the Garden City Gophers and Vincent Massey Trojans, that are looking to reclaim their spots atop Manitoba.
The final four will do battle at Investors Group Athletic Centre on Thursday. Sturgeon Heights and Vincent Massey kick off the action at 6 p.m. while the Crusaders and the Gophers will compete to complete the championship matchup at 8 p.m.
On the girl’s side, the top-seeded Dakota Lancers are looking to continue what’s been an outstanding defence of their provincial crown against the fifth-ranked Sisler Spartans. The sides will square off Friday at 6 p.m., after which the winner will face either the second-seed Trojans or third-ranked Gophers, which will be decided at 8 p.m.
Both championship games will take place on March 20, with the girls starting at 6 p.m. and the boys putting a bow on the season at 8 p.m..
“It would mean, as a coach, I get to give all those people (who played before) something that they just didn’t get to have. It would really mean a whole lot to Husky basketball,” longtime head coach Tackie said at Tuesday’s Manitoba High School Athletic Association AAAA basketball championships media event.
The Huskies are in uncharted territory this week, playing in the program’s first final four. The sour taste of a first-round exit in last year’s provincial tournament is all Noah Kankam needs to be motivate him, though.
“Never take anything for granted, because playing in (my) Grade 11 year, if you don’t do everything 100 per cent, it’s going to lead to losses,” the 6-3 senior point guard said. “Last year, we didn’t have the outcome we wanted and we were really disappointed with that so this year we tried to turn it around.
“It’s definitely a great feeling (being in the final four). We’ve prepared ourselves the whole season, we set our standards high, especially the coach. And we’re keeping each other accountable.”
Tackie said his unblemished squad has learned to seize each day this season, approaching every moment with a positive mindset. It’s hushed any expectations of the team going undefeated.
“The undefeated part, we haven’t talked about that. We had set some goals, but (none of those) was an undefeated season. Now we have no choice,” he said.
“Because we’re so close to that end, the thing is how to make sure that guys are still excited, but that excitement doesn’t turn to nerves.”
Nerves are what Garden City’s Halley Cruz is trying to keep in check ahead of her first semi-final appearance.
The Gophers have scorched their competition all year, boasting an 18-1 record overall. They’re the only final-four team without a AAAA provincial title, a drought they hope comes to an end this year.
“As a team, we’re all really excited. It’s not every day that you’re in the final four, so we’re confident, we’re excited to play and just ready to see what happens and play some tough games,” said Cruz, a Grade 11 point guard.
The Gophers and Trojans will meet for the first time this season on Friday. The second-seeded Trojans went 13-0 in league play this year and are searching for its 11th AAAA provincial banner.
“I really like the way that we’re playing basketball and it’s done really well so far, so we’re just hoping to continue that going into provincials,” said Roberto Campanella, Garden City’ bench boss.
“This is now where it matters, so we really want to be mindful of all the hard work that we put in and go out there and just leave it all out on the floor.”
Meanwhile, both defending champions boast a confident strut in their step. The Dakota Lancers girls have dropped just two games all season, but are preparing for their biggest test of the season against a Spartans squad that has gained some momentum as of late, including stunning the Westwood Warriors in the quarterfinals.
Kyu Fust is among a group of Lancers seniors who are looking to leave high school as back-to-back champions.
“It would be really awesome. I think it would be really cool because not many people get to even experience one. So to get to experience two, it’d be really cool,” Fust said.
“I think we’re ready.”
Jeff Laping and the Crusaders will continue their campaign for a consecutive provincial title against a second-ranked Gophers squad that is looking for its first AAAA varsity provincial championship since 2012-13. Laping said he’s emphasized the importance of focusing on the experience and not the outcome with his group.
“One of the things that we’ve always tried to focus on is live in the moment and experience the moment,” Laping said. “I’m an old man, I’ve got to do this a few times. For each of our players, this is usually their only chance to come to a final four, so they really want to soak it in and experience (it).
“We’ve have a couple of opportunities to repeat and haven’t been able to dit it so we know just how difficult it is to get that done. We’re just looking forward to the opportunity.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.