Decade Dynasty

By MATT ROBINSON

On April 23rd at 1 PMPT, 4 PM back at home, the women of the Ontario All Blacks were in Vancouver competing in the Gold Medal game of 2017 Canadian Goalball Championships against British Columbia.  #5 Emma Reinke, picked up the ball, took 2 steps inside along the cross bar, turned to her left and threw a fastball down the court that got by the BC defence and ended up in the net causing the game to be ended via the Mercy Rule; if any team is ever ahead by 10 goals the game is over. The score was 15-5 for Ontario and they were National Champions for a 10th straight year.

It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence that weekend. The All Blacks had ended all 6 games they’d played in this fashion finishing the weekend with a +60 goal differential and 69 goals scored in 6 games. From a distance, it all probably looked too easy.

It didn’t always look like that.

In February, 2002, with Ontario having not entered a women’s team in the last several National Championships, Mick Ferras and Mike MacAlonan (2 long-time Ontario goalball volunteers) took a look around the province and saw 4 promising young women, all still in high school, and decided it was time for a return. From the ashes of the defunct Ontario Lady Bisons rose the new Ontario Trilliums.  Whitney Burk, Priscilla Gagne, Leona Emberson & Annette Lisabeth. It was a talented group, no doubt, with Annette being added to the National Team almost immediately and the others certainly showing flashes of brilliance that would, in almost anyone’s mind, certainly continue to improve.

It would be wonderful if we could say that from there it was smooth sailing. Everything went according to plan and the group steadily grew to the powerhouse that they are now.  But that’s rarely how life works.

And that’s never how sports work.

The Trilliums debuted at the Canadian Championships in March of 2002 in Charlottetown and were soundly beaten by Quebec. And then Saskatchewan. And then PEI.

For those first several years there were many comments from around the Canadian goalball community along the lines of “there’s some real potential there” and “if that young group ever puts it all together…”  Comments that were almost surely meant sincerely but to any athlete come off as condescending.

But so it was for the next several years. Steps forward and setbacks. Players in, players out. Fits and starts. The likeable little sisters of a men’s team in the middle of reeling off 11 straight National Titles of their own. Until March of 2008.

The Location: Kelowna, BC.

The Date: March 18, 2008

The Cast: Now National team members Annette Lisabeth and Whitney Burk with a returning-to-the-fold Priscilla Gagne taking on PEI and their own National team members Amy Kneebone and Contessa Scott for Gold.

Sometimes in a big moment it is the most unlikely of heroes who steps up. Sometimes when athletes who know each other so well face off one more time, it is the wild card that matters. That’s what happened that day. In a defensive battle that Ontario would win 2-1 it was Priscilla who scored both goals for Ontario - an event that even she will tell you to this day was the most unlikely scenario that could have played out.

After years of being the loveable losers, that team on-the-come, that team with all that potential - they were now Canadian Champions. A title that here in 2017 they have never given back.

Over the years new faces have come, contributed and gone. The team has morphed from the Trilliums to the All Blacks. And the style has gone through phases varying from a lock down, rock solid defensive mindset out of necessity to more recent years where arms have been developed capable of lobbing offensive grenades at any opponent. Key players have had name changes and taken years away to begin families - always picked up by their teammates who would ensure the team stayed afloat in their absence. There were years where there were barely enough women to field a team and years where there were so many talented women that 2 teams would be sent to Nationals - 2 teams that dispatch of everyone else and play each other for gold come Sunday. Through all these changes, one thing has remained constant since that Sunday afternoon in Kelowna in 2008. Ontario has been Champion.

In April of 2017, 4 women were selected to attend the Canadian Championships for Ontario to try to climb the ladder one more time and capture the 10th. Remember that nemesis from Kelowna on the big bad PEI team? Amy Kneebone has since moved to Ontario and married into the group and would captain the team as Amy Burk. She would lead 3 talented young ladies in to Vancouver who had never even heard of the sport when Ontario’s streak began. Playing shut down defence in the middle was Meghan Mahon of Timmons. Amy’s offensive partner in crime over on the other wing was a sharpshooter from St Thomas named Emma Reinke. And backing them up on and off the court, all the while steadily improving was the newest teammate Genevieve Hart from Ottawa.

Climbing the ladder needs to be mentioned one more time. You see, you can’t have your first step up the ladder be to the top rung if you’re going to grab your 10th National Championship. You need strong players to come before you and build those first 9 rungs; to steady that ladder as you try to climb it. On the Friday before games began in Vancouver the 4 women on this team took a moment to recognize all 12 women who came before them to make that possible, to build that ladder. It seems only right to do the same here.

Annette Lisabeth, Priscilla Gagne, Leona Emberson, Brooke Perriam, Sarah Hargraves, Whitney Bogart, Jessica Koury, Cassie Orgeles, Tiana Knight, Jill MacSween, Lara Strik, Shay Lake

If you had told anyone who watched that 2008 Championship Game that it would be the first of 10, it is unlikely anyone would have believed you. It was a tight game that could have gone either way. But here we are - 10 years later and that is exactly what happened.  So what’s next? Where do the Ontario women go from here?

We started this story by mentioning the goal by #5 Emma Reinke that ended the 2017 Championship game.  Emma is not yet 19 years old. She was the youngest player on her team. And during the awards ceremony that followed, she was named National Championships MVP.

Where to from here? That’s unknown. But it seems like perhaps Ontario may be set up to take a run at 10 more.