Gold medal adds to decade of 2A dominance for ICHS Eagles

By Garrett Simmons

Lethbridge School District No. 51

Communications Officer

The Immanuel Christian High School Eagles are provincial champions.

ICHS won the 2A Girls Basketball Provincial Championship Saturday night in Three Hills with a 61-55 win over the La Crete Public School Lancers.

It marked the third time in nine years the Eagles have defeated La Crete in the provincial final, as ICHS also pulled off the feat in 2009 and 2013. According to coach Scott Forster, his team’s performance in this year’s version of the final was nearly flawless.

“The gold-medal game was the best game we have played all year. That was our “A” game on Saturday night.”

The coach added the final, which pitted No. 1 La Crete and No. 3 ICHS, was a battle of Alberta’s 2A heavyweights.

“The La Crete team was undefeated on the season, ranked No. 1 in the province and we knew we would have to play well to defeat them. They were led by a great point guard named Julia Friesen who we knew we had to shut down.”

The Eagles led most of the game, as Forster said the early-tournament nerves were gone.

“The girls all had their heads in the right place and were ferocious competitors. The La Crete team kept it close all the way and it was anyone’s game. It was a pleasure to be in the standing-room-only gymnasium as the Eagles fought hard and won 61-55.”

Just playing in the championship game was a huge accomplishment for the Eagles, however, as ICHS had to stage a furious comeback in the semifinals against the No. 2-ranked Pigeon Lake Regional School Panthers.

“They are an up-and-coming basketball school and are well coached,” said Forster, who added the Panthers led the entire game, right until the last few minutes. “We were down by 14 in the third quarter and it looked like our provincial-banner aspirations were about to be extinguished.”

That’s when a strategic adjustment by the Eagles began to pay dividends.

“With three minutes left in the fourth quarter, we put on a full-court press and the Panthers had trouble with it,” said Forster. “We scored a few buckets and this caused the Panthers to get rattled and our girls got a huge surge in their spirits. The two outcomes snowballed and we kept scoring and the Panthers succumbed to the momentum we had.”

Eventually, ICHS went ahead by one point with about a minute left, and went on to win 69-66. 

“It was probably the most exciting basketball finish I have been involved in,” said Forster. “As nice as it was for us to win, I honestly felt so sorry for the Pigeon Lake team and coaches. They had the game in the bag and it just slipped out on them.”

The Eagles began the tournament Friday with a 65-47 win over David Thompson High School, a classic trap game which had ICHS coaches and players on edge.

“Literally, our girls were shaking. They were very nervous. The mix of a strong desire to perform mixed with 17-year-old girls can lead to some interesting outcomes,” said Forster, who added the memories of last season’s opening-round loss at provincials were fresh in their minds. “Last year they panicked. We went out and played the worst game of the year and we were terrible. That was weighing on us all year.”

Despite a nerve-wracking start, Forster said the team was finally able to compose itself and eventually cruise to victory.

“It took us until the end of the third quarter until they settled down and got their feet under them.”

Forster added the 2016/2017 team was led offensively this season by Juliana Middel, a player the coach described as a quiet, unassuming girl “Who you would just never expect to be as aggressive and quick as she is”

“She is a rare player. She runs the floor and goes from standing still to full speed in one stride. I love having her on my team. She is a fantastic person and a great player.”

Defensively, Brittany Veldman was the player Forster said set to the tone night in and night out. 

“Britt is the opponents’ nightmare. She is strong, quick and has the quickest hands I have ever seen. She works extremely hard and any opponent is going to have a long night when facing Britt. She doesn’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet as much as Julian but any coach can see her value.”

Forster also highlighted the efforts of Kirsten Barwegan. 

“Kirsten is our workhorse. Always bruised, always on the floor, she makes her coaches smile with the effort she puts into every game.”

Catherine Wever, the team’s starting post, played her best game of the year against Pigeon Lake, according to Forster, as Wever poured in 22 points. 

“She peaked at exactly the right time. We would have lost that game if Catherine didn’t play the game of her life.”

And while the 2016/2017 version of the Eagles did feature eight Grade 12s, Forster added the team’s lone Grade 10 starter was certainly a huge contributor.

“Britney Vande Munt is going to an outstanding player. She recently scored 42 points in a zone-championship game.  She has a beautiful jump shot and will be a leader in our league over the next few years.”

With the championship victory this year in Three Hills, the ICHS Eagles team has now won sixth provincial titles since 2008, as ICHS has played in eight of the last 10 2A championship games. Included in that stretch was a string of five titles in six years, from the 2007/2008 season to 2012/2013.

The Eagles fell in the 2010/2011 championship game to Prairie Christian, finished off the podium in 2013/2014, dropped the 2014/2015 final to Rundle College and settled for the consolation championship last season. In 2006/2007, ICHS earned a bronze medal, which helped kickstart what has become over a decade of dominance at the 2A level.

“I think a big part of it is we have a lot of basketball people involved at the school,” said Forster. “We put our best foot forward when it comes to basketball.”

Matthew Bekkering, the ICHS athletic director, said the success of the basketball program at the school can be attributed to many factors.

“A large part of our success is the dedication of our coaches and players at the senior high level to basketball and the passion they have for the sport. There has been a culture built that young players coming up want to be a part of. Our school values, educating and supporting the whole child (faith, mind, body and soul) and the pursuit of excellence in athletics lines up very well with our Christian school values. We have a dedicated parent community that is also very supportive. All of those reasons have led to the success we have experienced.”

And for Forster, success on the court is only part of the equation, as he added the girls need to have ‘takeaways’ from their co-curricular activities. 

“This is one of the primary reasons I coach. I hope I can open their eyes to the ‘life skills’ that can possible come from playing on our school team,” said Forster, who highlighted the first of his top three life skills he hoped each girl picks up throughout the season. “The ability to fight and to bear down on a problem is a very important life skill. The ability to handle adversity in life is something I talk about regularly with our team. Bad relationships, bad bosses, lousy neighbours - these are things they will all face. The basis or foundation they learn during athletic competition can help them deal with these issues.”

The ability to tolerate a busy schedule also provides a basis going forward to allow players to handle the rigours of post-secondary and the workplace, Forster added.

“Juggling a basketball schedule with homework, a job and volunteering can be daunting. The girls that do this best are often your best students and, not coincidentally, your best players.”

Lastly, the coach added ability to win graciously has a spill-over affect into everyday life. 

“It’s not just about sports. Be pleased with your position in life, whatever it is, and do it in a way that others around you can appreciate it, not cringe whenever you start discussing your success. We teach our kids ‘don’t act like it’s the first time you won something’ and conversely, ‘don’t act like you have never lost before.’ ”

The 2016/2017 version of the Eagles included Pamela Veldman, Juliana Middel, Megan Vanee, Caitlyn Veldman, Britney Vande Munt, Jennifer Pastink, Brittany Veldman, Jenna Aleman, Catherine Wever, Reagan Post and Mykalah Leenstra.

Date posted: March 20, 2017