U19 Panthers win second straight provincials
The Lacombe U19 Panthers took their second straight provincial title this past weekend. (Photo supplied)
The cliché ‘It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it’ could’ve been the Lacombe U19 Panthers mantra the past two years.
They won provincial gold for the second straight year in their fourth consecutive appearance in the championship final this past weekend in St. Paul, Alta., but the road there has been a tough one.
“The problem is there was no league for us to play in,” said Panthers Head Coach Dave Heslop. “The same sort of thing happened last year – as the kids get older they drop off and there’s not as much interest as there used to be.”
U19 teams used to exist for a number of surrounding areas – Rimbey, Sylvan Lake, Stettler, Wetaskiwin, etc. – but now it’s just down to Camrose and Lacombe, which now draws players from eight different municipalities including Lacombe, Ponoka, Red Deer, Sylvan Lake, Rocky Mountain House, Clive, Bentley and Penhold to put together a team.
Heslop says it’s tough at that age, with some going to college and university, entering the work force or still in high school, to keep them motivated. The team was hard-pressed to get more than about eight players to practices, and some games they were down to just 10-11 players.
In the regular season – as much of a regular season as a team without a league can have – they played three exhibition games against Camrose where they edged their opponents 2-1. They also played in two tournaments, including one in Edmonton where they finished second, and another in Camrose where they placed third.
Despite a lack of consistent games and competition, however, they still found success. Heslop said it came down to character.
“They’re a good bunch of guys and they have huge desire,” he said. “They want to play hard for themselves, for their teammates, for me – they have a ton of drive and it’s really something to watch.”
That drive helped them edge Camrose again to qualify for provincials, where they finished first in their pool and earn a bye to the championship final where they won 1-0, on a goal by Nico Schlak at the 20-minute mark. Schlak was also the leading scorer of the tournament.
“One thing I was pretty proud of is we only gave up one goal all weekend,” said Heslop, giving kudos to keeper Tanner Williams-Smith, who had the lowest goals against in the provincial tournament. “We had the offence going and we played really strong defence as well.
“They really accomplished a lot and I’m proud of these guys.”