The additional experience of a prior trip to OFSAA may have been completely offset by a loss in the NOSSA final for the Lo-Ellen Park Knights senior girls basketball team.
While the squad returned all but Kate Dahmer, now playing for the Nipissing Lakers, from the crew which attended the provincial high-school championships last year at this time, a 58-54 loss to the Superior Heights Steelhawks means that the Knights must now travel to the "AAA" playdowns in Mississauga, versus the "AA" journey of one year ago.
In the end, it's forced the locals to adjust, just a touch, exactly what they hope to achieve with a still relatively young team (just four grade twelves and a healthy dose of grade ten talent) as they make a return visit to OFSAA.
"A fair expectation for this team, and it's the word that I keep stressing to them, is disruptive," suggested head coach Lisa Carruthers at practice earlier this week. "We need to disrupt the best player on these other teams from having the best game of their OFSAA tournament, the best game of their season."
"If we can make it hard for them to score, if we can disrupt their offense, then that's what we're looking to do."
The reality for a Lo-Ellen team that went back and forth with the Lasalle Lancers for much of the fall before coming out on top in the city final is that it's a little tough to predict exactly what coach Carruthers will see come Thursday at 12:30 p.m., when the Knights (seeded #15) tip-off against the Holy Cross Crusaders (#5) from Kingston.
"I think with this team, you never know exactly what you're going to get," admitted 17 year-old grade 12 forward Giulia Wilson. "We can have some really good games, and then we have games where we don't reach our peak, but we usually bounce back really well."
If the Knights could replicate their performance versus Lasalle, with a SDSSAA banner on the line, Wilson would be just fine with that. "We worked really hard in that game, we really hustled hard and created opportunities for each other," she said.
"We were really strong, physically and mentally, so I really want to bring that to OFSAA."
For good reason. The 2019 championship will mark, almost certainly, her final basketball game in a Lo-Ellen uniform, a fact that has slowly settled in as the season wore on. "Throughout the season, I kept thinking that November was a long time away," said Wilson.
"But then it started to get closer and closer, and now we have two practices left and I've played basketball since I was eight, when I was bricking layups off the back-board. Now we're nearing the end. Basketball has created so much for me, so many opportunities. I've made a lot of relationships and bonds."
Just 16 years old and in grade eleven, Izzy Maki need not be quite so nostalgic. In fact, she is quite fine still looking for improvement in her game, refining her skill-set as she looks forward to following in the footsteps of Wilson and others in 2020.
"I think I've gotten a lot stronger defensively, and I also like to create opportunities more," said Maki. "I used to be more of a ball-hog and just take it to the hoop, but I think I've learned to use my teammates more as I've gotten older."
Still, she knows that creating offense against teams that generally will enjoy a notable height and size advantage over the Knights will be no easy task at OFSAA. "For us, we practice against man, because that's what our defence is," said Maki.
"Usually the bigger teams will play zone. At OFSAA, we're going to have to adapt. We have to put somebody in the post, which usually we won't do. We need somebody inside, because it's impossible to run our offense against a zone defence without someone there."
Regardless of what is happening with their offense, the Lo-Ellen girls can always try and compensate at the other end of the court. "If we're not scoring, then the other team can't score either, so you need to lock down your defence," said coach Carruthers.
"That's kind of the approach that we've taken all year."
A product of the Lasalle Lancers program at a time when a trip to OFSAA was pencilled in around Labour Day as an automatic in the girls basketball schedule, Carruthers (then Lisa Furchner) suggested her experience from her playing days can only take her so far now that she is the woman in charge.
"I approach it much differently as a coach than a player," she said. "It was definitely different for me, a different mental preparation. I've been coaching long enough now that I can turn off my player brain and turn on my coach brain."
"That was something that I had to learn at the start. I look at what we are doing and how that is going to affect the outcome of the game, and how we can adjust and plan accordingly. As a player, those were things that either you didn't have to do or didn't have to worry about doing, because your coach was doing it for you," she said.
Regardless of their outcome versus Holy Cross, the Knights will play again at 7:00 p.m., against the loser of the matchup between the Westdale Warriors (Hamilton) and the Loyola CSS Warriors (Mississauga) if they win, and against the winner of that same game should they lose.
The 2019 Lo-Ellen Park Knights senior girls basketball team roster includes Asma Bilgasem, Briele Bisaillon, Arianna Ghorbani, Mia Jermyn, Carling Kuhlberg, Izzy Maki, Kyra Mallory, Sophie Moore, Maike Purdon, Katrina Thai, Elliot Tissot van Patot, Grace Tresidder and Giulia Wilson.