BPSN’s year (four months) in review
St. Catharines native Abu Kigab won a gold medal at the under-19 men’s basketball championships. Photo by FIBA.
In my past incarnation as the sports editor of the St. Catharines Standard, my colleague Bill Potrecz and I would write an annual year in review in which we would select athletes of the year, coach of the year, team of the year and a whole host of other topics designed to fill up the sports section of the newspaper during a time when local sports was practically non-existent.
Writing the same column this year is difficult because the birth of BP Sports Niagara occurred eight months into 2017 and The Four Months in Review sounds more than a little ridiculous. Instead of the previous tried and true format, what follows is a column dedicated to the achievements and events BPSN has chronicled in its short existence.
Golden Teen: At the top of the list of achievements in 2017 is the world championship win in Cairo, Egypt, by Canada’s under-19 men’s basketball team. The first gold medal by a Canadian basketball team at any world championships or Olympic Games garnered the team the Canadian Press Team of the Year Award ahead of Brad Gushue’s world championship curling foursome and Toronto FC. A big part of Canada’s victorious squad was St. Catharines’ own Abu Kigab who was named to the tournament all-star team after averaging 14.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
“It shows that hard work and seizing the opportunity can really pay off,” the St. Francis alumnus said. “In the ninth grade, I was a skinny kid and I was missing left-handed layups and everything. Working hard, staying focused and being dedicated is what I do. I’m a believer in hard work and I came a long way. That showed it all right there.”
Once the tournament was over, Kigab headed to the Oregon Ducks for his first season of NCAA Division 1 basketball. So far, he is averaging 8.9 minutes of playing time, 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds per game.
Silver coxie: Sir Winston Churchill alumnus Kristen Kit considered retirement after coxing Canada’s leg, trunk and arms mixed coxed four to a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games. But after some soul searching, she returned to the water and guided Canada’s women’s eight to a silver medal at the world championships in Florida.
Kit received a lot of credit for the surprise showing by the boat.
“Kristen is the heart of this boat,” teammate Hillary Janssens said, after the race. “Her passion is unreal. She is the glue. We are so grateful to have her.”
Bronze wrestler: Following an opening-round loss in her first appearance at the Olympics, Brock Wrestling Club member Michelle Fazzari took some time off to enjoy being a normal person. When she returned to the ring, she had a different perspective about the gruelling sport.
“I got back in the room and wondered if I wanted to continue doing it,” she said. “Then I started having fun with it.”
That attitude worked well on the international level and she ended up winning a bronze medal at the world championships in Paris, France.
Her new approach helped her follow a 10-0 loss in the semifinals with a 7-0 victory in the bronze-medal match.
“I had nothing to lose so I decided than I might as well have fun with it,” she said. “And that’s going to be my philosophy this year; do it because you love it.”
Next up for Fazzari will be the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. She will be heading Down Under with Brock teammates Jessie MacDonald. Jevon Balfour, Diana Weicker and Emily Schaefer.
“This was an outstanding day for the Brock wrestling team,” head coach Marty Calder said, after the trials. “That is the most that our club has qualified and signifies that the athletes’ hard work and commitment is paying dividends.”
Grey Cup Niagara style: Governor Simcoe grad Lirim Hajrullahu’s 32-yard field goal with 53 seconds left in the game lifted the Toronto Argonauts to a 27-24 upset victory over the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup.
Hajrullahu wasn’t the only Niagara connection on the Grey Cup champions. Other locals included Fonthill native Chris Van Zeyl (Notre Dame), St. Catharines’ Jeff Finley (Sir Winston Churchill) and St. Catharines’ Alex Charette (St. Francis).
Van Zeyl shared the joy by bringing the Grey Cup to Notre Dame in December. It was the second time he has brought the Grey Cup for a tour of Niagara and he loves the reception it receives.
“It’s watching how people of different ages react to it,” the 34-year-old said. “I’ve seen guys shed tears when they’ve seen this. I’ve seen kids try to tackle it. They don’t quite understand it but they are excited because it is bigger than them.”
Vanier Cup Niagara style: Niagara athletes were also a big part of the University of Western Ontario Mustangs capping an undefeated season by defeating the defending champion Laval Rouge et Or 39-17 in the Vanier Cup in Hamilton.
Saint Paul graduate and Niagara Falls native Harry McMaster caught five passes for 115 yards, including a 52-yard gain; Lakeshore Catholic alumnus and Fort Erie resident Cole Majoros caught three passes for 92 yards, including a 32-yard TD grab; and, St. Francis product and St. Catharines Antonio Valvano made several big blocks in front of Western’s running game.
“To do it in my fifth and last year is a perfect way to end it,” the 6-foot-1, 189-pound McMaster said.
Team Canada rearguard: In a story that is still playing out, Thorold native Conor Timmins cracked the roster for the Canadian junior hockey team.
It has been a great 2017 for the 19-year-old who was selected in the second round of the NHL entry draft by the Colorado Avalanche in July and attended his first NHL training camp a couple of months later.
Prior to the world juniors, the former Thorold Blackhawk and St. Catharines Falcon had six goals and 34 points in 28 Ontario Hockey League games with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Football streak ends: The A.N. Myer Marauders senior boys football team saw its 28-game winning streak end with a 20-13 loss to Notre Dame in the Niagara championship game.
Myer’s streak included three straight Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association bowl game victories.
“They are a fantastic team and I think they are going to represent Niagara very well,” Myer coach Dave Buchanan said, after the loss. “But I am proud of our guys. They worked hard all year and it’s a grind.
“Next season starts tomorrow.”
Notre Dame would go on to win its first Southern Ontario Secondary Schools Association title since 2005.
Commission kayoed: On Nov. 8, the Niagara Sports Commission announced its demise with a note on its doors.
“The NSC was unable to secure sustainable funding to continue to operate and balance its budget,” read the note.
It was a definite blow to the Niagara economy because the commission had helped Niagara carve off its share of the sports tourism market.
“It will probably fall back on the municipalities,” former NSC chair Henry D’Angela said. “I’m not sure if the region’s economic development will pick up any of that; maybe for some of the larger Games potentially. I’m not so sure where that is going to fall.”
Henley commissioner Bill Schneck was sad to see the commission’s death.
“I always had a lot of hope that the sports commission would survive,” he said. “The Henley used it since 2012 and it became something I relied on quite heavily organizing the event.”
Dreaming big: With star player Dani Elgadi in his final year, the Brock Bradgers men’s basketball team is hoping it’s ready to take the next step and advance to the national championships for the first time under head coach Charles Kissi.
“This is it. We have to get it done,” Kissi said before the season started. “Every season we get closer and better and not just small jumps. Now we have to take another big jump and our expectations are to be playing in March.”
Elgadi chimed in with similar sentiments.
“We’ve put the pieces in place and in my fifth year I have one goal which is to bring a banner to Brock.”
The Badgers started strong with nine straight wins before losing 78-69 to Ottawa and then 80-75 in overtime to Carleton in front of a big crowd at the Meridian Centre.
“We’re good and I am comfortable with that,” Kissi said, after the Carleton loss. “But it’s getting to where we are supposed to be in March. It’s a loss and we will take it.”
Golden run: Holy Cross student Campbell Lee capped off an excellent cross country running season by winning a gold medal at the national under-18 championships.
“It was really exciting and I hadn’t really won a big race like that before,” the Niagara Olympic Club member said. “It was really cool.”
The Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations bronze medalist is now choosing between Georgetown, Boston College and Iona to continue his running career.
More hardware: Other OFSAA medals won this fall by locals included: Eden’s silver at the boys AA volleyball championships; Sir Winston Churchill’s silver at the boys AAA volleyball championships; Jean Vanier’s silver at the A girls basketball championships; A.N. Myer’s Emily Ward’s bronze medal at the girls golf championships; and, Notre Dame’s antique bronze at the AAA girls basketball championships.
New coach No. 1: After eight seasons in various roles with the Niagara IceDogs, Bill Burke became head coach when Dave Bell resigned to take an assistant coaching position in the American Hockey League.
“My first reaction was to pick up the ball and run with it,” said Burke, who started as a statistician in the press box. “It’s not ideal for sure and not how I expected it but it’s good this way. You don’t have time to think about it. You’re just thrown into the fire and here we go.”
Burke is off to an excellent start as his team’s heads into a New Year’s Eve home game versus the Hamilton Bulldogs with an 18-11-3-2 record.
New coach No. 2: Long-time McMaster coach Joe Raso served as a consultant with the Niagara River Lions before assuming the head coach/GM position with the National Basketball League of Canada franchise this fall.
“I’m going to treat the whole product with the intent of minimizing transactions and trying to build a team that is going to get better as the season goes along,” Raso said.
He felt last year’s squad had plenty of talent.
“It takes experience to realize that talent alone doesn’t make a team,” Raso said. “The roles had to be more defined but there was tons of potential on that roster.”
Billy Burke and Conor Timmins photos by OHL Images. Harry McMaster photo by Peter Methner. Abu Kigab photo by FIBA. Kristen Kit photo by Merijn Soeters. All other photos by Bernie Puchalski.