It was a great, jubilant scene with tears of joy in the eyes, hugs all around and jumps in the air by players as both boys and girls of Ponoka were declared U18 provincial soccer champions, a feat that has not been achieved in the province by the teams of the same community in the same season for more than a decade.
Players, coaches, managers, organizers and parents were all full of pride as the time, effort and sweat they have been investing in the effort paid off big time, once again putting the name of Ponoka in the province’s soccer map emphatically, with capital letters.
Both teams, particularly the boys’ squad, appeared to have fallen in tough pools, but they both sailed through some stormy waters to reach their gold medals in the end. But for the boys, it was a particularly sweet victory at the end of a season that was marked by a lot of tough luck, including injuries and an intense, sometimes bitter and controversial rivalry with the team they could finally defeat in the gold medal game. The girls, for their part, were awarded for being the best defensive team of the tournament for conceding the least number of goals.
Girls’ journey to gold
Starting their round robin campaign, the girls took on Edson in their first game on Friday, July 8 and, contrary to the expectation that they would be a tough nut to crack, managed to come out of the game with a convincing score of 2-0 as Jamie van den Brink scored both goals. The next day when they played against Red Deer to complete their round robin games, it turned out to be an even greater confidence booster as they beat their opponents by a score of 4-1 with Jaimie Smith (2), Liddle Sawyer and Jaimie van den Brink doing the honors.
As the process moved to the finals phase, Ponoka girls took on Bonnyville Sunday morning, July 10 and it was just another smooth sailing for the Storm girls as Jaimie Smith found the back of the opponents’ net twice, against a single score from the competition, paving the way for the final against Camrose.
The Storm girls were visibly confident as they started the gold medal game as they had defeated Camrose already three times during the regular season. Despite that, they kept a strong defensive posture throughout the game, seeking to score making use of Tess Pearman’s fast sprints and long strides to create havoc in front of the Camrose net. In the end, Jamie van den Brink, Kierstyn Greidanus, working great at the defensive line as well as on the offence, and Pearman each undersigned one goal to earn the gold medal for Ponoka.
”Our team was focused from the opening whistle,” said girls’ coach Lonny Behm. “We had a tough pool to come out of, which prepared us for the semi-final and final.”
“Our girls gave an effort that is for the ages, there was not one minute when they were out- worked or out-hustled,” he continued.
He praised all his players for “bringing in their best game, each and every game.”
Behm made a point that his team put out a great offensive game alongside being the best defensive team as they had five players scoring goals. “This is a credit to how well rounded and how talented this group of ladies is,” he said.
“This season was unbelievable not only for us but for our association. Congrats to the U18 boys on their provincial championship, as well. Our organizing committee did a fantastic job behind the scenes to make this the most successful season for Ponoka minor soccer association,” he said.
Boys’ tough challenge
Ponoka boys first cleared the Whitecourt in their opening game of the round robin campaign Friday, July, 8. The game proved to be a difficult one with the opponents responding effectively to Storm offense, keeping Ponoka’s scorers at bay most of the time. In the meantime, the Whitecourt boys also managed to sneak in through the Storm defence and scored three times. However, Storm captain Jarret Henderson did manage to outmaneuver Whitecourt defence with masterful footwork and scored three times to be beefed up by Lewis McDowell for the fourth, sailing past the first hurdle by a score of 4-3.
Saturday morning, July 9, Ponoka boys took on Athabasca, described as one of the toughest teams in the pool and it was the opponent, which scored the first goal of the game. But right about in the middle of first half, Ponoka boys were awarded two back-to-back penalties within three minutes, first due to a handball and second for a foul during a corner kick and both were converted by Lewis McDowell, giving the lead to Storm. Later Jarret Henderson and Dillan Bouma added one each to the tally to take the competition to the semi finals, where Lac La Biche turned out to be an easier than feared opponent for the Storm.
The same scoring pattern was repeated by the Storm offence in the semi final against Lac La Biche with Lewis McDowell authoring two and Henderson and Bouma completing the tally with one each against a single score from the opposing side and the stage was set for the final with Lacombe, with whom the Ponoka boys had an account to settle, having lost the league title earlier in the season due to some controversial officiating.
As the final game started, the tension was clearly felt on the pitch as both sides put a lot of effort into their defence with their priority being not to fall behind as it might never be possible to recover.
Ponoka boys left Henderson in the forward position to seek scoring opportunities with long passes coming from the defensive line as Zane Fessler and Sean Rowland occasionally went out to the forward area to support Henderson.
As the clock kept ticking, the defensive effort started to get tougher on both sides. After the halftime break, both sides started to focus more on scoring with Lacombe approaching Ponoka net with passing combinations while Storm leaving the scoring effort on Henderson’s skills. On the defensive end, Robert Wareham, Rian van der Westhuizen and Alex Mercer made sure that Storm goalie Justin Hyink would not be exposed to a sudden attack by the Lacombe side.
It was in 86th minute that Josh Parent of Storm took the ball through the right corridor to extend it to Henderson who made a long cross to find Sean Rowland right at the centre of the Lacombe six-yard box, facing the Lacombe goalie and no other opposition. And he did not miss: 1-0.
It was literally an explosion of jubilation among the Storm players and their bench and the spectators who kept on watching the intense game despite the occasionally pouring rain. After that, it was just four minutes to wait for the final whistle, which seemed more like an hour to Ponoka bench and fans.
When it came, the final whistle meant a complete victory for the boys, something they said they had been waiting for for two years, since they lost the provincial title only in a penalty shoot-out in Three Hills two years ago when they were competing as the U16 team.
Boys’ coach Gurjit Sandhu said the unlucky spell that continued the whole season was still there at the tournament. “Even today, we had to make a couple of changes because of an injury that really changed the identity of our team,” he said Sunday night.
“What brought us success was the fact that the boys were able to overcome any obstacle that was put in front of them and strategy-wise, we have always been a team that is happy to defend and then use our speed to counter attack, I felt like no team we played throughout the season was really able to handle that, so we kept doing that. Today we did that a bit more than normal because of the changes.”
Sandhu described the loss of the league title to Lacombe as “heartbreaking”.
“We only had to win one of the two last season games vs Lacombe to do so, but that all changed today. To be able to beat the team that has been our rivals in the league for three years in the finals at provincials is what made this even better.”
A medal of pride for PMSA
Rob McArthur, Ponoka minor soccer president, said they were proud of the way the tournament went. “Once again, we were commended by the fans, coaches, players and the ASA reps for how well administrated and run the tournament was,” he said. “We received many compliments for everything; the quality of referees we recruited, our hospitality and volunteers, the welcome packs distributed to the teams which included coupons and freebees from local businesses, the skill challenge, our facilities…everything. We set the bar high for other communities to have to follow.”
“The boys’ beating Whitecourt was huge, as was our girls’ beating Edson, another favorite,” he added.
“Beating CASA divisional rivals makes it even sweeter. We are happy for the kids and our coaches.”
With regard to the impact of the successful outcome on the future Ponoka minior soccer, McArthur said “it validates PMSA and our program.”
“Five years ago, a couple of us on the PMSA board made an informal decision to see if we could change the culture of our association and the way soccer is viewed in our community. We didn’t just want to win, but we wanted to be a ‘flagship association within CASA’.
“Winning two provincial championships in one weekend at home, showcasing our teams on our new fields shows the province that we have a good thing happening in Ponoka. We’ve got some great young athletes.”
McArthur added he was also happy to see the town businesses benefit from the at least 500 people who visited Ponoka and used the services offered by the town.
“This is something that Ponoka, (as in our entire community), can really hang its hat on,” he concluded.