Win and you were in. It was as simple as that for the Rainy River Owls' junior boys' basketball team on Thursday morning against the visiting Ignace Falcons with a berth into this week's NorWOSSA 'A' semifinals on the line.
The Owls' defence got the crucial stops it needed down the stretch to hold on for a 46-28 win over the Falcons, a game which counted for two wins in the standings, as they finished the regular season in second place with a 5-3 record.
“It was an awesome game, stressful,” Owls' coach Tyson Grinsell said after Thursday's win at RRHS.
“We had a good lead and then they started catching up because we were in some foul trouble. But the kids played well, held it together, finished strong and we ended up winning by 18.”
It was a challenging regular season for the Owls as the rotating education strikes meant they had only played one league game up until last week.
But Grinsell is most proud of how the team stuck together and overcame any issues that were in front of them.
“I just think for how this season . . . with all these cancelled games and everything, we played our second game of the season last week, so they're getting that momentum and kind of getting better every game,” he lauded.
“It's just happening a little bit late, but they're finishing strong. I was really proud.”
Rainy River got off to an electrifying start in their NorWOSSA regular-season finale against the Falcons (3-4) at home on Thursday, bursting out of the gates with an 11-0 run en route to a 13-5 lead after the first quarter.
The Owls then outscored Ignace 12-10 in the second quarter as they carried a 25-15 lead into halftime.
Some foul trouble led to the Owls' top scorer, Tyson Maki, having to sit for the entire third which allowed the Falcons to close the gap to as little as 31-28 in the early minutes of the fourth.
But Rainy River dug deep on defence and made their shots as they ended the game on a 15-0 run to book their ticket to today's NorWOSSA semifinal against the Red Lake Rams.
“I think it went good but I got a lot of fouls early, so I had to sit out the third [quarter],” Maki said of the game against the Falcons.
“With me being on the court, I can help the other guard in where they should go and what they should do. With me not being out there, it maybe set it off a little bit.”
The Owls began last week by dumping those same Rams by a 38-17 count on Tuesday before then dispatching the Pelican Falls the following day, with both games also played at RRHS.
“We beat Red Lake on Tuesday, which was a good game because we lost to Red Lake when we played them in Red Lake. That would have been only our second game of the season,” Grinsell noted.
“So, they've [the Owls] gotten better since then because we beat them by 21 on Tuesday and then we beat Pelican Falls yesterday and today's game was a must-win. If Ignace beat us, Ignace was making the playoffs and we weren't. Red Lake is in third, so today was a must-win and the boys did good.”
The Owls will face the Rams in the NorWOSSA semifinal today in Atikokan for the chance to advance to face the unbeaten St. Thomas Aquinas Saints (7-0) in the final tomorrow.
“I'm just going back into my old gym and hoping we just keep playing like we're playing,” Grinsell, who used to teach at AHS, said of the playoffs.
"It's a little bit bigger gym than ours, so the boys will have to run a little bit more, but hopefully we keep this momentum that we've built this week with three wins in a row and bring that there.
“We play Red Lake again, so hopefully we will have a good game with them and make it to the final,” he concluded.
As for the senior squad, they lost all three of their games last week to finish the regular winless with an 0-8 record and unfortunately failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Rainy River opened play last week with a loss to the visiting Rams on Tuesday before then falling to the Timberwolves the following day in a game that counted for two in the standings.
The Owls didn't play on Thursday in the final day of the regular season as Ignace doesn't have a senior boys' team this year.