You could view the Muskie senior girls' basketball team as the favourites to claim NorWOSSA gold this year.
The squad has eight returning players from last year's championship roster as well as a talented group of girls moving up from the junior ranks.
But Muskie coach Gord McCabe stressed that the playoffs are far away and that things can change quickly in the NorWOSSA landscape.
“Given the number of returning players, we have to be considered one of the favourites for NorWOSSA,” he noted.
“I also expect Dryden to be very good. They finished first in the regular season last year and they have a couple of strong juniors moving up. They also host the NorWOSSA playoffs and that can be a big advantage,” he reasoned.
The one championship game the Muskies have lost since McCabe returned to coaching was to the Eagles in Dryden after Fort High had finished first in the regular season. So in one playoff game—anything can happen.
“However, NorWOSSA [playoffs] is a long way in the future and we will cross that bridge when the time comes,” McCabe vowed.
"[Kenora] and Sioux Lookout are unknown quantities. [Kenora] improved a lot as the year went on last year but they had a tough job as both Dryden and us were so strong.
“I don't know a thing about Sioux Lookout at this point, except it seems they are the only high school in the region where enrollment is increasing, so that usually means more athletes and better teams,” he added.
Moving up to the senior level from the junior ranks this year are Keisha DeBungie, Aurora Hutton, Joanna Empey, and Becca Jourdain.
“We have four players moving up from junior that we think will really help us,” McCabe enthused.
Returning to the squad is last year's starters Grace Petsnick, Alina Eldridge, and Janissa Judson. The other returnees include Jamie Spencer, Bella Ward, Rachel Anderson, Simone Payne, and Carmen Hebert.
“This is a veteran team. We have three of last year's starters back in Grace Petsnick, Alina Eldridge and Janissa Judson,” said McCabe.
"We are expecting a lot of leadership from those three. Jamie Spencer would have started on most teams but because we had the twin towers of Ellie Petsnick and Sarah Larson last year, she was often the first player off the bench.
“Jamie is a natural scorer and—as long as she can continue to improve her defence—she should be an impact player,” he predicted.
“Bella Ward, Rachel Anderson, Simone Payne, and Carmen Hebert all have unique talents at the guard position and each brings something a little different to the table,” McCabe lauded.
Due to the depth on the Muskies this year, the coaching staff faced some tough decisions with the final roster and unfortunately had to make some cuts.
“Our biggest strength is undoubtedly our depth. This is easily the deepest girls team I have ever coached and I really hope to use all 12 players a lot. We actually had to make cuts at the senior level which was very difficult for coach [Angela] Petsnick and myself to do after working with these girls in junior,” McCabe remarked.
"Every girl we cut would have made every other senior girls' team I have ever coached, and that goes back a lot of years.
“However, I learned last year that having too many players can cause friction on a team if players can't get enough floor time, so we had decided before the season started that we were going to have a 12-player roster and I feel that was the correct decision,” he explained.
“Some of the Grade 11 players we cut will continue to practice with the team, so their high school careers are not over by any means.”
The Muskies will get their first taste of game action at a tournament hosted by Lakehead University this weekend.
McCabe noted that he is instituting a new offence this year, which may take some time to develop. He's also expecting a stiff challenge from the opposing teams at the tourney but that it also should be a lot of fun.
“We are in a pool with the Hammarskjold Vikings, who beat us last year at NWOSSAA, the St. Ignatius Falcons, who were a city finalist last year, and the St. Patrick Saints, who we were fortunate to defeat the one time we played them last year but it was a close game,” he noted.
"I'm not going to get too excited about the results whether we win or lose. This is a good chance to see where we stand against some of the better competition in Northwestern Ontario.
“We don't care if we are the best team in the middle of September," McCabe stressed. "Our goal is to be the best team in the middle of November.”