Provincial berths have been far and few between for the Muskie senior boys’ basketball program over the years. But after qualifying for OFSAA last season, the players have developed a taste for it.
“Since we went to provincials last year, you just can’t shoot [to win] NorWOSSA,” said third-year senior Jamie Algie, a starting forward. “Once you go there, you want to go back.
“I guess we’ll see what happens as the year goes on,” he added.
The team will open the season as defending NWOSSAA champs without their “big three”—Gary Wager, Jon Sivonen, and Evan Woodland, a trio of graduated players who accounted for close to 70 percent of the team’s offence last year, said co-coach Paul Noonan.
“There’s no doubt with guys like that leaving the team creates quite a void,” said the seven-year coaching veteran, whose team swept through NorWOSSA and NWOSSAA play with a 12-0 record before finishing 1-2 at OFSAA in Timmins last spring.
The trip to the all-Ontarios was the program’s first since 1977.
“We are looking to Algie and Jock Gemmell to step up and give us strength inside. We have some guards who can fill in when called upon,” Noonan added.
Among those will be OAC student Travis Derkson, who Noonan and the coaching staff believe will play a vital role at the point guard position as primary ball handler.
Mark Mercure is the only other veteran lost to graduation, leaving the Muskies with a solid core of returning players this season, including OAC students Faical Cheblaoui and Josh McMahon and 12th-graders Pat Flemming, Voung Pham, and Dan Poperec-hny.
Four grade 11 players from last year’s NorWOSSA gold medal-winning junior boys’ team—Rick Ricard, Kevin Gemmell, Cullan McGinnis, and Keith McKay—round out the 12-man roster to provide minutes off the bench.
“We’re looking strong outside and we’ve got some guys on the wings who can shoot,” said Algie. “I think we’ll be strong and be contenders this year.”
Also rejoining Noonan and Mike Busch behind the bench is co-coach Al McManaman, who didn’t coach last year but kept a close eye on the team’s progress.
“I’m excited to see the development this year, especially our older players,” McManaman said. “They’ve improved phenomenally. I think we’re an athletically-skilled team and we’ll do very well this year.”
One thing the coaches say won’t change is their style of play. The Muskies, in recent years, have used an up tempo pressing style of offense to make every possession a fast-break possibility.
“We want to stress transition basketball. If there’s a quick lay-up available, we want to take it,” said McManaman.
As for their chances of repeating as NWOSSAA champs, Noonan noted both the Kenora Broncos and Dryden Eagles are welcoming back returning players this season.
Regionally, the Hillcrest Colts (Thunder Bay), whom the Muskies beat in NWOSSAA last year, look to be one of the area’s top teams with a solid core of grade 12 students.
But the focus isn’t on Thunder Bay right now, said Noonan.
“They have some pretty strong programs in Thunder Bay and we know we have to get through them,” he noted. “[But] it’s early. Doing well at NorWOSSA is our first goal.
“We’re pretty comfortable where we stand heading into the season.”
The Muskies will tip-off a busy week beginning with their NorWOSSA opener Tuesday (Dec. 11) in Dryden, followed by their home opener next Thursday (Dec. 13) against Kenora.
They’ll follow that up with a six-team invitational tournament here Dec. 14-15.
Teams set to compete have yet to be confirmed.