By Martin Cleary
At the start of every high school sport season, the teacher-coach puts out the call for student-athletes. Tryouts, assessments and sometimes cuts lead to the creation of the final team.
But when teacher-coaches Kilda Butler and Annie Lafleur made the announcement that École secondaire catholique Pierre-Savard would again be offering a curling team for the 2022-23 season, only four student-athletes – three boys and one girl – stepped forward.
Wow, four student-athletes for the four-player team. That’s cutting it too close. As a result, skip Sean Blythe, third Wade O’Reilly, second Justin Anderson and lead Hannah Robert were automatically named to the team for Les Épaulards.
But they were the absolute four right players for the team. Their competitive club curling backgrounds, respect for each other and teamwork allowed them to have a double golden season, which has never been seen in the 12-year athletic history of the Barrhaven high school.
After two seasons of finishing second in the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association league (2022 and 2020), Pierre-Savard not only won the boys’ city curling championship with an 8-0 overall record, but also captured the OFSAA provincial boys’ championship last week in North Bay.
It was the first-ever provincial high school team championship in any sport for the Barrhaven school that opened in 2010.
There are many sports-related banners hanging in the Pierre-Savard gymnasium for achievements by student-athletes in Grades 7-12, but its first-ever OFSAA championship banner is destined for an exclusive location.
“I hope so,” Butler said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We’ll make sure it is in a special place in the school.”
Watching her student-athletes win seven of eight matches at the OFSAA championships, including all three in the playoffs, was an intense, nail-biting experience for Butler.
“It was definitely emotional,” she said. “I was happy for the students. There was the excitement of the competition. There were so many emotions getting to the win.
“There were tears shed, when that last rock had been thrown. Definitely emotional, an amazing, phenomenal experience.”
That last rock determined the final outcome and it could have gone three ways – a win or a loss for Pierre-Savard or an extra end.
Georgetown District High School had the hammer in the eighth and final end with Pierre-Savard leading 7-6 and having one stone counting behind a wall of guards. When Georgetown was unable to convert its final shot into a point or two, the Épaulards stole one for the second end in a row and wrapped up an 8-6 gold-medal victory.
“It was incredible to watch them go through each match and end up on top,” Butler added. “The four students gelled well. They play on separate (community club) teams apart from Sean and Wade (who are on the same team) and have a respectful communication with each other.
“They’re such good students because of their personalities, their love of curling and their enthusiasm to get to the end.”
Pierre-Savard earned a playoff ranking of No. 3, after going 4-1 in the preliminary round and finishing first in its pool. But then came the wild and crazy playoffs, where the Épaulards would fall behind early, alter and execute their updated strategy at the fourth-end break and emerge with a win.
In the quarterfinals, Pierre-Savard was down 4-0 after three ends to Eden High School, but bolted into the lead counting five in the fourth end. Two ends later, Blythe’s rink outdid itself, scoring a near-perfect seven and finished with a 14-5 win.
The Épaulards trailed 2-0 after two ends against Laurel Heights Secondary School in their semifinal, but managed to bring the match to 4-4 after six ends. Blythe, however, scored two in the seventh end and one more in the eighth for a 7-4 decision.
For the first time in the playoffs, Pierre-Savard scored first with a 2-0 advantage after the opening end of the gold-medal game and the start of a tight, back-and-forth battle.
Georgetown scored three in the second and two in the fourth for a 5-4 lead at the halfway break. The Épaulards fell behind 6-4 following the fifth end, but rebounded to score two points in the sixth and stole one point in each of the last two ends to win the championship 8-6.
“For us, we started winning regionals (NCSSAA). We’ve been trying to get past that for three seasons,” Blythe said. “This year, we made it to OFSAA.
“Our main goal was to do well, win some matches or go all the way. When we saw we had a chance to go for the banner, it was awesome, incredible.
“We knew we just had to win. It has been three years. For Wade and I, it’s our last year and we threw everything at it.”
Winning the round-robin pool was Pierre-Savard’s first indication the Épaulards could challenge for the coveted OFSAA banner.
“All the competitions were different. In every game, we had a chance to win and we took it, one step at a time,” Blythe explained. “The last game could have gone either way. We were fortunate with the outcome. I was proud of how we played.”
The OFSAA championship was especially exciting for Robert, who has been curling for seven of her 15 years and had never experienced victory in a championship match.
“It’s awesome that we won,” she said. “I have never won a bonspiel before and to win my first at the provincial level is awesome.”
The top three teams in the boys’ draw – Pierre-Savard, Georgetown and Laurel Heights – had one or two girls each in their lineups.
“My team didn’t treat me like a girl. I was part of the team,” explained Robert, who was an alternate on the team last year as a Grade 9 student-athlete.
Blythe, whose father John has been a competitive curler and contributor for more than 50 years, viewed Robert as a vital member of the team.
“When it comes down to curling, all positions are important,” Blythe said. “She throws what’s needed. I ask for a takeout, a guard or a draw and she makes it every time.
“I definitely saw her grow and develop. In the final game, she made every shot. Amazing.”
Pierre-Savard qualified for its first OFSAA championship by going undefeated in its NCSSAA season. After winning all league games and finishing first in the OFSAA Division, the Épaulards captured their semifinal over South Carleton and the championship game against Franco-Ouest.
Meanwhile, Nepean represented the NCSSAA in the OFSAA girls’ curling championship and reached the quarter-final round.
The team of Sarah Adair, Zoe McNeil, Lukia Muzyka, Vera Oldfield, Eden Stanfield and Anushka Takala finished second in its preliminary pool with a 4-1 win-loss record. In its only playoff game, Nepean fell behind Elmira 5-0 after three ends, but rallied to draw even at 6-6 through seven. Elmira scored two in the eighth for an 8-6 victory.
In NCSSAA league play, Nepean posted a 5-1 record to win the girls’ title and added a pair of playoff wins over Woodroffe (semifinals) and St. Mark (final) to qualify for the OFSAA championship.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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