March Madness: road to HOOPLA 2024 begins with 5A girls regional tournament in Prince Albert

Nathan Reiter/Daily Herald. Ava Helgason attempts a jump shot during Carlton practice on Thursday afternoon

The road to HOOPLA 2024 in Moose Jaw starts in Prince Albert for the St. Mary Marauders and Carlton Crusaders girls basketball teams. Both teams will be in action at the 5A Girls regional tournament at Ecole St. Mary.

Crusaders ready for regional challenge

For the Carlton Crusaders, it will be all about playing well on the defensive side of the ball if they are able to punch their ticket to HOOPLA.

Head coach Kelsey Pearson says the season has been a pleasant surprise for the Crusaders and that she is hopeful the weekend will end with a berth secured in HOOPLA 2024.

“These girls have surprised me. I wasn’t sure at the beginning of the year who would step into what roles and what it would look like going forward. I think everybody took part in the leadership role and there’s a couple girls that honestly stepped up and our defense has definitely improved. We are definitely a defensive team so as long as we can hang on to that this weekend and play good defensively, I think we’ll be okay.”

Pearson says the Crusaders have developed significantly on the offensive side of the ball, but their bread and butter this season has been defensive play.

“We had some trouble at the beginning of the season putting the ball in the hoop. So we had to really work on our finishing this season. Defensively, we’re great. Offensively, we needed a lot of work. I think we’ve gotten them to where they need to be. The girls have all the tools. They just need to play their best to have a successful weekend.”

Graduating guard Ava Helgason says Carlton will look to use their speed to their advantage to book a spot at HOOPLA.

“I feel like we’re good. We’re really fast (and) really good on defense. It’s just a struggle with moving the ball a little bit but I think we can outrun lots of teams and our defense will scare them. I feel like that’s really important because (when) our offense isn’t strong, the defense has to be there and it’s going to be real important.”

Carlton enters the regional tournament with the third seed and will start with a 4:30 p.m. tipoff Friday afternoon against sixth seeded Estevan.

Although the tournament isn’t being hosted in their home gym, Helgason says the Crusaders are hoping to utilize the fact the tournament is being held in Prince Albert.

“I’m excited that it’s at home because then I can go home and relax and not be stuck on a bus for long hours at a time. I think that also creates more pressure because everyone will come to watch.”

One challenge that has been facing all teams heading into the regional tournament is the amount of available practice time.

Due to Saskatchewan Teachers Federation (STF) job action, extra-curricular activities have been suspended at various times throughout the season.

Pearson says the Crusaders have handled the uncertainty of the season in stride.

“I think the girls just showed a lot of resilience, (STF) sanctions were tough and minimal practices, (you) just never know what’s going on week to week. These girls, they stepped up, they made the best out of it. They’re as positive as they can be going into the weekend.”

Marauder girls seeking third straight HOOPLA berth

The St. Mary Marauders are hoping they can utilize their home court advantage to punch their ticket to Moose Jaw.

Head coach Dwayne Gareau says St. Mary is looking forward to hosting the tournament.

“I think it’s good for a couple of reasons. One, it’s always nice to sleep in your home bed and the routines of being at home as well as having that home fan base for us. We’ve had a very long season in the sense of when you start months ago to where we are now, we’re excited and chomping at the bit to get out there on our home court and see what we can do.”

The Marauders feature several players who are multi-sport athletes on their roster and as a result, St. Mary was often challenged at several tournaments this season with a short bench

Gareau says the Marauders are looking forward to having their team at full strength for the tournament.

“Without doubt, it’s the depth of our team. We’ve had many weekends where we’ve been missing players and we’ve been able to have a really successful season, even with missing players and that’s a testament to the depth that we have on our team.”

Graduating forward Haley DeBack says the constant short bench throughout the season will pay dividends in the regional tournament because of the experience the entire roster gained.

“We’ve had some tournaments where we’ve had two subs, sometimes one. We’ve had lots of girls on the court and lots getting experience…. It helped grow our team together and (be a) very deep team this year.”

Last season, the Marauders punched their ticket to HOOPLA in Prince Albert, but couldn’t take home a victory at the tournament, losing in their first two games.

DeBack says the Marauders have used last year’s HOOPLA experience as motivation throughout the season.

“I think last year we were a pretty good team, but I think this year we’ve come more together as a team. We’ve developed our skills more and I think we have a better chance this year. We are more of a team this year. I think we have been through lots in our past and we’re motivated to really do well this year.”

Getting the chance to play at Ecole St. Mary, DeBack says the Marauders are hopeful for home court success.

“It’s really special because you have the home crowd, friends and family coming to watch and they get to support you in your last year. and it’s just really special too because we have a good chance of winning and I think it’ll be competitive and good in our home gym.”

Leading up to the tournament, the Marauders were only able to get one practice in due to the STF sanctions put in place withholding extracurricular activities the first three days of the week. Gareau says the Marauders have been taking advantage of every chance they get together as a team.

“We’ve had a really frank conversation about (how) we’re going to be ready to do what we can when we have those opportunities so you can control only what you can control. We’ve been preaching that as coaches there are some things that are going to be out of our control and when we have an opportunity to be on the court training together, when we have an opportunity to be playing a game together, that we we take that opportunity to make sure that we’re using it and utilizing it as best we can.”

The Marauders begin regional play at 8 p.m. on Friday night against the winner of Weyburn and Balgonie.