The St. Ignatius Falcons high school boys basketball program has enjoyed the type of championship success in Thunder Bay not seen in over 35 years.
However, one hurdle remains: Putting together a serious run at the OFSAA tournament.
Sixteen days after winning a sixth-straight city trophy, the Falcons senior team will hold their final practice in town this morning before heading to Windsor for the provincial AA finals. Ranked 14th, St. Ignatius (14-0, conference) meets eighth seed W.F. Herman Academy in the first round of the triple-knockout, 20-school playoff on Monday morning.
“We’ve been at the level we’re capable of. We think we can go a lot farther this year,” Falcons captain Ethan Willmore said after Friday’s practice. “This might be the best team we’ve had in a while. We just hope to win a medal.”
Willmore will be taking his third trip to the big dance with the Falcons in three years as a senior eligible player. Each time the Falcons have reached OFSAA, they’ve failed to win that pivotal first-round game, eventually falling to the consolation side each time.
Despite the fact an opening loss won’t sink their podium chances, Monday morning is make-or-break and the players know it.
“One-hundred per cent. The goal is to win every game that we play and compete at our best level,” said centre Jordan Maki. “If we can win that first game it would be a good confidence booster and hopefully it will get our momentum up.”
Willmore, a six-foot-five shooting guard, and point guard Lloyd Kargbo make up a versatile starting backcourt. Maki is joined by Sebastien Paradis and Isaiah Leonardi up front.
“We’re just really athletic. We like to run. Just get a bunch of buckets in transition. If not, we can slow it down and get good looks,” Willmore said. “We don’t want to force anything, but we can shoot the outside shot and also can get it inside.”
Jordan Pozihun, Liam Willmore, Colin Duizer, Aiden Dougherty, Ewan Menard, Makeer Makeer, Trent Savard and Spencer Lenardon round out the roster which coach Dino Buset calls the deepest he’s taught since the beginning of this run. Four players, including Ethan Willmore and Kargo, are averaging double-digits in scoring this season.
“Depth-wise, absolutely,” Buset said. “We’ve had teams with a lot of talent on it in the past. But not this much depth. That’s the difference, for sure.”
Duizer, Savard and Lenardon are the only first-year seniors.
“The experience definitely helps,” said Maki, who was also a quarterback for the Falcons football team that won the Thunder Bay championship and the OFSAA Metro Bowl in 2018.
“I’ve been basically playing with these guys for five years, maybe four. It makes for better chemistry and in the end that helps with teamwork.”
The Falcons haven’t just dominated the senior hoops scene. The roots of producing results has started at the junior ranks. St. Ignatius’ junior club won a sixth consecutive title last week.
Winning double championships for this stretch has never been accomplished. The closest has been Lakeview’s run of five of six senior championships from 1979 to 1984 while cornering four of seven in the junior league from 1978 to 1984. Other than that, the Falcons are defying the regular pattern of one crop of kids winning at the junior level and then at the senior level. St. Ignatius just keeps producing fresh, winning talent.
“We’ve had a bit of luck in terms of lots of kids that enjoy the sport that decided to come here. We’re happy that way. (Also) consistency in coaching. We’ve had the same coaches mainly coaching junior and the same in senior the last six years,” said Buset, who adds he leans on the guidance of coaches Matt Erdman, Jamie Koski, Trevor Luby and fellow teacher Allison Papich (team manager).
Koski and Luby are recent St. Ignatius graduates, while Erdman is an assistant coach with the Lakehead Thunderwolves varsity men’s team.
Buset said receiving another low seed of No. 14 from the OFSAA committee was “disappointing,” but understands why.
“We haven’t had the exposure in the southern Ontario that the other teams have had,” said Buset, whose team lost in the semifinals at a tournament in Timmins and won the consolation title at another event in Winnipeg.
“So there’s nothing to compare us to. They don’t know who we’ve played, they don’t have a good feel for us. It’s not anything slighting the committee. It’s just disappointment on our part, sure, but understandable at well.”
Whatever happens in Windsor, Willmore will leave the program knowing there’s potential for this basketball dynasty to extend into the future.
“It’s just nice to be able to continue that on,” he said. “They’ve started off and have kept it going. . . . We just want to keep St. Ignatius basketball at the top.”
NOTES: Erdman will bring in members of the Thunderwolves to scrimmage with the Falcons today. St. Ignatius flies out to Windsor on Sunday. . . . W.F. Herman is one of four host schools next week. Kingston-based Frontenac Secondary are the No. 1 seed. . . . St. Ignatius is the only Thunder Bay-based court team to qualify for one of the four OFSAA tournaments this month. Fort Frances (senior girls AA volleyball), and Atikokan (senior boys A basketball and senior girls A volleyball) are the other Northwestern Ontario representatives.