For a group of four former Tillsonburg Twisters, the 2015 U16 Canadian Ringette Championships, March 30-April 4, was their first shot at a national title.
Playing with the London Lynx AA team, the highest caliber available in the U16 age group, were Tillsonburg's Haleigh and Tori Cole, both 15, Victoria Kyriakopoulos, 15, and LaSalette's Shannon Hill, soon to be 16. The London and greater area team won silver medals in Wood Buffalo, Alberta.
Last spring, the Tillsonburg trio won gold medals at the Eastern Canadian Ringette Championships in Mississauga with the London Lynx AA U14s.
Coached by Tillsonburg's Scott Cole and head coach Sean Flynn from London, the London Lynx U16 AA ringette team went into the 2015 Ontario Provincial Championships in March ranked No. 1 in the province after a very strong year that included only three losses during a 43-game league and tournament season.
"We had a really strong team this year, we knew we had a good shot – one of London's best shots to win win the Provincials and get to the nationals," said coach Scott Cole.
The team was about 50-50 divided between Grade 9 and 10 players – first and second-year U16s.
"Their was a real good core group of Grade 10s too. Bringing those two groups together really made for a strong team."
For Hill, who transferred from Ayr ('A'), it meant learning new systems and adapting to new teammates. She last played in London two years ago.
"With this group of girls it was fairly easy," said Hill. "For AA it was a little difficult at the start, but it was pretty easy after you pick it up."
At Provincials, the Lynx continued their winning ways going 5-0-1 in the round-robin to take first and a bye directly to the championship game against Waterloo Wildfire.
Waterloo, Guelph and London were expected to the favourites, said Haleigh Cole.
"Everyone who went into provincials had a pretty good shot, it was just a matter of who showed up," said Hill.
After a very close back-and-forth game, London was able to hold off a last minute push by Waterloo to get the 5-4 win. Crowned Ontario Champions, they were given the opportunity to represent Ontario at the Canadian National Ringette Championships in Fort McMurray, Alberta (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo).
"The whole year, everybody's goal was to get to nationals," said Tori Cole.
With less than two weeks to prepare, Team Ontario was off to the Oil Sands to complete for the highest U16 prize in the nation.
"It is quite an honour to represent your province," said coach Scott Cole. "With Team Ontario boldly written across their new jackets, the girls were amazed at how many people stopped them in Fort McMurray to tell them they were from Ontario and to wish the good luck in the tournament."
The excitement of plane rides and new places was quickly replaced by getting back to the game they were there to play. The national U16 tournament was made up of 15 teams from across the country and set up as an eight game round-robin.
"We had a lot of games," said Tori Cole. "Eleven games in six days. We all stayed together in the same hotel and car pooled. It was like two games a day."
"Experiencing another province was pretty cool," said Hill.
On Day 1, Team Ontario faced two Alberta based teams, the Alberta Zone 5 Pack and the Calgary Pursuit, winning 8-3 and 8-2, sending a clear message that they were there to play.
Day 2 started out against a very strong Team New Brunswick who the Lynx had seen the year before, so they were familiar with New Brunswick's explosive offense. After getting up 5-1 and feeling pretty good about their play, the New Brunswick scoring machine went into high gear and pushed the game to 5-4 with just over three minutes to play. Both teams had chances but no one found the back of the net and London hung on for the narrow victory.
In Game 4 London faced Team BC who were quickly overwhelmed by the speed and offensive power the Lynx could bring and London cruised to an easy victory.
Day 3 brought on the Alberta Sting and the Quebec Provincial Silver medalist. The Team Ontario girls continued to play very sound ringette getting 6-2 and 9-4 victories. At 6-0 the team felt very good about where they were sitting, but they knew the final day of the round robin would be their toughest.
Day 4 had London facing Team Manitoba first thing in the morning.
"Their only loss had come in a tough fought overtime loss to Team Alberta earlier in the week," coach Cole noted. "We had seen them once before in Ontario and were well aware of their high powered offensive style. But then, maybe not quite as aware as we thought as Team Manitoba broke open a 4-0 lead after only seven minutes of play. We were completely overwhelmed as they came out flying and never seemed to miss a pass or a shot. They were on top of their game and our girls had never seen anything like it."
The play evened out through the first half, and after being down 7-2, London scored a late one to make it 7-3 at the end of the first period.
The largely Manitoba-based crowd was chanting and cheering so loud the Lynx could hardly hear their coaches during the break.
"At that point there wasn’t much to say anyways, other than just putting that period behind us and trying to win this period," said coach Cole. "Well the period started and Team Ontario filled the net with three more goals and all of a sudden we were in a one-goal game."
A couple more goals were traded off before Victoria Kyriakopoulos came flying into the offensive zone to receive a pass and let a rocket of a shot go to tie the game 8-8 and the small group of Ontario fans could suddenly be heard as the other half of the rink went silent.
"We had the half-time talk, and we all just picked it up and started playing together," said Kyriakopoulos.
"You could totally tell our game changed quite a bit," Hill nodded.
"We've never actually been down that much," noted Tori Cole.
Manitoba later took a 9-8 lead before Team Ontario responded to make it 9-9 going into the final minutes. With just seconds left it looked like the game was over as Haleigh Cole picked up the ring just inside the blue line and let a shot go from just outside the hash marks, but it found the wrong side of the iron deflecting over the net and the game was headed to overtime.
In the first shift of overtime, Team Ontario worked the ring down low and Haleigh Cole fed Abby Chandler with a low pass and Chandler made no mistake with a fancy deke move and roofed it under the cross bar to cap the comeback victory at 10-9.
"It was like every team was really good," said Haleigh Cole. "There was maybe two teams (Saskatchewan and BC) that struggled."
Team Ontario remained unbeaten with one round-robin game to go. That left an afternoon game against the Silver Medal team from Manitoba, the Magic. A 6-3 win capped off London's 8-0 round-robin securing the No. 1 seed position as eight teams proceeded to the semifinals.
It was now Day 5 which left eight teams in a knockout 'win or you’re out' situation with every game.
In the semifinal Team Ontario was back against New Brunswick and their high-powered offence. A sound 6-2 victory moved London into a rematch against the Calgary Pursuit who had remained unbeaten in the tournament except for the single loss against the Lynx earlier in the week.
"Again we were able to shut down their offence and pulled through with a solid 4-1 win," said coach Cole, "and a chance to play on the final day of the tournament for the National Championship."
"We didn't play Team Alberta, but they looked really good when we watched them," said Kyriakopoulos.
"They (Team Alberta) got knocked out by Manitoba," noted coach Cole.
The final day of the tournament brought great excitement and nerves. The team was thrilled with the support and well wishes from home through the 'realities of modern communications.' With the game being live streamed over the internet it seemed like everyone was cheering for them.
Team Manitoba had made their way through the quarter and semifinals to set up the rematch with Team Ontario, but this time it would be for the National Championship.
"We had made several adjustments to our game to try to reduce the effectiveness of Manitoba’s offence, but to little avail as they once again came out flying and built up a 4-0 lead by midway through the first period," said coach Cole. "Our team, as always, showed great resilience and shortly into the second period we were in a 4-3 game and it looked like another comeback might be on its way. This time Manitoba responded with two more goals before we picked up one more, but it was too little too late and we skated to a 6-4 loss and a Canadian Ringette Championship Silver Medal."
"We were a little slow, I found, compared to our normal game," said Tori Cole.
"Definitely it wasn't our best game," said Haleigh Cole.
"I don't think they completely outplayed us," said Hill.
"We just weren't on our game," said Kyriakopoulos.
"Just a little off," Haleigh Cole nodded.
"It was a pretty big stage there," noted coach Scott Cole. "Big arena and a lot of people, and we were definitely a little nervous at the beginning.
"The girls played like champions," Cole added, "and were great representatives for our province. After the disappointment of losing the championship game, the accomplishment of winning second in the country starts to set in and what a great year it has been for all of them. It was just an unbelievable experience for these young girls. The tournament was so well run and the level of ringette was just unbelievable.
"We had so much support from home, everyone cheering 'bring home the gold, bring home the gold.' It was amazing."
There were mixed emotions in the dressing room after Saturday's game.
"Yeah, it was crushing," said Kyriakopoulos, "but we were also so happy because it was a really good team and we made it to the finals. We won provincials, and second at nationals."
"You could tell the team really, really wanted the gold," said Hill. "But second in all of Canada is still pretty awesome."
"Try again next year," Tori Cole smiled.
Haleigh Cole was honoured at the closing ceremonies with a First Team All-Star selection as she led the tournament in scoring with 26 goals and 16 assists including 8 three goal games and points in all 11 games.