A cross-section of recent Muskie basketball history took to the court yesterday, looking to reclaim some past glory against a team bent on writing a new chapter of black-and-gold hoops.
The Muskie alumni faced off with the current senior boys’ basketball team—a squad stacked with players hoping to make Fort High’s first OFSAA appearance since 2001.
Evan Woodland, who was on the team that made it to the OFSAA quarter-finals before bowing out, remembers what it was like to play in the game as a Muskie.
But he also was looking forward to getting a shot at the current team.
“It’s something that you look forward to when you’re playing,” Woodland remarked. “You like to see the old-timers and want to get a shot at them.
“You’re young and full of spunk,” he laughed. “The old people don’t really have it anymore.
“That’s what I felt like when I was young, and now that I’m a bit older, it’s nice to go down and see the young kids and try to teach them a lesson,” he added.
In describing the squad that went to the all-Ontarios in Timmins nearly a decade ago, Woodland noted many features of the current Muskie crew.
“We liked to move the ball pretty fast,” he recalled. “We got out in transition, but at the same time, we used a lot of pressure defence and turnovers to get into transition.
“We rebounded pretty well,” he noted. “We were a big, strong team down low.
“We got out and found our guards for quick hoops.”
That style of play got the 11th-ranked Muskies into the top eight in the province that year, aided by a 58-54 upset win over the Woodroffe Tigers.
“It was a close game, basically the entire game. They were a big, strong team,” Woodland reminisced.
“It came down, basically, to the end.
“It was a one or two-point game, and Jock Gemmell steps up to the free-throw line and hit a couple free throws for us,” Woodland continued.
“Then we had a defensive stop and that was the game. It was pretty exciting.”
In more recent history, the Muskies have pushed the limits at NWOSSAA but haven’t broken through to the all-Ontarios ever since.
Jeremy Strain, who matched up against younger brother, Josh, in the alumni game, noted that playing with a trip to OFSAA on the line were his favourite memories of Muskie basketball.
Strain played in three NWOSSAA finals, including one here, but wasn’t quite able to get over the hump.
“Playing in NWOSSAA games were always pretty thrilling. There were pretty large crowds,” he recalled.
“[In Thunder Bay], they weren’t big enough that they would get to you, but it was definitely a
different environment than playing at home, especially when it’s for a chance to go to OFSAA.
“There’s just more on the line,” he reasoned.
One of the alumni game veterans was 1999 graduate Bryce Coyle, who is helping out with the current Muskie team as an assistant.
His fondest memories were in tournament play, with the Muskies winning the Kenora Invitational Tournament in 1999 to slake a long drought and then claiming the ‘B’ crown at a tournament in Brandon, Man.
“Definitely winning the KIT, the Kenora Invitational,” Coyle said. “That was the first time in a long time that a Fort team had won.
“Also, we went to a big tournament out in Brandon that we had done very well in.
“I don’t remember how we finished, but for being such a huge tournament and for the number of teams, representing so well, it was neat,” he added.
Coyle said the current edition is in excellent shape, which he felt was a rarity.
“The team now is super-athletic,” he remarked. “You didn’t see that back in the day, and I don’t know if you see it now so much.
“It’s just neat to see how the current team’s coming, plus to get together with some of the guys I played with in high school,” Coyle continued.
“It’s cool to see how the kids are making out and see where the team’s at.”
Coyle said he tended to keep an eye on his alma mater immediately after leaving high school. When he enrolled at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, for instance, he would attend games and tournaments when the black-and-gold visited the city.
Coming full circle and working with the current team, Coyle cited a couple advantages the old-timers would have to employ to be successful.
He noted getting enough players out would be a key, but making the most of a size advantage would be important, as well.
“Just being physical with these guys to make up for our lack of speed with our bigger size with them, girth-wise,” he reasoned.
“We can use our big, wide bodies to hopefully get some rebounds.
“Slowing the tempo down would be a key, too, I would say,” he stressed. “Keep them from running.”
“We’ll try to get into a defensive game,” agreed Woodland. “We’re just bigger and stronger, so hopefully we’ll use that to our advantage.”
However, a contemporary of Strain, Garnet Cornell, acknowledged Fort High’s athleticism was going to be a challenge for the alumni to counter.
“They have a well-rounded team,” he noted. “They’ll be a quick team, and definitely not all of the alumni are going to be in perfect shape.
“They’ll be trying to run us.”
But in the end, yesterday’s game just was a chance to get on the court and have a good time.
“It’ll probably just be fun, after not playing for so long, to get an opportunity to go back and have some fun over the break,” Jeremy Strain explained.
“It should be all fun, we’ll have some laughs.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t get too, too competitive but hopefully we can get the win,” he quipped.