Saskatchewan and the Toronto Golden Jets won the respective women’s and men’s championships at the 2017 Senior National Finals in Markham, Ontario this past weekend. The three-day competition at the Markham Pan Am Centre pitted the best water polo players in the country against each other for the right to be Canadian National Champions.
The women’s tournament kicked off on Friday night with two quarter-final matchups. The seeds held to form with #4 seed Capital Wave taking out the host Mavericks 13-10, and #3 Saskatchewan blitzing the Ottawa Titans 25-2. Saskatchewan’s game against the Titans was the first opportunity the Eastern Conference clubs had at seeing Sask play, and it certainly cemented their status as a contender in their competitions’ eyes.
The men’s quarter-finals began on Saturday morning with four matches on the docket. The top seeds, #1 and #2 seeded Golden Jets and CAMO, had comfortable wins over Hammer and Toronto Silver Jets respectively, as expected. In the #4 vs #5 game between Pacific Storm and Ottawa United, the young guns from Storm showed no jet lag from their cross-country flight on Friday. Storm kept the pace of the game high throughout, and were able to wear United down in a 12-5 victory. Aria Soleimani led the way for the BC squad with 5 goals, while regular season MVP David Lapins replied with three for Ottawa.
The most anticipated quarter-final was no doubt between #3 seed Saskatchewan and #6 seed and host team Mavericks. Both teams had designs on winning the championship and to meet in the quarter-finals was a difficult draw for both clubs. Both squads featured recent Canadian National Team members, with Dusan Radojcic, Milan Radenovic, and Ronen Gros from Mavericks facing off against John Conway, Robin Randall, and Matt Halejian representing Saskatchewan. A tense first 10 minutes of play saw neither team able to gain an edge, before a 1:30 minute stretch of play changed the complexion of the game. Mavericks would score four times within that time frame to open up a 6-3 lead on Saskatchewan, a lead they would never relinquish. Sask made a game effort, pulling to within 9-7 in the 4th quarter, but with Milan Radenovic manning the pipes, it was always going to be a tough deficit to overcome. Ronen Gros played an excellent game for Mavericks, scoring five times for the victors.
After the completion of the quarter-finals, the competition moved right into the semi-finals on Saturday. The first semi-final pitted Capital Wave against tournament favourite, and undefeated CAMO. CAMO had won all of their league games by at least nine goals, and were the three time defending champions at Senior Nationals. But in the first quarter, it was Capital Wave who played like they were the tournament favourites. Wave jumped on CAMO from the opening swim ball and in the blink of an eye had themselves a 4-1 lead. CAMO was put in the rare position of having to play from behind, with their opponents showing no signs of weakening. As the game continued, CAMO could not close the gap on Wave, who maintained their 3 goal margin heading in to the 4th quarter, in part thanks to three goal performances by Dominique Perrault and Taylor Vijh. With the pressure continuing to build, and Capital Wave showing no signs of faltering, CAMO just couldn’t seem to call on their trademark execution skills like so many times before. In the end, it was Capital Wave moving on to the finals with a 9-6 victory, and a new champion was guaranteed to be crowned in the finals.
In the 2nd semi-final, Saskatchewan did not show the same crispness they did in the quarter-finals, and feel behind 3-1 after the first quarter against the 2nd seeded Toronto Golden Jets. Coach Cyril Dorgigne must have said something to his troops in the quarter break however, because Saskatchewan shut out the Golden Jets for the next two quarters, and led by Rae Leckness’ three goals, scored 6 unanswered of their own to take a four goal lead into the final frame. Facing Sask’s aggressive defensive play, and strong goaltending from Kelsey Jensen, the deficit was simply too much to overcome for the Golden Jets, and Saskatchewan was off to the finals.
The first men’s semi-final featured CAMO against the home-town favourite Mavericks. The two clubs had tied both of their regular season meetings, so expectations were high for another tightknit affair. It was not to be however, as Mavericks improved upon their recipe from the quarter-finals to stifle CAMO at every turn. With Dusan Radojcic shutting down the opponents top threats, Milan Radenovic seemingly stopping everything else in sight in the net, and Ronen Gros scoring timely goals, Mavericks were simply too strong on the day for CAMO. Mavericks led 6-2 at the half and played smart the rest of the way to record an 8-4 victory. With that, both the defending champions were out of the competition in the semi-finals.
The 2nd semi-final was between the Golden Jets and Pacific Storm. Storm has achieved a surprisingly comfortable victory over Ottawa United in the quarter-finals, but the top seeded Jets certainly wouldn’t be taken by surprise in the semis. Also working against the BC squad was that Storm had a limited bench, and fatigue was likely to be an issue with their 2nd game of the day against high level competition. Storm achieved exactly the start they wanted, jumping out to a 3-0 lead, but after that it was all Golden Jets. Storm would only score twice the rest of the way, while Jets would reel off 10 goals from 6 different players to record a 10-5 victory. The depth of the Golden Jets has been one of the most important factors in their run of success over the years, and the game against Storm was another example of that.
The completion of the semi—finals moved the competition into the medal game phase on Sunday. First up were the bronze medal games. Despite the let-down of losing the semi-finals, CAMO bounced back to capture the bronze medal by defeating the Golden Jet women 13-8. CAMO provided evidence of their own level of depth in the game, as all 10 of their field players scored a goal in the game.
The men’s bronze medal game saw CAMO face off against Pacific Storm. CAMO looked to have the game under control, holding a 7-4 lead in the 3rd quarter, but in a one minute span to end the 3rd quarter, Storm scored three goals to tie the game. The fourth quarter was tense from start to finish, but when CAMO scored with 23 seconds left to lead by one, and Storm missed a chance to tie shortly their after, most thought the game was over. Instead, Storm engineered a steal out of nowhere, and with 5 seconds left, Reuel D’Souza’s tying goal sent the game to a shootout. The shootout must have been a weird case of Déjà vu for Storm coach Nikola Maric. Two years ago in the 19U Men’s National Final, his Storm squad lost a shootout to St-Lambert in the gold medal game. The goalie for St-Lambert in that game, Samuel Reiher, made several excellent saves to win the championship, and none other than Samuel Reiher was now in the nets for Pacific Storm. True to form, Reiher made two excellent saves in the shootout, and this time he helped Storm win a medal at the National Championships.
After the bronze medal games, Saskatchewan and Capital Wave faced off in the women’s gold medal game. After a self-admitted lackluster performance against the Golden Jets in the semi-finals, Saskatchewan came out like gang busters against Wave in the finals. In an instant the score was 5-0 and Wave was facing a deep hole against a very deep Saskatchewan team. Wave found their legs in the 2nd quarter and played Saskatchewan even the rest of the way, but timely goals from Rae Leckness and Adrien Van Dyke, great defensive play from Blaire McDowell, and strong saves from Kelsey Jensen combined to always keep the Wave squad at arms distance. After coming agonizingly close to winning the title last season, falling by one goal to CAMO in the final, Saskatchewan took the final step up the podium in their 12-7 win over Capital Wave to became Canadian Champions.
Only one game remained on the schedule now: Mavericks vs the Toronto Golden Jets for the Men’s Championship. The hometown fans couldn’t have asked for anything more in a final and the crowd was in a frenzy in anticipation of the game. Despite being the #6 seed, the Mavericks were playing top notch water polo in the tournament, and the Jets knew they would have their hands full in this game. The opening of the game followed the Mavericks recurring script, with captain Ronen Gros putting his squad ahead at 6:34 of the first quarter, and then the Mavs putting the Jets offense in a vice. By halftime, Marko Bjelica and Bertelan Koloszi had added goals for Mavericks, while only Euan Scoffield had been able to respond for the Jets. With their offensive shut down, the Jets had to rely on their own defensive skills to return the favour to the Mavs, and keep the game close heading to the 4th quarter. Throughout the 2nd half, the Mavericks couldn’t score any insurance goals, and while they were keeping the Jets at bay, a penalty shot goal for Tuna Tali made the score 3-2 midway through the 3rd. The game was still 3-2 when Euan Scoffield potted his 2nd of the game on a powerplay in the 4th quarter to knot everything up at 3. This game was coming down to the wire. As the game entered the final minute, the Golden Jets called a timeout to set up a play for what could be their final possession. On the restart, the ball swung around to Milos Radojcic, who skipped a bullet under the arm of the Mavericks keeper to give the Jets their first lead of the game. One more defensive stand and they would be champions. Mavericks moved the ball around on their own final possession, but the Jet blocks wouldn’t open, and with time ticking down, Mavericks had to try and squeeze a shot through to tie the game. There just wasn’t enough space to fit the ball through, and after caroming off a block and out of play, the Jets had the championship won. With the win, the Golden Jets erased last year’s finals defeat, and captured their 3rd championship in four years.
The 2017 Senior National Finals we’re filled with excitement from start to finish, and the stage is set for another fantastic championship in 2018 in Montreal.
2017 Senior National Final Results
1- Toronto Golden Jets
3- Pacific Storm
6- Ottawa United
8- Toronto Silver Jets
2- Capital Wave
4- Toronto Golden Jets
6- Ottawa Titans
Individual Awards Winners
Top Goal Scorer - Elyse Lemay-Lavoie - CAMO
Most Valuable Player, Regular season - Verica Bakoc - Mavericks
Most Valuable Defensive Player - Blaire McDowell – Saskatchewan
Most Valuable Goalie - Clara Vulpisi- CAMO
Most Valuable Coach - Cyril Dorgigné - Saskatchewan.
Most Valuable Player, Senior Nationals – Rae Leckness – Saskatchewan
Top Goal Scorer - David Lapins- Ottawa United
Most Valuable Player, Regular Season - David Lapins - Ottawa United
Most Valuable Defensive player - Dusan Radojcic – Mavericks
Most Valuable Goalie - Emirhan Ozdemir - Toronto Golden Jets
Most Valuable Coach - George Gross Jr. - Toronto Golden Jets
Most Valuable Player, Senior Nationals - Euan Scoffield - Toronto Golden Jets