ARBORG — When Connor Yarema looks up into the Arborg Collegiate gymnasium rafters there’s one glaring omission. There are no high school provincial championships sports banners.
The Athletics only have one Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association title to their credit — 38 years ago when the varsity boys’ basketball team captured the provincial crown — but the 1980-81 banner isn’t hanging inside ACI, which was built after that victory.
“When I came here I set a goal that I wanted to be part of a team to put the first one up there,” Grade 12 centre Connor Yarema of Meleb told The Interlake Spectator during practice on March 11. “I blew the chance in (junior varsity) volleyball (in December 2016) and this is my last chance, so we’ve got to try and make it count.”
Yarema and the Arborg varsity boys’ basketball team captured the Zone 5 title with a 77-65 victory over the visiting St. Laurent Hawks on Feb. 22. The Athletics earned their way into A provincials by overcoming a 17-point deficit against the Ross L. Gray Raiders, winning 78-64, in Rosenort on March 2.
The Athletics enters provincials, which runs from March 14 to 16 in Elie, with a 21-3 record seeded second and preparing to face the host St. Paul’s Barons in quarter-final action on March 14 at 5 p.m., in what is expected to be a raucous atmosphere.
“We’ve got some parents coming to support us and hopefully we’ll have a little bit of crowd noise behind us,” Yarema said. “We’re just going to have to ignore it, I guess, and get on our own runs to quiet them down and not let it get in our heads because if we let them get on runs then it’s not going to be good.”
It’s the first high school provincial hoops championship tournament appearance for Yarema and his three fellow Grade 12 teammates: Josh
Hiebert, Nolan Paulson and Liwel Delos Trinos.
“It means a lot,” said Hiebert, a five-foot-11 guard. “Ever since Grade 9, we’ve always been in the gym, we’ve always put in the work for it and it’s nice that it’s paying off.”
The success the Athletics have enjoyed this season is tied to their having adapted to the coaching style of Ian Tarnowski, who is in his second season behind the bench after more than a decade coaching the Gimli Lakers. Arborg has also played quicker and more solidly on defence this season.
“It all starts with our defence and it’s the starting line this year,” Yarema added. “Compared to last year, we’ve got a lot more speed, a little more agility and that’s really helped us this year. Having a second year with our coaches has also helped. Other than that I think it’s just heart.”
Tarnowski agreed with his captain.
“We’re faster and there’s more intensity this year,” he said. “There’s very good team unity this year and guys are going all out. Last year, it was about getting to know the coaches and a new system because basketball in Arborg really wasn’t that big. We kind of built it up last year to this year.”
The Athletics are more of an interior-oriented squad and they will go as far as Yarema takes them.
“Connor’s our guy. He’s our captain, he’s our leader. We go as Connor goes on the floor. If he’s having a really good game then we’re all having a really good game,” Tarnowski added. “He’s motivating in the locker room, on the floor and he works hard at everything he does. If the guys are down he’s talking them up.”
Hiebert also provides an uplifting presence for the Athletics as their sixth man.
“The motivation that he gives us from the bench, cheering on the guys is tremendous, and then when he comes onto the floor he fills in really well,” Tarnowski said.
Seeded in between the No. 1 Pinawa Panthers and No. 3 Treherne Tigers — the only two A-level schools that defeated Arborg this season — the Athletics, which featute Yarema, Paulson, Delos Trinos, Austin Adair and Cadrick Dueck in the starting lineup, are a confident bunch and expectations are high entering their provincial opener.
“We are definitely going to have to play hard,” Hiebert said. “It’s nice because we are in there and we don’t have to play higher teams first, but the games are still going to be tough.”
Even though his team tends be nervous early on in games, Tarnowski believes his team has what it takes to end a 38-year bannerless streak.
“It’s going to take a lot of determination, working together, playing as a team and not getting down on each other,” he said. “We’re playing a lot of good teams.
“We’ve got the team to bring it home and I believe we will get the job done.”
Gimli seeded fourth at AA provincials
The Gimli Lakers varsity boys’ hoops team will be at Immanuel Christian School in Winnipeg for AA provincials from March 14 to 16, and they are seeded fourth.
Gimli will face the fifth-seeded Steinbach Christian Flames in quarter-final action on March 14 at noon, as the Lakers aim for their second provincial title in three years.