The 2022-23 season has gone très bien thus far for L'école francophone d'Airdrie's senior girls' basketball squad, who have a new accomplishment to celebrate.
After opening their season with 10 wins in a row, the Griffons were recently listed ninth in the Alberta Schools Athletic Association's (ASAA) top 10 rankings for 1A senior girls' basketball teams.
According to head coach and École francophone d'Airdrie teacher Denis Gagnon, it was the first time the Ravenswood-based team had ever cracked the ASAA's top 10 provincial rankings.
“We’ve had a great year,” Gagnon said. “We started off the year with 10 wins in a row, and most recently, this last weekend, we were at a tournament in Camrose called the Quint Tournament.”
Gagnon explained the Quint Tournament was a good gauge for the Griffons, as it included 20 of the top 1A teams from across Alberta.
“We ended up finishing fourth out of those 20 teams, so we were quite competitive and it was nice to go there and play some competitive games,” he said. “All four games were nice and tight.”
The 1A classification includes the smallest high schools in Alberta. In order to be considered a 1A team, a school needs to have fewer than 100 students enrolled in grades 10 to 12.
While École francophone d'Airdrie is a kindergarten to Grade 12 school, their enrolment for the three highest grades is below that 100-student threshold.
Despite a smaller player pool to choose from, Gagnon said the Griffons were able to put together a strong, knowledgeable, and disciplined roster this year.
“My team is comprised of a bunch of amazing kids,” he said. “They’re there to have fun, but they work hard and do all those little things right, with regard to the attitude and behaviours needed to succeed.
“Skill-wise, they listen. I can tell them on the fly to do something mid-game that we’ve never even practiced, and they’ll go out and do it. It’s rare to have a team that understands the game like that, and they have great leadership as well.”
The Griffons also have a distinct advantage that can often catch their opponents off-guard – their bilingualism. Gagnon said his ability to converse with his players in French during a game can often mask their tactics.
“If you watch us, about half of it is French and then they transition to English within one sentence,” he said. “They understand the advantage of speaking French during the game so the other team doesn’t know what is happening.”
Adding to the impressive nature of the Griffons' recent top-10 ranking is the fact they face a rather unique challenge compared to other local schools. Because École francophone d'Airdrie is part of Conseil Scolaire FrancoSud – the Francophone school district for all of southern Alberta – the Griffons don't play in a regular league.
As a result of the FrancoSud district's wide geography and differing school sizes, a basketball league simply isn't feasible, which limits the Griffons to competing at exhibition games and weekend tournaments.
“We’re not part of the Rocky View league or the CBE league,” Gagnon explained. “We’re kind of in limbo when it comes to league play. We have to do tournaments and book exhibition games, which is always difficult, because everyone else has their league play and they don’t always have time.”
Regardless of that adversity, the Griffons have soldiered on to become one of Alberta's top 10 teams at the 1A level this year. And considering they went toe-to-toe with three of the teams ranked above them at their recent tournament in Camrose, Gagnon said the team's objective for the rest of the season is to qualify for the ASAA 1A provincial tournament, which will be held next month in Stirling, in southern Alberta.
“It would be a fun experience to make it,” the coach said, adding the Griffons would first have to win the South Central Zones 1A tournament in order to qualify for provincials. “It’s definitely our team goal, to be there this year.”
The team will be back on the hard court on Feb. 8, when the Griffons make the short drive down East Lake Boulevard to take on the Bert Church Chargers' junior-varsity girls' team in an exhibition game.
While coaching a sports team is a time-consuming extracurricular activity for high-school teachers, Gagnon said the Griffons players' positive attitudes have made the time commitment more than worth it this year.
“They’re great individuals and a pleasure to coach,” he said. “All this is volunteer time, but when you have great kids and watch them grow and develop, it’s just worth every second of your time. It’s been a fun season.”