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St. Paul and Notre Dame win at handball zones

St. Paul Regional High School and École Notre Dame High School won this year's NEASAA zone handball banners.

ASHMONT - After two days of competition, this year's NEASAA handball champions were decided in Ashmont on May 4.

While handball is perhaps one of the lesser known sports in the region, both the boys' and girls' sides welcomed three teams to the competition.

On the boys' side, Mallaig, École Notre Dame (Bonnyville) and Two Hills schools had teams taking part. On the girls' side, Mallaig, École Notre Dame (Bonnyville) and St. Paul Regional High School had teams competing. 

The team from St. Paul Regional was the first ever handball team put together at the school - and the girls managed to win the final game against the Mallaig Stingers by a score of 19-18. 

"At the beginning of the year, we didn’t set out to have a handball team at regional,” explains head coach Haley Ozga. But, over the course of the school year, a group of girls gathered interest in the sport.  

A quick impromptu meeting was held, and more than 20 girls who were interested in playing showed up.

“They thought it would be something fun to try," said Ozga, who was the perfect candidate to coach the team.

"I was really, really blessed to go to Mallaig (School) and the handball program in Mallaig has been spectacular,” explains Ozga, who played the sport during her high school years, with her last competitive season taking place when she graduated high school in 2015.

Ozga, along with her sister and other area athletes, even had the opportunity to play handball at the provincial level. She credits her former high school handball coach Ian MacGillivray for her own success in handball, saying "he grew a love for the sport in us."

And so when the group of students at St. Paul Regional High School expressed interest in trying out the sport, Ozga, who now teaches at the high school, felt it was a great opportunity to give back and coaching the girls seemed like a perfect fit.

With a bit of a late start to the season, the main goal was to learn the game, and take part in any tournaments they could. The St. Paul team was able to sneak into one tournament and had an exhibition game ahead of the NEASAA zone tournament in Ashmont.

Ozga says the team had fun with the season, and she personally had to put in some extra work to learn drills and tips for coaching. Much of the information that's available online isn't in English, which proves to be a bit of a challenge.

So, Ozga reached out to some of her former teammates and others she knew for direction.

Speaking to the team's performance at zones, Ozga admits that the team "would have been happy with any outcome," so heading into the finals against Mallaig was a bonus. With a unique opportunity this season for all three competing teams in the zone to be able to move on to provincials, it was nice to earn their spot. 

“We’re excited for the opportunity to keep playing," says Ozga, who hopes to continue to grow the sport in St. Paul.

When asked what it is specifically that she loves about handball, Ozga says she loves "the intensity." Handball calls on a lot of different skills that athletes pick up playing other sports, and "it's just a fun game to play."

The final zone game between the SPRHS Saints and the Mallaig Stingers on Wednesday was a close one. At one point, Mallaig pulled ahead, but the Saints "hunkered down" and "the girls really dug deep and found that last little big of energy... it really truly could have gone any way," says Ozga, adding, she would have been proud of her team regardless of the outcome.

In the boys' final, École Notre Dame High School won the final match against the Mallaig School boys' team by a score of 29-16.

Team handball provincials will take place May 13-14.

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Janice Huser

About the Author: Janice Huser

Janice Huser has been with the St. Paul Journal since 2006. She is a graduate of the SAIT print media journalism program, is originally from St. Paul and has a passion for photography.
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