Sports

Column: Schmidt's Olympic performance among the highlights during memorable year in Abbotsford sports

Sophie Schmidt celebrated with teammates after winning women
Sophie Schmidt celebrated with teammates after winning women's soccer bronze at the London Games. Schmidt's journey to the Olympic podium thrilled local fans.
— image credit: Canadian Olympic Committee file photo

I'm a bit of a sentimental sap, so before the last hours of 2012 slip away, allow me to meander through some of the athletes, teams and moments I'll remember from the past 12 months on the Abbotsford sports scene.

SCHMIDT SPARKLED AT OLYMPICS

The moment I realized Sophie Schmidt and the Canadian women's soccer team had truly captured the nation's attention came at a couple ticks past 5 a.m. on Aug. 9.

That's when my bleary-eyed wife came staggering out of our bedroom and plopped down on the couch beside me to watch Abbotsford product Schmidt, Christine Sinclair and Co. battle France for the Olympic bronze medal.

My wife's enthusiasm for sports waxes and wanes – she loves football, has a passing interest in basketball and hockey, and enjoys baseball when the Blue Jays are good (which is to say, not since 1993). Soccer wasn't even on her radar until the London Games – ergo, my stunned expression when she emerged to watch the bronze medal match.

What ensued was an absurdly dramatic 1-0 victory, and Schmidt had a hand in Diana Matheson's game-winning goal in injury time. It marked the completion of an emotional roller-coaster ride for the Canadian squad, coming as it did in the wake of a devastating 4-3 loss to the United States in the semifinals – a controversial contest which briefly made Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen a household name.

After the Olympics, I had the privilege of chatting with Schmidt on a couple occasions – when she arrived to a hero's welcome at Vancouver International Airport with teammates Sinclair, Karina LeBlanc and Emily Zurrer on Aug. 13, and at a private reception with friends and family in Abbotsford on Aug. 18.

It was special to watch Schmidt get a taste of the passion that her team's performance had generated back home. It was even more special to see how she responded to her higher level of celebrity.

Just like on the pitch, the 24-year-old midfielder was everywhere, leveraging her fame for a wide variety of good causes. There were autograph signings on behalf of Magnuson Ford Mariners FC, the minor soccer club she grew up in; visits to former schools Howe Middle and W.J. Mouat Secondary; appearances in support of the End Polio Now campaign with the Rotary Club of Abbotsford; and a speaking date at the City of Character Youth Forum, among many other engagements.

"I don’t want to turn anything down because you don’t know how long it’s going to last," she said. "The support has been phenomenal and I like giving back, so it’s hard for me to say no."

Add it all up, and Schmidt's 2012 legacy is one all of Abbotsford can be proud of.

She wasn't the only local to thrill in London – Mission swimmer Brent Hayden won bronze in the 100-metre freestyle, Abbotsford resident Mike Mason came up just shy of the podium in the high jump, and Mission's Teresa Gabriele and Kim Smith helped the Canadian women's basketball team to the quarter-finals.

PILOTS SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS

I'll never forget the wonderment in Abbotsford Pilots general manager/owner Jack Goeson's voice when I reached him on his cellphone in Saskatoon on April 22.

The Pilots had just captured the Keystone Cup, emblematic of Western Canadian junior B hockey supremacy, with a 9-1 win over the Thunder Bay Northern Hawks in the title game. Goeson has operated the local franchise since 1990, and while his teams had been perennial contenders, the closest they'd come to winning the Keystone was a third-place finish back in 2000.

"It feels pretty nice, almost unbelievable," marveled Goeson, whose squad also won the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship. "There's a lot of emotion after so many years of trying to get this."

The Pilots, coached by Jim Cowden, were decisively the best of the six teams at the Western Canadians, out-scoring opponents 35-6 over the course of five victories. Their top line of tourney MVP Justin Dorey, Riley Lamb and Kevin Lourens led the way, combining for a ridiculous 22 goals and 52 points in six games.

CASCADES BREAK THROUGH

2012 might go down as the greatest in the history of the University of the Fraser Valley athletic department.

That would be thanks to the men's and women's basketball teams, and the women's volleyball squad.

Head coach Dennis Bokenfohr's volleyballers staged a breakthrough in 2011-12, punching their ticket to the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) women's national championship and making good with a bronze medal. It's been more of the same this fall – the Cascades lead the PacWest conference at 11-1, and have earned the No. 1 national ranking for the first time in program history.

The UFV men's hoopsters rode dramatic wins over the Lethbridge Pronghorns and the Victoria Vikes to their first CIS national championship berth, where they finished fourth. Despite head coach Barnaby Craddock's departure for the University of Alberta in June, the Cascades are elite again this fall, as new bench boss Adam Friesen has them ranked No. 6 in the nation.

Al Tuchscherer took a patient approach to building the UFV women's basketball program, instituting a hyper-local recruiting blueprint. It's paying off – the Cascades made it to the CIS regionals the last two years, and this fall they're 9-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

HEAT REWRITE RECORDS

I spend a lot of time watching Abbotsford Heat games, and what I'll remember most from the AHL club in 2012 were the record-breaking performances.

The first, I didn't even actually see. On Nov. 1, the Heat scored twice against the Toronto Marlies in a span of three seconds – shorthanded, no less – to set a new AHL mark for fastest two goals by the same team. Following Steve McCarthy's breakaway goal, Heat centre Ben Street chopped the puck forward off the centre-ice faceoff. Marlies goalie Ben Scrivens was staring up at the jumbotron watching a replay of the previous goal, and the puck went through his legs.

Maybe a handful of people at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre actually saw Street's goal – most fans were watching the screen like Scrivens, and journalists like myself were typing madly in the press box. Even the Heat's video crew missed it, though grainy footage was eventually recovered from an overhead camera.

Goalie Barry Brust rewrote the AHL record book in more gradual fashion – he broke Hockey Hall of Famer Johnny Bower's 55-year-old mark for longest shutout streak over a period of 36 days.

On Oct. 20, Brust allowed a shot by Zack Kassian of the Chicago Wolves to slip by him at 8:19 of the first period. He kept the Wolves off the board for the rest of the game, then reeled off three straight shutouts. On Nov. 24, James Wright of the San Antonio Rampage finally snapped his streak at 16:36 of the second period.

When it was all said and done, Brust's shutout stretch was 268 minutes, 17 seconds, besting Bower's record of 249:51.

NEAR-MISSES FOR HADWIN, LEPP

On Oct. 28, a decorative couch pillow went flying across the Kinvig living room after James Hahn knocked down a short birdie putt on the 18th hole of the final round at the Web.com Tour Championship.

I was watching the live broadcast on the Golf Channel, and Hahn's birdie gave him sole possession of second place, simultaneously knocking Abbotsford's Adam Hadwin out of the projected top 25 on the Web.com Tour money list.

Had Hadwin been able to maintain his spot in the top 25, a PGA Tour card for 2013 would have been his.

"He (Hahn) is a great competitor and a great guy," Hadwin said after the heartbreaking drama had played itself out. "He even apologized to me after, but I told him not to.

"I did the best I could. I'll have more chances."

Indeed, even though Hadwin came up two strokes shy of earning a card at the third stage of PGA Q-School in late November, it seems just a matter of time before he's on the PGA Tour.

Fellow Abbotsford golfer James Lepp reasserted himself this fall, making a thrilling run to the final episode of Big Break Greenbrier, a Golf Channel reality show.

Lepp appeared to have first prize – which included $50,000 cash and an exemption into the PGA Tour's 2013 Greenbrier Classic – well in hand, with a three-up lead with five holes to go in the match-play finale. But opponent Mark Silvers made a ridiculous rally, winning four of the last five holes to steal the victory.

Lepp, the 2005 NCAA champ, put his playing career on the back burner in 2008 to start up Kikkor Golf, a shoe and apparel company. But being on Big Break Greenbrier reignited his passion for golf, and he's now leaning towards hitting the PGA Tour Canada circuit (formerly the Canadian Tour) in the spring.

HIGH SCHOOL HIGHLIGHTS

The Abbotsford high school sports scene was as rich with storylines as ever.

The most dominant performance came from the Abby Collegiate senior girls rugby team – they won the B.C. sevens title in April, out-scoring opponents 218-5 along the way, and followed that up with an encore performance at AA 15s provincials in May, blasting foes by a combined 192-3 margin.

The wrestling dynasty at Rick Hansen Secondary kept rolling along, as the Hurricanes senior boys team defended their B.C. title behind gold medals from Jobanjit Phulka and Justin Gill.

I had the privilege of being in the gym at MEI Middle School on Nov. 24 to watch the Eagles junior boys volleyball team win the provincial championship at home. This might be the most talented group of volleyballers ever assembled at longtime powerhouse MEI, and their march to the title was highlighted by a perfect 25-0 set against Oak Bay in the quarter-finals. Is that any good?

Over at Mouat Secondary, classmates Tristan Etienne and Maleek Irons were crafting memorable performances on their own. The 6'9" Etienne, one of Canada's top basketball prospects in the class of 2014, made a courageous return to game action with the Hawks basketball team just five weeks after open heart surgery.

Irons set a new B.C. high school football record for rushing yards in a season, racking up 3,304 yards and 44 touchdowns on the ground to surpass the 3,173 yards registered by Reg Bradshaw of the Centennial Centaurs in 2001.

BIG-TIME EVENTS

Abbotsford bills itself as Sports Town Canada, and in 2012, the city played host to more than enough major events to befit the moniker.

I won't soon forget the electricity in the Columbia Bible College gym in March, as the Bearcats men's volleyball team hosted the CCAA men's national championship. The defending champ CBC men finished fourth, while the Humber Hawks ended a 29-year Ontario title drought by beating the Douglas Royals in the final.

In September, Abbotsford's refurbished BMX track welcomed the first-ever BMX Supercross World Cup event to be held in Canada. Laura Smulders and Twan van Gendt of the Netherlands won the women's and men's races, respectively, in the final event of the World Cup season.

The Canadian seniors curling championships, held in March at Abbotsford Recreation Centre, brought together an impressive collection of old-school curling stars, including Colleen Jones, Cathy King, Heidi Hanlon and Pierre Charette, among others. Alberta rinks skipped by King and Rob Armitage won the women's and men's titles, respectively.

LOOKING AHEAD

There's so much to look forward to just within the first couple weeks of 2013.

Abbotsford product Boseko Lokombo and his Oregon Ducks battle the Kansas State Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. The Snowball Classic at Abby Senior, the most anticipated tournament on the high school boys basketball scene, tips off Jan. 9-13. On Jan. 12, Craddock makes his return to UFV with the Alberta Golden Bears. And on Jan. 11-12, the Heat host the Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks' affiliate, injecting excitement into a populace starved for hockey during the NHL lockout.

I firmly believe that Abbotsford has the most fascinating, most diverse and most excellent sports scene of any city its size in Canada, and if you're searching for a New Year's resolution, consider getting out more frequently to support our local athletes and teams.

More often than not, you'll spot me in the back row scribbling in a notepad, loving my job.

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