Essex Red Raiders eye one more chapter to historic season.

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ESSEX – The Essex Red Raiders would like to add one more chapter to what has been an historic season.

One of the first school’s to begin play in WECSSAA girls’ hockey when it was introduced in 2003, the Red Raiders had never won a championship until this year. The club followed it up with the school’s first-ever SWOSSAA title.

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Now, the club will make its first trip to the OFSAA girls’ AA/A championship and begin play on Tuesday in search of the first medal in program history. Essex is the area’s lone school headed to an OFSAA championship.

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“I don’t know where I’m going (to school) next year, but I won’t be playing hockey after this year,” said centre Lydia Pope, who is one of four Grade 12 students on the Essex roster. “All the seasons I’ve been played for the Raiders have been developing, every year since I started. So, to come this far and see all the work you’ve put in payoff, it’s really rewarding.”

Head coach Cory McAiney admits he had modest expectations for this season after losing five players to graduation last season.

“We lost five starters last year and two were on the (Windsor) Wildcats that got D1 scholarships,” McAiney said. “So, I thought we would be rebuilding and then we had tryouts and we were loaded with Grade 9’s and 10’s that were first-line players.”

Members of the Essex Red Raiders listen to instructions during the team's final practice at the Essex Centre Sports Complex as the team prepares for the OFSAA girls' A/AA hockey championship, which begins Tuesday.
Members of the Essex Red Raiders listen to instructions during the team’s final practice at the Essex Centre Sports Complex as the team prepares for the OFSAA girls’ A/AA hockey championship, which begins Tuesday. (WINDSOR STAR – JIM PARKER) win

Essex conceded just six goals in 10 games during the regular season and added a semifinal shutout win with Grade 12 Rebecca MacFarlane handling most of the work in net, which included another shutout by a 1-0 count on the road over Lambton Central to take the SWOSSAA title.

“As the season went on and we kept racking up wins, we’re shutting down teams along and we limited shots,” McAiney said.  “Lambton Central’s a provincial powerhouse that has been to OFSAA a number of times.”

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And the offence has found plenty of spark led by 15-year-old Brynn Bellmore, who is only in Grade 10 and was among WECESSAA’s top scorers while also providing the game-winning goal in the SWOSSAA final.

“Our forecheck’s pretty strong, so we gain offence from that and find each other from that,” the five-foot-three Bellmore said. “We went in thinking we could play with any team.”

Essex is the No. 8 seed in the 16-team OFSAA tournament in a pool featuring No. 2 Winham F.E. Madill, No. 11 Courtice Holy Trinity and No. 13 Georgian Bay District. The club will need a top two finish in pool play to advance to quarter-final play.

“We’ve definitely come a long way,” said 16-year-old Katie Sylvestre, who is in Grade 11 and will flip between defence and forward. “It’s a big jump to make it to OFSAA after not winning WECSSAA the last two years.

“The vibe in the dressing room, there’s a lot of new girls, but you would think we were friends forever. We’re not going to go in too confident. We’re going to go in and play our hardest. Just stay calm and play our hardest.”

As the Red Raiders’ confidence has grown all season, McAiney think his team is ready to shine at an OFSSA event where the periods are shorter, there are multiple games in a short stretch and teams tend to lean heavily on offensive dominance in hopes of winning.

“We’re built for this tournament style,” said McAiney, who has coached the team for four years. “Playoff hockey’s not about outscoring teams, but little battles and penalties kills. You don’t win 8-1 games, you may have the odd game, but it’s mostly tight hockey and we just roll three lines.”

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