The Kahnawake Hunters will take their first-round playoff series on the road tonight (Friday) as they faceoff against the Halton Hills Bulldogs in Georgetown, Ontario.
The series is currently tied up 1-1 in Ontario Junior B Lacrosse League (OJBLL) action.
It follows an up-and-down season for the Hunters, who had a 9-11 record in the regular season, losing three of their last four to stumble into the postseason.
Their record, though, does not tell the full story. Five of their 20 regular season games were played against the 18-2 juggernaut Nepean Knights. Hunters’ coach Garrett Cree emphasized the growth he had seen from the team and the stellar play of the veterans throughout a turbulent season.
“The team improved together, as a group,” said Cree.
Defenceman Kaymen Diabo, who has tallied a goal and four assists in two playoff games so far, also feels confident about how far the Hunters have come.
“I feel really good about going 9-11 because last year we went 3-17, so it’s a big change of momentum for this team going forward,” said Diabo, 19.
The Hunters, who are the only OJBLL team in Quebec, kicked off their best-of-five first-round playoff series against the Halton Hills Bulldogs last Saturday.
Unlike the Hunters, the Bulldogs coasted through the regular season, finishing with a 14-6 record in the regular season, good for third in the eastern conference.
The Hunters’ coach is aware of the formidable nature of their opponent, but is embracing the fresh start that the playoffs present.
“The playoffs are tight, and each team is even strength,” said Cree.
The Hunters played at home for the first two games, and stunned the Bulldogs with a strong win in their first game – down 4-3 after the first period, they stormed back over the next two periods to win 10-7.
The Hunters fought from start to finish in their second game, but a second period in which they conceded five goals ultimately helped push the Bulldogs to an 11-7 victory.
Mike Hancock, president and general manager of the Bulldogs, is well aware of the challenges presented by playing in Kahnawake.
“I think we were pretty happy to get the split given the challenges of playing in a difficult building. They’re a really well-coached team, and it’s a really tough place to win,” said Hancock.
The second game was also decided in the penalty box, with the Hunters as a team totalling 24 penalty minutes compared to only 12 tallied by the Bulldogs. This discrepancy is something that looks to be a major factor as the final three games of this series are set to be played at Halton Hills, said Cree.
“If we stay out of the penalty box, then we’ll give ourselves a better opportunity to win,” he said.
Defenceman Watharonhia’khahsi Diabo, who has been with the Hunters since 2018, echoed these sentiments and stressed the need for the team to do better.
“We got away from what works and we didn’t play like ourselves and how Kahnawake knows we can play. We took way too many penalties and that ultimately cost us the game,” said Diabo.
The Hunters will definitely miss their home crowd, as the fanbase has shown support for them that has not gone unnoticed.
“There’s a lot of passion in Kahnawake, and that’s what is needed to be a great competitor,” said Cree.
While the coach is laser-focused on game planning for the remainder of the series against the Bulldogs, he and the players took time to emphasize what it means to have this opportunity in Kahnawake youth sports.
“Being a part of organized lacrosse is one big family, really. It helped make life-long friendships,” said Watharonhia’khahsi, 21.
“Watching our kids compete and grow into dependable athletes (is the highlight of the job),” said Cree.
The Hunters play their third game against the Bulldogs at 8 p.m. tonight (Friday).
This article was originally published in print on Friday, June 30, in issue 32.26 of The Eastern Door.