A young West Kootenay Pee Wee Wildcat practices her shot at the Cominco Arena.

A young West Kootenay Pee Wee Wildcat practices her shot at the Cominco Arena.

Trail sisters breathe new life into West Kootenay Wildcats

Coaches Katie and McKayla Yuris rebuild a girls’ hockey culture with the West Kootenay Wildcats

When Katie and McKayla Yuris started coaching the Pee Wee Girls West Kootenay Wildcats last season, they didn’t expect success so soon.

But on Sunday, West Kootenay won gold at the Kamloops Pee Wee Girls Rec Tournament over Vernon, scoring with seconds left in regulation to break a 2-2 tie and capture the Wildcats first tournament title of the season.

“I’ve never been in a game like that,” said coach Katie Yuris. “I’ve never seen a game like that, that was so impressive … I’m really proud of them and how they showed up every game.”

The Wildcats beat Langley, Surrey, Kamloops, and Vernon on the way to the final. West Kootenay and Vernon played a tight defensive game that was tied 2-2 with just 24 seconds remaining and the face off in the Vernon zone. The Kootenay bench called a time out, and set the play – the Wildcats executed.

“(The first chance) It went crossbar, ting, and out,” said Katie. “Then we get another draw, she wins it again, and we get another shot from the slot and it goes in top shelf from our captain with 4.1 seconds left.”

The West Kootenay team, which hosts the provincials in March, has come a long way in just over a year, thanks in large part to the dedication of the Yuris sisters. Katie and McKayla both played high-performance hockey, capping off their Kootenay careers with the Midget AAA Wildcats, from which they both were offered scholarships to SAIT.

And like most girls starting out in hockey, the Trail products played with the boys in Novice and Atoms before joining a girls team in Pee Wee.

“Playing boys hockey was different, not necessarily bad,” said McKayla. “When we started girls hockey, it’s not just the sport, it’s literally you get to hang out with your friends every single day and do something that you all love together.”

Rebuilding that culture was paramount in the Yuris’ plans when they first took on their coaching roles. They wanted to contribute to girls hockey and coached a year of Bantam to prepare young players for the Female Midget AAA Kootenay Wild (formerly Wildcats) program. But following the capitulation of the Wild team last year, the duo realized it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

“It’s just time, and that’s why we decided to go down from Bantam is because you have to build it from somewhere and have to build that momentum going up,” said Katie. “We’re a growing program. Last year we had two lines, and this year we have three full lines and six ‘D’ and we also have eight APs (affiliate players).”

After this year, McKayla and Katie will move up with many of the players to Bantam for two years. If all goes to plan, the group will culminate with the restoration of the AAA Midget Wild team to the BC Hockey League.

“What we’re hoping is to bring in someone who we can feel comfortable leaving, and then doing it with the next program, staying for two years, building it so it’s successful enough so we can go to that Major Midget stage,” said Katie.

The Wildcats are made up of 11-12 year-old players from Greater Trail, Nelson, Nakusp, Grand Forks, and Castlegar. Parents drive and car pool to make at least one practice per week and then play in the Greater Trail Minor Hockey Association’s (GTMHA) Pee Wee league during the season, with four tournaments scheduled throughout the year.

Courtenay Jones’ daughter, Jordana, joined the Wildcats as an underaged player last season, and the experience has been a revelation for the 11-year-old’s mom.

“She loves it,” said Courtenay. “It’s a great program. She’s never asked not to go to hockey. She goes every day, tries hard, and she’s progressed like you can’t imagine.”

While, parents are vital to minor hockey and the Wildcat program, having two qualified coaches without that parental connection to any one player is a benefit for all.

“This isn’t just all about hockey,” said Katie. “We’re trying to give them life lessons as well as hockey lessons. But for us too, we learn every day. We’re not parents so we’re learning stuff for our future, which is pretty cool.”

As a coaching tandem, the sisters compliment each other well. Both starred for the AAA Kootenay team, with the 22-year-old McKayla bringing her defensive expertise to the table, while Katie, 24, was a top forward. A career highlight for the sisters includes their selection to the 2011 Female AAA Midget All Star Team, where McKayla assisted on Katie’s goal in the All Star Game.

Taking that next step – coaching together in a hockey hot-bed and the town they grew up in – is not so bad either.

“It’s probably the best thing you can ask for,” said McKayla. “We do have our differences of opinion all the time, but as you grow older some siblings may separate, but this is such a passionate thing we’ve been doing our whole lives, so it’s been awesome to work with my sister on this, and just to give back to our community is huge.”

As for the team, the result in Kamloops speaks volumes, as the players continue to improve and thrive under the Yuris’ direction.

“These girls, these coaches, in my eyes, are the best ones I’ve seen in this area,” added Jones. “Because they just are all about the kids.”

The Wildcats play in the Castlegar Pee Wee Tournament this weekend with their opening match at 2:30 p.m. Friday at the Castlegar Rec Complex.

The Wildcats are also raising funds for upcoming tournaments and the provincials in March. Residents can help the team by donating and dropping off recyclable bottles and cans into the Wildcats bin at the Trail Recycling Centre until Nov. 30.

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