June 23rd, 2024

2021 was a year of change for Pronghorns

By Dale Woodard on January 4, 2022.

To say the least, it’s been a year of transition for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns athletics in 2021.

As the Horns head into 2022 with their Canada West season back after losing the 2020-21 season to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Lethbridge athletic director Neil Langevin saluted his department for thriving in the face of change, and in the case of a few sports, some new faces on staff.

“I think the word around here is ‘change,'” said Langevin.

“There have been some changes that we wanted and there have been some changes we didn’t want. To be frank, the limitations in funding due to the provincial cutbacks have been a real challenge for the department over the last five years. But we’re really proud of our department, not just the coaches. We’ve had staff who have changed roles and we’ve lost staff. But for those coaches, we’re building something here of trying to be positive and outlooking in our community and I’m really happy with the growth our department has seen over the last two years.”

And in the fall, Canada West play returned after getting sidelined the year before as Pronghorn athletics took the field, the court and the swimming pool.

“We were ecstatic for the athletes to actually get back to a spot where they could compete,” said Langevin.

“They trained and they were really resilient. They had gone through COVID and had not just their schooling taken away and other things, but the ability to compete. That first weekend when we had a triple header, we were over the moon to see those players compete and the smiles were abundant.”

The Pronghorns men’s and women’s soccer teams as well as the women’s rugby team kicked it all off with a triple-header and marathon day of sports Sept. 18 at the University of Lethbridge Stadium.

The women’s soccer team hosted the Grant MacEwan Griffins before the men took on the Mount Royal University Cougars. The rugby team capped off the day with Game 1 of the Suggitt Cup versus the Alberta Pandas.

Langevin credited the players and coaches for keeping in game shape over the course of the past year as the pandemic wiped out the season.

“Our coaches were really mindful of it and we actually did have a bit more extended training camps and that was really to mitigate injury first,” he said.

“But to get them back into the speed of playing and some of the kids coming in didn’t even get the chance to play some of their high school sports as well. There was quite a bit of concern, but the coaches and players did a really great job of preparing themselves.”

On the pitch, the men’s soccer team went 0-8-2, but Langevin said their record wasn’t indicative of their season.

“The men’s soccer team, I thought they were so competitive,” he said.

“I don’t think their record really was just. They ran Mount Royal tight here and all of their games were really physical. I was really impressed overall with the competitiveness of our men’s soccer team. Results are what they were, but we were happy with their competitiveness.”

Under new head coach Macky Singh, hired at the end March, the Horns went 2-9-1, ending their season with a tie and a win against the Cougars at the U of L Stadium at the end of October.

“The girls came in with a new coach this year and they were quite a bit more competitive,” said Langevin. “Percentage wise, we had our best year in terms of wins and we’re going to continue to try and build that program up.”

Another new face joined Horns athletics in early-June when Graeme Moffat was named the fourth head coach in program history.

Under Moffat’s watch, the Pronghorns went 3-3 in the regular season to clinch a playoff spot.

However, the Horns fell 36-7 in the Canada West semifinals to the Victoria Vikes Oct. 28 in Calgary and then dropped a 29-19 decision to the Calgary Dinos in the bronze medal game.

“Graeme is really unique,” said Langevin.

“He’s a really high energy coach and brings a lot of expertise to the program. We’re really happy, we moved to third in conference play. The girls would be really disappointed with their semifinal loss, but getting to the semifinals was a pretty good accomplishment for this group. (They were) fairly veteran up front. In the backs we were quite young and Graeme is going to have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years to continue recruiting. But I’m really confident that his skillset as a coach and a recruiter is going to shine brightly.”

In the pool, the Pronghorns spent the past fall rewriting school record books, led by first-year swimmer Apollo Hess.

At the end of November in Edmonton, Hess joined his Pronghorns teammates at his first Canada West Championship and continued to put his name in the record books with a five-medal performance that included setting new Canada West records in the 50m and 200m breaststroke.

Hess also won silver in the 100m breaststroke and then joined teammates Chris Alexander, Parker Brown and Raine Arden for a bronze medal in the 4 X 100 medley relay.

He also teamed up with Brown, Arden and Adam Stromberg to win silver in the 4X100 freestyle relay, just behind the UBC Thunderbirds for top spot.

Those performances earned Hess the male Swimmer of the Meet and the Rookie of the Year awards.

Pronghorn Chris Alexander also made the podium in Edmonton, building on his 2019 Canada West bronze medal with a silver medal in the 50m backstroke.

In the team standings, the Pronghorn men placed fifth with 292.5 points, while the women’s side finished sixth with 196.5 points.

The Pronghorns now gear up for the 2022 U SPORTS Championship, hosted by the Laval Rouge et Or, Feb. 25-27 in Quebec City.

“In swimming, our men are the highest-ranking ever. We’re ranked sixth in the country,” said Langevin.

In basketball, the Pronghorns women shrugged off an 0-4 start to the season with four straight wins to sit at 4-4 at the Christmas break, good for second place in the Central Division.

“Dave Waknuk has been just stellar as a coach in the last two years,” said Langevin of the Horns women’s head coach.

“It’s a pretty good recruiting group this year. They’re competitive in every game. They’ve dropped a couple to nationally-ranked teams and I think they’re going to do well in the second half as well. I expect them to get a couple of surprise wins over the Pandas and Dinos and gear up for playoffs. But they’re only going to get better, they’ve had some injuries and health issues along the way.”

In his first season at the helm after being hired in 2020, Pronghorns men’s head coach Jermaine Small and the men’s team finished the first half at 3-5 following a sweep over the MacEwan Griffins earlier this month. They’re in fourth place in the Canada West Central Division.

“Men’s basketball is a really unique group,” said Langevin.

“They are the most athletic group I’ve ever seen play basketball here. They don’t have an identity yet, they’re continuing to work on that and I think that’s what we’ve seen so far, a younger team. They excel at times and at other times, they struggle. I think under the leadership with Jermaine, he’s going to help them out.”

Langevin said he expects both basketball teams to be competitive and challenge in the playoffs.

What’s better, the Pronghorns get to host a Canada West men’s basketball playoff.

“I can guarantee all the teams that may come to play here in Lethbridge are not going to want to play the Pronghorns,” said Langevin.

As the basketball and swim teams head into 2022, they’ll be joined by the kick off of Pronghorns track and field.

“We will expect some national medals again this year and for those teams to be ranked in the top-10,” said Langevin.

“Larry (Steinke, Pronghorns’ head coach) has a lot with the throws and he’s recruited quite well. We have a couple of blue-chip recruits in the throws and lots of returning athletes who are doing quite well.”

Langevin said in the past few years the Horns have improved in their sprints and jumps.

“Larry has a new-look team. We’ve cut the number of athletes on that team. They’re going to get more focus and we’re quite confident in Larry’s skill to be able to develop young athletes and grow them and compete on the highest levels.”

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