Two local girls helped the B.C. junior girls goalball team win gold this month at the national championship in Brantford, Ontario.
Jessica Rideout, 12, of Kootenay Bay and Courtland Northcott, 17, of Nelson were among the newest recruits to the team, which went undefeated in six games.
Goalball is played by blind or visually impaired athletes and is a bit of a cross between soccer and bowling. Teams of three try to score on each other by throwing a ball into a net the width of a volleyball court.
All players wear eyeshades to ensure no one has a visual advantage, and the ball has a bell in it, providing an aural cue when defending the net.
Both Rideout and Northcott have been practicing weekly for about a year and a half with Nelson coach Ken Spencer and teacher Sofeya Devji. Both girls have limited vision, while other members of the B.C. team were fully blind.
Northcott debuted at the national tournament last year where B.C. secured silver, while Rideout, the youngest member, made her first trip.
Despite limited experience, both had their fair share of action.
“I got quite a bit of playing time,” Rideout says. “More than I expected. In your first and second year, it’s just observing, whereas in your third, fourth, fifth year you get to play every game.”
Players on the junior squad range in age from 12 to 20. The other three were from Penticton, Surrey, and Montreal (the latter was added because Quebec has no provincial team).
Although they knew each other from different activities, they didn’t train as a group before the tournament began at the W. Ross MacDonald school for the blind.
“That’s the funny thing about our team,” Northcott says. “We do really well together even though we don’t practice together.”
B.C. beat New Brunswick in the semi-final to advance to the title match against Alberta.
Rideout and Northcott sat it out, but say it was thrilling.
“The final was so epic,” Northcott says. “The first half, the defense for both teams was insane. They could block everything.”
Games are played in 10-minute halves, except the finals which are 12 minutes. While goalball can be high scoring, it was 0-0 at the midpoint.
“After that it was really intense,” Northcott says. “It was the best game I’ve seen for all the girls. So much blocking and effort put into it, yet it was still fun.”
B.C. finally scored to win 1-0, and even then it was by fluke.
“The only reason we got the goal was because one of the [Alberta] girls went the wrong way and there was a big gap in between them.”
Devji, who went along as a chaperone, agrees it was an edge-of-your-seat match.
“It was the first time I had ever seen a tournament played at that level,” she says. “I was really impressed with the athletes’ ability.
“As soon as they had their eyeshades on, you couldn’t tell they were visually impaired. They knew where they were in space, how to track the ball, and how to dive accurately.”
The B.C. girls finished with four wins and two ties to claim gold, while the boys picked up bronze. Devji says under the auspices of B.C. Blind Sports, the province has sent strong teams to the junior nationals the last four years.
Locally, practices are held Fridays at 4:30 p.m. at Hume School and are open to sighted and non-sighted players.