They went into the Saskatchewan Winter Games with mixed expectations, but it turns out the Zone 3 judo team had nothing but glory ahead them.
Three Moose Jaw members of the squad came away medalists from the first day of competition Thursday in Melfort, as Connor MacDonald and Michael Herbert each won gold in their respective divisions and Chad Griffin picked up bronze.
The trio's performance bumped Zone 3's medal total to six gold, one silver and three bronze.
For MacDonald, the Winter Games tournament was his first actual competition in nearly two years - while the Moose Jaw Koseikan Judo Club fighter continued to train he simply opted not to enter tournaments - but it still went as well as he could have hoped.
"I wasn't expecting that much but it worked out pretty well, especially to win the whole thing," said MacDonald, who fought in the under-60 kg division. "I knew a lot of the guys from camps and stuff like that but I didn't know what to expect once we were actually in a match."
As it turns out he had little to worry about.
MacDonald rolled through three of his opponents with little difficulty before running into Zone 6 Saskatoon's Cory Torgerson late in the round robin draw. In the waning minute of that match, MacDonald was caught by Torgerson in an armbar and ruled to have tapped out, even though he didn't.
"He had me in it but he didn't have it really tight, but i heard the ref say ippon and I thought she said matte (stop), so I just rolled up and waited there," MacDonald explained. "Then she said she saw my arm move and one of the judges thought I tapped with my leg . . . I'm not sure where it came from."
It mattered little in the end, though, as MacDonald came back in style when he met Torgerson again in the gold medal final - first taking Torgerson to the mat with a throw and then catching him in a rear naked choke for the submission.
"It was nice to come back and win like that, especially after how I lost to him the first time," MacDonald said.
While MacDonald was a bit of an unknown quantity heading into the Games, Herbert was considered a gold medal favourite based on his string of commanding victories through the season in his under-73 kg division.
He lived up to the hype, rolling through the competition right to the final. And while that match against Zone 2 Regina's Matthew Furneaux turned out a touch closer than he expected - Herbert thought he'd actually been thrown for an ippon midway through the gold medal bout - he was still able to emerge victorious
"I just went out there and tried my best and it worked out great," Herbert said. "After how well things had gone this year, I thought I was just going to walk through it again, but that one match wasn't easy. It was still great to be able to win it, though."
Furneaux caught Herbert with a leg throw that he thought took him to his back, which would have meant an ippon and victory for the Regina competitor. Instead, Furneaux was awarded a waza-ari (half- point) and after Herbert regained his feet, the Moose Jaw competitor quickly replied with a body drop throw for a waza-ari before holding Furneaux down for the win.
"It was a pretty good match, he didn't make it easy at all," Herbert said.
The Games judo competition continues today, with Moose Jaw's Nick Hughes taking to the mats in the men's under-66 kg division.
Appeared in the Moose Jaw Times-Herald Feb 17, 2006