Many hail from areas where sporting excellence isn’t the first thing their neighbourhoods are recognized for, but this year’s high school senior boys’ basketball champions embody the spirit of community better than any others. It’s a sight that’s really unmatched in Ottawa high school sports. The sea of green followers, the sheer number of supporters, and the pride they take in what the young members of their community are achieving. It was a picture St. Patrick’s High School's senior boys’ basketball coach Tina St. Amour had never seen in her decade-long career on the sidelines. And one her players are sure to remember for a lifetime as their fans cheered them on to an appearance in the March 5-7 OFSAA ‘AAAA’ provincial championships in Ottawa.
Photo (courtesy of Ottawa Sun): The St. Patrick’s Irish won the national capital senior boys’ basketball ‘AAA/ AAAA’ championship over the Louis-Riel Rebelles at Carleton University.
“We’re just one big family,” describes Irish guard Roydell Clarke. “Our whole school is like that. We have our principal coming out, our teachers coming out and supporting us. Our fans are all dressed up in green, black and yellow with their face painted – everything. “It is a fun time.” It was a memorable day when St. Pat’s earned their ticket to OFSAA with a home-court victory over St. Peter High School, and then the celebration was on again as they prevailed in a tight city final against Louis-Riel.
“What we’ve been able to do is a whole community contribution,” notes Irish co-coach Matt Koeslag, highlighting that their principal came in on the weekend to open the gym so they could practice, that teachers would cover for the coaches during out of town tournaments, that parents would provide fantastic support all along, and students would get behind team fundraising. “It’s been a whole community effort, and you see that in the crowd,” adds Koeslag, whose team was seeded eighth of 18 teams at OFSAA. “We have that support there to achieve all these kind of goals.” Koeslag carries tremendous pride in the unrelenting commitment his players showed this season and over the course of three years since the group first came together, with many of them frequently waking up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the bus for early-morning practices.
Backgrounds inspire fire
The team’s hard-working attitude stems from players who are largely first-generation Canadians, notes Koeslag, who shares an added connection to the players through his mother-in-law, a former immigration judge. “She’s sworn some of these families in,” Koeslag recounts. “It’s pretty amazing. They don’t come from much, but they leave it all out on the floor. They’re hungry. It gives them something they can hang their hat on and be proud of.” It’s a similar type of motivation for the ‘A’-champion Deslauriers Phénix, who won their second consecutive city crown and were hoping to improve on their bronze medal result from last year’s OFSAA despite many new faces on the team.
“Because we don’t come from a lot, already, everything we have, we have to fight for it,” explains Deslauriers captain Jonathan Proulx, whose squad downed the Ashbury Colts 61-41 in the final to earn a trip to St. Catharines. “And we love showing them that we fight on the court too.” Proulx says the Phénix really don’t think of themselves as teammates, they consider themselves family. “Almost every day, we’re together at school, and we practice together all summer – that’s why I say we’re like family,” Proulx emphasizes, explaining that it’s their sport that draws them together. “That’s our number one love. What we love most in the world – basketball. “I get joy out of it. When I play, I forget about all the problems I had that same day.”
It’s the young players’ growth as individuals that Deslauriers coach Alain Cadieux savours most. The Ottawa Community Hous-ing worker wound up coaching the Phénix four years ago when no one else would. He says one characteristic his squad displays constantly is that they stick together when times are tough – perhaps a lesson they’ve learned in their upbringing. “When they go back home, they’re the parent. They are the ones making decisions,” says Cadieux, who is assisted by former Carleton Raven Jean-Emmanuel Jean-Marie. “A lot of them are from single mom families, so they’re the eldest brother taking care of younger kids. “It’s a lot of responsibility, and the fact that they do this through all their struggles is quite impressive.”
Sports can open doors
With several graduates from last year’s Deslauriers team now at university and college prep schools in different parts of the world, it’s an example of the type of paths basketball can lead to, which provides an incentive for students to succeed in the classroom, Cadieux mentions. Basketball dreams are also a source of academic motivation for many on Jean-Guy Morin’s ‘AAA/AAAA’ city finalist Louis-Riel Rebelles – who were also competing in Ottawa, seeded 15th – as numerous players have taken on part-time jobs so they can save up for post-secondary studies next year. Louis-Riel also faces a bit of a different reality than some others in the city, notes Morin, who was taken aback to learn that a west-end school asks its athletes to pay $1,500 a year to play.
“I said, ‘How can you do that? My guys can’t pay 200,’” Morin recalls. “All my kids come from modest neighbourhoods. Half the team have one parent with three or four kids. They don’t have the money.” But succeeding with a group that has the deck somewhat stacked against it and that needs to work a bit harder makes it that much more special when they achieve their goals. “You really develop a bond with those kids,” Morin explains. “I’m extremely proud of this group.”
Tigers roar back to OFSAA
For the ‘AA’-champion St. Matthew High School Tigers, their city final victory had a community theme to it too as the Orleans school wrote another chapter in its proud basketball tradition by overcoming the resilient Immaculata Saints. “Since Grade 7 I’ve been wanting to go to OFSAA so badly,” says Tigers leader Mack Wakefield, who was denied a trip to provincials last season and was on the junior team when his team won ‘AAA’ OFSAA at home. “In my final year, it’s perfect and it was clutch that we got there.”
St. Matt’s win also had a bit of a football feel to it, as four of their five starters can be found on the gridiron in the fall. Ben Rozman knocked down many key three-pointers in the final, and Mike Black displayed the same effortless agility and athleticism on the court that makes him a star receiver. “Mike was on fire. Those pull-ups – I don’t know where they came from, but I was pretty happy to see them,” says Tigers coach Jason Wren, whose squad was seeded 12th of 18 in St. Catharines. “Ben’s been injured and I’ve been telling him not to shoot for three weeks. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me. “I’m ecstatic.”