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Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2018
OSBA basketball ventures north to Lo-Ellen
2018-05-09
by Randy Pascal

When the landscape of sport changes, it's important to change with it.

One could argue that this truth is even more critical in the setting that is Northern Ontario, already dealing with the demographic and geographic inequities it must face when competing with the rest of the province.

In many ways, this mindset underlies the core belief from which Lo-Ellen Park Knights senior girls basketball coach Jennifer Bourget expanded in deciding to pursue entry into the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA).

Bourget and her group were recently informed that they would join four other new entries to the OSBA, bringing the league total up to fifteen teams in just their third year of operation come September of 2018.

Over the course of the past couple of years, the fledgling group has become home to the vast majority of elite provincial talent, including Sudbury native Sophia Zulich, who joined Rise Academy in Brantford in the fall of 2016 after cracking the Team Ontario roster that summer.

“I watched this landscape develop for two years, and this wasn't an easy decision, but I have a group of athletes who feel that this is something they want to do,” said Bourget. “They're excited about it, they think it's a great opportunity. When they gave us this team, I think it's the equity piece for them (the OSBA) to state that there is now a team in the north.”

The granting of the new OSBA entry to Lo-Ellen Park Prep, as they will be known, effectively takes the Knights, or at least the version who will compete in this league, out of the mix when it comes to the local high school scene. By opting to join the Ontario elite, Bourget and company effectively forego their dreams of an OFSAA championship.

“That was one thing that was difficult for the girls, because they came close to an OFSAA gold medal this year, but they were very clear that they wanted this extra challenge,” noted Bourget. “This is a fantastic opportunity. We don't want players to have to leave Sudbury in order to prepare for that next step.”

While the program is open to all comers – Bourget acknowledged that tryouts will take place once club season wraps up later this month – she also contends that the launch of this team should not cause much more than a very very small increase in numbers to Lo-Ellen, a handful of players at most.

“The high school team is not the breeding ground for the Prep team,” she explained. “If you are coming from the Sault, for instance, you're not going to move to Sudbury if you're not on this scholastic team. There is no reason for kids to come to Lo-Ellen for grades nine and ten if they are looking to play in grade 12.”

As for the program specifics, one can see the effort in trying to provide a preparatory setting for those who aspire to post-secondary competition. “It brings together a team of talented basketball players, all in one school, so it's a scholastic model,” she said. “It mirrors the periodization of university and colleges, and the training would be similar.”

“Video analysis, sport and nutrition, sports psychology, strength and conditioning – all of those things that you don't have time to do in a high school season are now part of the mix. We touched on some of those before, but it's such a short season. Now there's that opportunity to do more.”

While the coaching ranks remain effectively unchanged, with Bourget and assistant coach Dawn Russell simply sliding over from their roles with the senior Knights, it is the ancillary help that has this crew excited. In adding the facets noted above, the program is bringing aboard the likes of Cal McGibbon (L.U. Strength and Conditioning), the Laurentian Sports Administration program (analytics and marketing), along with other experts in their respective fields.

The concept of the OSBA was first launched with boys basketball and, according to Bourget, helped contribute to the ability to keep home-grown talent in Ontario in recent years. “When it first came into effect, we had heard about hockey players leaving to pursue their careers, but you had never really seen it in girls basketball,” said Bourget.

“Then we lost Sophia Zulich, Samantha Martin and Emma Weltz, three girls from the north, all to scholastic teams. We saw it with Kristine Lalonde (she attended NEDA – National Elite Development Academy – in Hamilton for the 2008-2009 season), but she was in grade 12. Sophia left as a grade 10 athlete, and she wasn't the only one. It was happening all over.”

“We started to ask ourselves the questions,” added Bourget. “Is this something that we can do? Are the athletes interested? Do they have the ability to compete? Are there support systems in place?” And, of course, there was vetting on both sides of the equation. The local group had to ensure that this new initiative enjoys some longevity, that this is a framework that can withstand the test of time.

“It was an arduous application process,” suggested Bourget. “They did a site visit. Their committee knows basketball around the province, they know what's going on in your area.” In terms of costs, the long-time basketball mentor foresees very little change to the current environment being pursued by most players with an eye on post-secondary competition.

“We're going to try and keep our financial structure similar to what these athletes have been used to, playing and moving from a high school season to a club perspective.” In the end, the development of local girls basketball appeared best served by following the trend that was apparent elsewhere in Ontario.

“The level of competition is excellent,” said Bourget. “The toughness, the pace of the game, the skill, it's at another level. I will try and prepare these girls as best I can, put them in situations and surround them with people that are going to prepare them for this league. That will be our goal – to put a very competitive team on the floor.”

And lest anyone suggest that this venture is intended solely to satisfy the core group of talent that is the Sudbury class of 2002-born athletes, Bourget finds herself looking far beyond that. “We have to tip our hats to northern basketball in general,” she said. “There are a lot of great coaches at the grassroots level. As long as basketball is developing, I have no intention of leaving this.”

The basketball landscape is one that Jennifer Bourget thoroughly enjoys.

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