Basketball league enjoys unprecedented growth

Ben Grams, playing for the Slave Lake St. Francis Falcons, and Brandin Bissell, of the Prairie River Raiders of High Prairie, compete in a game on Jan. 6, 2016.

More students than ever are playing junior high basketball

Chris Clegg

If you’ve followed the Smoky River Junior High School Basketball League the last few years, you have seen something interesting happening before your eyes.

More and more teenagers are playing basketball than ever before in the region, thereby disputing the accusation that today’s teenagers are more interested in playing video games or sitting on the couch watching TV.

It is not just the number of teams in the league this season – 14 – but the number of players on each team is steadily growing the last few years. Teams like the Prairie River Raiders in High Prairie have generally had at least 15 players on their roster, while other schools struggle to have 10. The general trend is that the smaller schools are now putting at least 12-15 players on the court.

The question is, why is basketball enjoying unprecedented growth?

PRJH coach Nathan Schroeder doubles as league commissioner this season after coaching at Gift Lake last season. He is more than pleased to see the sport take off at the junior high level.

I think the resurgence of popularity of basketball in Canada in general,” says Schroeder. “With last few postseason runs of the Toronto Raptors and the growing number of high draft picks coming out of Canada, basketball is growing all over the country.”

Donnelly G.P. Vanier School athletic director Katrina Jolie adds not only the Raptors, but Harlem Globetrotters.

I think the success of the Raptors, seeing the Harlem Globetrotters, and bringing in clinics to reinforce skill all help to grow our program,” says Jolie.

Another reason for more junior high interest is that the senior high teams have seen some success qualifying for zones,” she adds.

The success of the Toronto Raptors has definitely raised the profile for students,” says High Prairie St. Andrew’s School coach Wade Deering. “Years ago, it was rare to see players wear a basketball jersey to practice. Now it is a regular occurrence to see a Raptors T-shirt or a DeRozan jersey at practice.”

I feel that basketball in this country and province is garnering an exceptional amount of interest due to the sheer number of Canadian born players playing in the NCAA and the NBA,” says a Slave Lake coach wishing to remain anonymous. “Thank you Steve Nash!”

Schroeder adds basketball adds tremen- dous atmosphere, a high energy and excitement like no other, to the local school environment.

I think the success of the league is completely attributed to the dedication, hard work, and selflessness of the coaches and assistant coaches. The only reason we have the record numbers this year is because there is a high number of school staff who are volunteering several of their weeknights to practice and take their teams for league games.”

Deering agrees.

I believe the students enjoy the team atmosphere, especially with the teammates they have grown up and gone through school with. They are usually a close-knit bunch.”

The Slave Lake coach adds the league’s growth is due to “exceptional management” from coaches and league commissioners.

The success of the league is largely due to fact that there is actually a league/season. Most athletics in this region rely on tournaments and although they are a great way to get action in, a league presents a guaranteed amount of games and a final tournament which showcases the teams who are peaking at the right time. What can I say, playoffs are a thing of beauty!”

Jolie also attributes the success to the league executive.

The league has been set up and managed very well with each team playing equal games home and away and the divisional tournaments are fun and competitive,” says Jolie.

Costs are another factor. At GPV, costs are kept low for students to join to it is very affordable.

GPV holds a bottle drive in October to raise funds to lower fees. We consistently raise $4,000. Our juniors do not pay more than $40 for the season, making it affordable to every student who wants to play. We now typically have 15 to 20 players per junior high team,” says Jolie.

From a parent’s perspective, it is a very affordable activity for the amount of time and length of season,” says Deering.

Students look forward to the season when school starts in September.

I hear questions about when is basketball starting from almost the first day onwards,” says Schroeder. “It extends even to the elementary because many Grade 7s ask several times over the first few days when basketball starts. You can actually feel the energy building as the volleyball divisional tournament passes and students are ceaselessly asking when tryouts begin.”

The feeling is no different across town at St. Andrew’s.

As early as the first day of school, some students have been asking which days practices will be held…” says Deering.

Teachers agree the students enjoy being part of a team.

The feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself draws many students,” says Schroeder.

In addition, the idea that basketball runs over the course of a few months with many home games generates added appeal. Students in other sports sometimes only have maybe one home tournament where they might play 3-5 games if they make it all the way to the finals.”

It is not the case with basketball. Teams are guaranteed at least five home games so family and friends find it easy to support their children.

Last year with Gift Lake, we had parents driving across the county for our away games,” says Schroeder. “It wouldn’t be surprising to see Gift Lake family members at games in Kinuso or even Slave Lake.”

Players are also keenly interested in other scores around the league and for the weekly statistics package.

Students can’t contain their curiosity to see where their team is ranked after game night,” says Schroeder.

Last year, that excitement was shared at Gift Lake.

Players would come to class early on Fridays because they knew that I had the league statistics ready to go and we wanted to see if Kye Anderson and Emma Anderson were still on top of the league scoring leaderboard, which they were…! The stats aspect brings out an excitement that just isn’t seen in any other sport,” says Schroeder.

Still, it’s fun that attracts the players.

The memories these players will make and the fun is ultimately what attracts most of these players. Road trips on buses and tournaments are usually talked about for years to come. All players enjoy to win but it is secondary to the friendships and memories these players will make throughout a season,” says Deering.

This year the league celebrates it 21st season. It was founded by St. Andrew’s School former coach Darrell Willier, whom the league championship trophies are named after.

Smoky River Basketball League Champions

Girl’s Division

1997-98 – Valleyview Hillside

1998-99 – Valleyview Hillside

1999-00 – Prairie River

2000-01 – Valleyview St. Stephen’s

2001-02 – Valleyview St. Stephen’s

2002-03 – Prairie River

2003-04 – Prairie River

2004-05 – Prairie River

2005-06 – Prairie River

2006-07 – Prairie River

2007-08 – Valleyview Hillside

2008-09 – Prairie River

2009-10 – Valleyview Hillside

2010-11 – McLennan Providence

2011-12 – Prairie River

2012-13 – Prairie River

2013-14 – Prairie River

2014-15 – Prairie River

2015-16 – St. Andrew’s

2016-17 – Prairie River

Boy’s Division

1997-98 – Valleyview Hillside

1998-99 – Prairie River

1999-00 – Prairie River

2000-01 – Prairie River

2001-02 – Valleyview St. Stephen’s

2002-03 – Prairie River

2003-04 – St. Andrew’s

2004-05 – Donnelly G.P. Vanier

2005-06 – St. Andrew’s

2006-07 – Prairie River

2007-08 – Valleyview Hillside

2008-09 – St. Andrew’s

2009-10 – Valleyview Hillside

2010-11 – Prairie River

2011-12 – St. Andrew’s

2012-13 – Prairie River

2013-14 – Prairie River

2014-15 – Prairie River

2015-16 – Gift Lake

2016-17 – St. Andrew’s


High Prairie St. Andrew’s School player Madison Price shoots the basketball during a game Nov. 22. Behind her are teammate Macey Shaw, centre, and Prairie River [High Prairie] Raider Ceara Abstreiter.
Gift Lake Hurricane Colten Calahasen, left, and Jonas Smith of the High Prairie St. Andrew’s Saints do battle in a game Jan. 6, 2016.
Almost! Prairie River [High Prairie] Raider Osama Elhasaeri tries to save the basketball from going out of bounds during a game Nov. 22. Watching are referee Bryce Phillips and High Prairie St. Andrew’s player Colby Cox.

Share this post