Building a championship team
Submitted photo by Ken Sackaney
Submitted photo by Ken Sackaney
Submitted photo by Ken Sackaney
Fort Albany’s high school basketball coach Justin Sackaney was worried for his team’s psyche as they got ready to face perennial basketball powerhouse Timiskaming District Secondary School in Timmins on Oct. 10.
After all, Timiskaming has more than double the students of Fort Albany’s Peetabeck high school, plays regular league games all season long and last year beat what might have been the best Fort Albany basketball team ever by over 30 points.
So Sackaney sat the girls down before the game and explained just how tough the odds were that they could win. He wanted them to be prepared; he did not want a possible blow-out to hurt his team’s self-confidence.
He need not have worried. The Fort Albany girls listened patiently to his speech, then went out and beat the socks off Timiskaming.
It was arguably their most dominating victory, but it was not their last. The girls from the fly-in First Nation, in their first games of the season, were the class of northeastern Ontario basketball during the week-long trip to Timmins. They went 6-0 in league play, 7-2 overall, earning themselves a first place finish in their division and a spot in the northeastern Ontario senior girls finals in the process.
“It was nice to think about, what if we went 6-0,” Sackaney said. “But I was going to be happy as long as we competed. So to go 6-0, that was like, wow. It was really something.”
The path to becoming a powerhouse basketball community has not been easy for Fort Albany, or their coach. Six years ago when Sackaney moved to Fort Albany to teach elementary school, there was no basketball program and very little else in the way of structured recreation. As Sackaney explained, the community had seen teachers or parents coach a sport for a year or two before moving away or getting burnt out. There was no continuity, and the kids who did play had very little dedication or desire to practice.
Sackaney started by holding basketball practices every day after school. Many days, only three or four kids would show up. Getting them to do drills was difficult. Getting them to listen to him as a coach was even harder. But he kept at it, opening the gym each day and running drills for a handful of kids. As he says now, basketball was the only tool he had to keep them busy.
One year went by, and then another. While other teachers had come and gone, Sackaney was still there, still opening the gym everyday for basketball practice. And suddenly, as year three got underway, Sackaney started to notice a change. More kids were showing up every day. They were starting to take him more seriously as a coach. And they were starting to learn how to really play basketball.
“There were many days when I was walking home from the gym when I’d ask myself, why am I doing this?” Sackaney said. “I was getting yelled at, or swore at. But I just kept going. And now I know it takes awhile to get youth to listen to you, to get them to trust you.”
Roseanne Knapaysweet, Fort Albany’s 17-year-old point guard, has been playing basketball since she was in Grade 4. Now she is one of only two seniors on Fort Albany’s team, a leader on and off the court.
Knapaysweet said she thinks the success her team had in Timmins last week came as more of a surprise to the teams they beat than it did to her and her teammates. The Fort Albany girls know they are good. And they are not letting their success slow them down, as they prepare to challenge for a berth in the Ontario championships.
“We felt so happy that we won. It felt great to be out on the court, competing, showing them what we have,” Knapaysweet said. “We’re still sore from last week, but we’re still pushing ourselves during practice. We’re still getting there.”
Knapaysweet understands that the success her team is having means just as much to their coach as it does to them. The players, in their own way, are giving back to Sackaney for sticking with them, for staying in Fort Albany and for pushing them to challenge themselves.
“I don’t know where we would be if Justin wasn’t here today,” Knapaysweet said. “He’s the one who showed us how to play. He had faith in us. It feels like he made a change in our lives.”
Fort Albany heads to Timmins on the weekend of Nov. 15-17, for the northeastern Ontario championship tournament having already made history. They are not only the first Fort Albany team to ever make it that far, but the first fly-in community to send a team to the tournament.
Yet as Karen Etherington said, all of that is old news now. The girls are looking forward to bigger things. All they need to do is win two more games to advance to the Ontario championships in Toronto.
“We didn’t think we were going to win all the games (during league play), so we were surprised,” said Etherington, a 16-year-old small forward. “But now we’re more committed because we know we can win. I think we’re ready.”
Etherington is one of seven junior aged players on Fort Albany’s senior girls team. In the community of 900, there are not enough senior aged girls to make a team. Yet despite all their challenges, including fielding basically a junior team in the senior division,Fort Albany is two wins away from northeastern Ontario’s senior girls title.
The fact that so many talented junior aged players are available to play senior goes to show just how successful Sackaney and his brother Ken Sackaney have been in instilling a basketball culture into Fort Albany.
“When I first started, there was potential,” Sackaney said. “I could see it, but it was very raw. It took over three years to get them to understand that the attitudes they had were not conducive to getting better as a basketball player.
“Now the kids are starting to play in Grade 5 or 6. They already know the footwork, how to dribble. They behave, they understand that when the coach talks you got to listen. There’s a new level of respect among all the players.”
While the Fort Albany gym echoes daily with the sounds of basketball, the community has caught its own basketball fever. When the girls returned home after their Timmins trip, a big crowd was waiting at the airport, cheering their team with sirens ringing and horns honking. Knapaysweet and her teammates could not believe their eyes.
“It was something I never expected,” Knapaysweet said. “I think they’re surprised we succeeded that much.”
Sackaney too has seen the community get behind his team.
“Especially now that we’re winning,” he said with a laugh.
But after a short reflection, he added to his answer.
“There’s a sense of pride now,” he said. “People are stopping me on the street to say good job with the kids. Even people I don’t know have stopped to say something. It’s a good feeling. It has given me a sense of place.”
After six years of coaching, Sackaney knows that the northeastern Ontario championship tournament facing his girls’ team is just another step on a long path of building self-confidence in the youth of Fort Albany through basketball.
The amazing thing is that along the way to improving the self-esteem of young people, he may be creating northeastern Ontario’s new basketball powerhouse.
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