Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, is two large islands surrounded by more than 150 small islands off the coast of British Columbia just south of Alaska. It’s unique, being separated from the mainland by Hecate Strait, which is rated the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world. It has rain forests, ocean on all sides, the largest black bears anywhere, and rich with Haida culture and history. There’s only one traffic light and the high school is the smallest in British Columbia to field a basketball team, the Queen Charlotte Saints.
The odds are against them. The cost of travel is so high that other schools don’t visit. All their games are ‘away’ games. Dave Wahl, teacher and assistant coach, organizes fundraising for travel. The most recent trip, several days and several games, cost $15,000.
Despite all this, they chose to play against the largest schools in the Province, the Quadruple-A schools. These schools have a minimum of 285 boys in grades 11 and 12. The Haida Gwaii high school has just 28 students, and 12 make up the basketball team.
But their record is a spectacular 14 wins and 2 losses.
Wahl said it isn’t unusual for a school to move up in classification, but this is likely the only one to jump from Single-A to Quadruple-A. He said that Kevin May, their principal, “likes to say we’re a small school that does big things.”
Jesse Barnes, a 6-6 forward is one of British Columbia’s, and the Saints, best high school players. Barnes, a junior, says his ultimate goal is to play Division 1. “I played with the provincial team last year and it gives you a lot of exposure in the states,” Barnes said. “I’m hoping I can get some eyes from college coaches and hopefully play D-1.”
Barnes, a member of the Haida tribe, talked about Haida culture and basketball. “Sometimes, after practice, our head coach, Desi Collinson, makes us do the Men’s Dance,” Barnes told ICTMN. It’s a Haida dance and shows your strength. It’s really tiring and a good workout.”
“When you block someone I say kaavd hlaa. It means ‘get out’ in Haida,” Barnes said. “We do a lot of running on the beach and have a place called the Spirit Lake Trail in the rain forest. Trees are a few hundred years old and you have a good feeling when you get there.”
Wahl speaks highly of the players. “They’re all really nice kids. They’re just a pleasure to work with in a lot of ways. They all have big hopes and dreams for themselves.”
Barnes explained the team’s decision to move up to Quadruple-A this season reflected back to their success in recent years. “The first couple years we went to Single-A and lost in the finals by about 2 points. Last year, we felt we were a much better team so we decided to go Triple A. We went to the zone finals and lost by 4 points. We thought we would dominate Triple-A this year so we said ‘go big or go home’ and decided to go Quadruple-A.” Quadruple-A was just added this year for the largest schools.
In their first game this year they were up by 20 points, but eventually lost. “We made some coaching mistakes and the players made some mistakes,” Wahl said.
Another factor in the loss was that the other schools had already played eight or ten games, but it was the Saints first game.
Their other loss was to the No. 1 team in the Province. Both teams had lost a starter, but it likely hurt the Saints more due to a lack of players.
Their regular season has ended, but some of the players will be playing in an all-Native tournament in Prince Rupert and then the Provincial Championships will be held in mid-March. It’s a chance to see how the Saints stack up against the best 16 Quadruple-A teams across the British Columbia.
“We’ve already beaten a few Quadruple-A teams this season, so I think we should be able to do some damage,” Barnes said.