It was a bittersweet victory for the Ahousaht Mystic Sunz girls’ division when they snagged the title at the British Columbia Junior All Native basketball tournament. But it was one dedicated to the woman who made it all possible: coach Katrina English, who was killed in a plane crash in June 2010.
English, the daughter of Sunz assistant coach Qaamina Sam, had been so taken with the girls’ performance when she saw them play in a tournament that she moved to Ahousaht to coach the team. But her dream of garnering them the Junior All Native title was cut short when a plane crash near Tofino claimed her life along with that of her brother Hunter Sam, cousin Samantha Mattersdorfer and pilot Damon York.
The team fell apart afterward but pulled itself back together.
“We vowed to keep Katrina’s dream alive and we did,” Sam told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We dedicated this to her.”
They were just some of the basketball players competing in an annual tournament that drew 26 boys’ teams and 23 girls’ teams from First Nations across British Columbia to compete for division titles at the weeklong event in Port Alberni from March 18 through 23. As much annual reunion as tournament, the games drew more than 2,000 people to the opening ceremonies.
In the boys division, the Skidegate Saints beat the Heiltsuk Nation 66–62 to capture that title. Playing before 900 fans in the Alberni Athletic Hall, Saints players performed a victory dance around the gym floor to the sound of a traditional song.
“Give respect where respect is due—to the boys here,” Saints head coach Desi Collinson said. “You can’t deny them the respect they deserve.”
Heiltsuk was undefeated at 5–0 and rested coming into the final. Skidegate, however, battled their way through the losers bracket, playing six games in two days to get to the championship.
The teams played wide open from the opening tipoff, continually attacking each other with fast break offenses. Heiltsuk drove the ball into Skidegate’s key, then passed it to the wing, who scored two points several times to close within one point at 46–45. Saints Nathan Vogstad scored key baskets that kept Heiltsuk at bay.
“We switched up our defense too from man-to-man to zone then back to keep them off balance,” Collinson said.
Heiltsuk lost six players to age restriction (age 17) this season, and its players are two to three years younger on average than Skidegate.
“They have a lot of good junior ball ahead of them,” Gladstone said of his team. “We’ll be back strong.”
Saints Joel Richardson was named boys’ MVP.
“His teammates looked to him at key times even when the crowd didn’t,” all-star committee member Rick Lindholm said.
So too with Sunz post Nicole Botting, who scored 22 points from the low post and was named tournament MVP. The title winning game against the Gingolx Storm from Northern B.C. was close, with Gingolx pulling within three points of Ahousaht’s lead late in the fourth quarter. But a key defensive play by Sunz guard Cory Williams, followed by four points, gave the team some breathing room and sealed the championship.
The training was intense, but the Sunz were fueled by the memory of their beloved coach, and a dream.
“We had them run on the beaches in the rain swim in cold ocean water at 7 a.m. every morning,” Sam said. “It was tiring but it feels good to be back at home in Ahousaht. We set the bar high early, and we accomplished what we set out to do.”
The Sunz weren’t the only dreamers. Richardson, the boys’ MVP, is already looking beyond the junior all native, telling ICTMN, “I want to study psychology and play ball at a Division One university after I graduate from high school.”