GEN7 Messenger and 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.
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.
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