IT has been quite the year for basketball in Manitoba.
It was topped off last week when the under-17 male and female Manitoba provincial teams won gold at the Canada Basketball National Championships in Edmonton. The under-16 boys came away with a silver medal after losing to British Columbia in the final and the under-16 girls earned bronze with a win over Saskatchewan.
"They actually looked pretty relaxed and pretty confident," head coach Dan Becker said of his under-17 boys going up against the feared team from Ontario in the final. "Which was evident by the way they started the game, they came out on a tear. I did notice that. I was wondering if there would be any nerves."
It was a historic night for both under-17 teams.
The Ontario men's team has won this tournament six times since it was introduced in 2002, but the Manitoba squad was not to be intimidated, beating Ontario 79-61 to claim Manitoba's first national championship. Meanwhile, the women brought home the their first gold medal at the under-17 level with a 61-50 win over Quebec.
William Kohler of the men's team and Jordan Tully of the women's team were both named the tournament's most valuable players.
"We played really well as a team, we played to each other's strengths," Becker said. "A lot of comments I heard from other coaches that watched was that they enjoyed watching us play because of those factors. We just did simple things and didn't get too far out of our own ability at all. We just relied on the group as a whole to kind of get it done."
Becker is the technical director and high performance coach at Basketball Manitoba. He handles the on-court side of things, which includes the provincial team program, the Centre for Performance and the high-performance camps. He's seen the progress throughout his five years.
"We made some changes in our development programs, our CPs (centre for performance)," he said. "We went younger, so we started identifying kids at age 12 and actually shrunk the age of the CP from 15 to 12."
In prior years the Centre for Performance ages were 12 to 17, but it was mainly comprised of kids in the 16-year-old to 17-year-old bracket, which proved to be unsuccessful.
"We found that it was harder to impact change at that age group so we wanted to target the younger kids, get them excited about playing basketball first of all."
And what a year it has been.
First they had NBA prospect Chad Posthumus ultimately go undrafted but later added to the Chicago Bulls for the NBA Las Vegas Summer League. He has now turned professional in Japan. Then 18-year-old Ben Miller became the first Manitoban in 12 years to represent Canada (in any age group) in international competition at the under-19 FIBA Americas.
These are two athletes that make the younger basketball players in the province believe they can do it, too, Becker said. But while the success is great, Becker doesn't see it as a turning point for the program. No, their development doesn't have a buzzer.
"I would say it was already turning," he said. "We got back-to-back silvers. That was an unprecedented accomplishment up until we got the gold because we had never gotten silver before and then to do it two years in a row. We have never won the national championship until this year.
"I would say it's just a slow and steady indicator that we're going in the right direction, we're seeing some success."