Twelve of Manitoba's best high school basketball players will be putting aside some long-standing school rivalries when they take on provincial teams from across the country at the 2010 Canada Basketball Male National Championship next week at the University of Manitoba.
Several players on the Manitoba boys 17-and-under team have faced each other for years in club and high school competition, but head coach Scott Kirkpatrick, the varsity boys coach at Maples Collegiate, has been amazed at how well they've come together as a team since starting practice last May.
"We (the coaches) haven't had to put out any fires this summer as far as 'He's getting too many shots,' or 'I don't want to play with him,' or 'It's St. Paul's versus Oak Park,' " he said after Friday's practice.
"It's been a really nice surprise. I didn't expect a lot of issues, but there just haven't been any."
Taking a quick glance at the rosters, it isn't hard to pick out some natural rivals.
Three of the starters are from Oak Park Raiders and St. Paul's Crusaders, two schools that added another chapter to their long rivalry just this spring.
Point guard Elliot Taylor's Raiders defeated Joey Nitychoruk and Amir Ali's Crusaders in the provincial basketball finals in March, and now the three will be on the floor together when they tip off against Alberta at 8:15 p.m. Monday at the U of M Investors Group Athletic Centre.
"It's always Oak Park-St. Paul's, no matter what the sport," said Taylor, who was named MVP of the provincial tournament. "But I'd say our friendships have just grown, if anything."
Taylor and Nitychoruk, a lanky 6-foot-5 forward who was named a provincial tournament all-star, have played on provincial teams together for three years and the resulting familiarity has helped them both on and off the court.
"We're buds now, really," Nitychoruk said. "There's no personal rivalries."
"I think we just help push each other, definitely," Taylor added.
"We're all just trying to win for Manitoba," said Ali, who has played against Taylor since their junior-high club days with the Winnipeg Mayhem and Manitoba Magic, a rivalry "we took so seriously."
Ali, typically a point guard, is doing his part by moving over to the wing to allow Taylor, a gifted distributor and ball-handler, to play the point.
"The chemistry's perfect. He has no problem if I have to bring the ball up, and especially when (breaking a full-court press) it can go either way, and it's working really well."
That kind of team-first, leave-your-ego-at-the-door mentality seems to permeate this team, a refreshing change of pace in a sport where individual stars can sometimes defeat teamwork.
"We're not reliant on one or two guys," Kirkpatrick said. "It's more a core of seven or eight guys.
"We've surpassed a lot of my expectations already. From where we are now compared to where I thought we would be, we're way ahead."
Manitoba will also field a team in the 15-and-under age group, under the direction of coach Jon Lundgren of Gordon Bell. They will open on Monday at 3:45 p.m. against Saskatchewan.
The finals for both age groups tip off Saturday evening.