The Fort Albany senior girls’ basketball team advanced to the provincials last month, making it the first First Nations high school sports team in northeastern Ontario in history to do so.
The Peetabeck Academy “Niska’s” played in the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ (OFSAA) ‘A’ Girls basketball tournament from Nov. 21-23 in Sault Ste. Marie.
The tournament is the highest level of competition for high schools across the province.
Amber Nakogee, 17, said it was exciting just to compete in the tournament.
“It was good feeling to be there,” the Grade 12 student said. “Those teams are really good. It made us want to try harder.”
The Peetabeck Academy senior girls’ basketball is one of the few First Nations sports teams to ever qualify for an OFSAA tournament. Coach Justin Sackaney said he is only aware of a boys’ team from northwestern Ontario to play in an OFSAA tournament but in a different sport.
That was sometime in the 1990s.
What makes Peetabeck’s advance to the tournament impressive is how new Fort Albany’s school sports program is to the community and how it operates on little resources.
Starting the program
Sackaney began developing the program back in 2007. It was then that he recruited Nakogee and her teammate and friend, Karen Etherington.
“I didn’t really know how to play,” said Etherington, who was in Grade 6 at the time. “I got better at it so I kept playing.”
“I didn’t really know how to dribble (at the time),” said Nakogee, who was in the same grade.
Being in an isolated community, it was difficult for the team to compete against other teams. Often, they played against the boys’ team for practice in a game setting.
When the team did travel to play, the growing pains were obvious at times. In one game, they got beat by 100 points.
“We got creamed, but they’re playing Grades 8, 9, 10,” Sackaney said. “They were getting their butts kicked, but for the most part, they did keep their heads up.”
But the girls persevered. Etherington said playing basketball gave her something to do in a small community of about 800 people. Being on the team also gave the girls incentive to do well in their academic studies.
“Justin has this thing where if you do well in school, you can go on trips,” Etherington said. “He’s always pushing us. It’s getting easier and becoming a habit of going to practice everyday.”
After years of growing together as a team, the Peetabeck girls advanced to the regionals last year for the first time. The girls lost in the final game, falling 14 points short of making OFSAA.
Sackaney said he was impressed that the team made it that far, especially given that the team only two players who were seniors.
But that tournament gave the girls a taste of competitive play with high school teams based south of Highway 11.
The team that competed last year had a roster of nine players. When Sackaney assembled the squad for this year, he found he only had six players. Some of the girls from last year moved onto post-secondary school or other pursuits.
Needing at least another player, Sackaney turned to 14-year-old Megan Solomon.
“We had a rookie in who never played basketball, but she took a risk and tried it out,” Sackaney said. “She just turned 14, and was playing against 16-17 year olds.”
Though Solomon only scored a few baskets, “she played really good defensively,” Sackaney said. “She wasn’t out of place at all.”
The Peetabeck Academy team had a great start to the season, going undefeated in league play.
The record allowed the team to host the regional qualifier. However, no team was willing to venture north to Fort Albany. Sackaney said the league has a rule regarding travel “north of Highway 11.”
“I was emotional behind all that,” Sackaney said. “It’s discrimination to a degree. It’s not racism – I wouldn’t say that – but it’s discriminating to the north.”
Sackaney said he will look into appealing that rule.
But the team was able to select a school to host the tournament on its behalf. The team chose the Kirkland Lake District Composite Secondary School, who graciously accepted.
The school welcomed Peetabeck Academy on its bulletin board, displayed facts about Fort Albany on TV screens across the school, and adopted the team’s colours.
And while family members were able to attend the games, students of the Kirkland Lake school also cheered on Peetabeck.
“It was amazing,” Nakogee said. “We never had that kind of support. We don’t have games in our community, so we don’t have fans at our games.”
Sackaney recalled one moment where the school’s student council hosted a dinner with the Peetabeck girls.
“The student council was talking to our girls for 20 minutes,” he said. “It was a really good cross cultural moment.”
Etherington said the students asked about life in Fort Albany, and some did not even know where it was located.
In the regionals, Peetabeck defeated École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Marie in the final game by six points to qualify for OFSAA.
Sackaney said it was a “weird” feeling following the win.
“When we won, it was quiet. I was sitting there when the buzzer sounded, and we just shook hands. It was a quiet moment. We did it, but we were just so tired I guess. Just nods all around, that’s it. Just, ‘cool.’”
Etherington agrees that they may have just been tired.
“We were in shock, we didn’t feel it until later actually,” she said. “We didn’t care if we were going win or lose, we were just happy to be there.”
Making it to OFSAA
After a short break, the team set out for Sault Ste. Marie to compete against the best in the province.
The Peetabeck girls had never competed in such a competitive tournament.
“We were scared, we didn’t know how to feel,” Nakogee said. “Lots of teams have already been there.”
But Nakogee added they were warmly received at the tournament.
“We felt like outsiders, but it was very welcoming,” she said. “We didn’t feel any negativity.”
The first game was against Port Colbourne, a team from southern Ontario near Niagara Falls.
The girls’ inexperience at competing at a high level became obvious from the first game when they lost 47-21. Later in the day, they lost 48-21.
The next day, they lost the consolation quarter-finals 41-12.
“It was more tough and more intense,” Etherington said of the games. “I got really tired.”
“We got tired or nervous, stuff like that takes over,” Nakogee said.
Etherington said often, Peetabeck was competitive in the first half of the game before the team began to get tired.
It’s understandable when a team only has one substitute player on the bench. Etherington said she played entire games.
Sackaney said the girls were not in shape to compete at such a high level, a factor he attributes to himself in how he ran practices.
“I held back in terms of practices, because I was so worried about a player getting hurt,” he said. “I had to hold back. I usually practice an hour-and-a-half. But this year it’s just an hour.”
It was also difficult for the girls to get in a “groove,” because they did not get to play many competitive games.
Sackaney brought the girls to play against teams in Moosonee and Moose Factory in early November so they may gain some kind of groove.
Having competed at OFSAA as a high school player himself, Sackaney said he forgot what it was like to play in intense atmospheres. But he remembered, and the girls learned from it too.
“At OFSAA, they realized don’t take breaks during a game,” he said. “They forget what to do on the offensive side and made, mental lapses. You can’t do that at OFSAA.”
In spite of the losing record in the tournament, the players looked on the positive side of the experience.
“I think just going there, we had lessons about our commitment when a seven-man team makes it to OFSAA,” Nakogee said. “Overall we had good defense. We learned that anyone can make it if they put their mind to it.”
“It just seemed fun, win or lose, and we tried hard,” Etherington said. “I like that feeling when you try hard.”
Sackaney is proud of the players and the development they’ve had over the years.
“For them to being beat by 100 points, to going to the provincials, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “A lot of kids have opportunities to move away and join other basketball programs. But these ones stuck around to play for their town, to show how hard work can be done.”
The ‘Magnificant Seven’
During their run to the provincials, communities along the James Bay coast followed the progress of the team through live streams and a Facebook page.
Some called the team the “Magificant Seven.”
The team also received praise their accomplishment of making the provincials.
Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit praised Peetabeck for overcoming the odds.
“To achieve such excellence in a relatively short period of time, especially in a remote location where resources are scarce, is a testament to the spirit and determination of the members of the team,” he said in a statement. “Couple this with the excellent leadership of the coach, this team is a team to be recognized with for years to come.”
He wished the girls luck in future tournaments.
“We are all so proud of you,” he said.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents Timmins-James Bay, also praised the team.
“There is an incredible sports culture on the coast but up until now high school teams have been hampered by lack of facilities, isolation and the high cost of competing in other communities,” he said in a media release. “Fort Albany girls have broken through the barrier and it a sign of what is possible when young people have the support they need.”
Building on success
The Peetabeck Academy have a couple of tournaments coming in the New Year, including the Cree Hoops tournament hosted by Moose Factory in February.
Having made it to OFSAA, the bar is now even higher for the girls.
“We can try harder,” Etherington said. “We know that we just need to become a better team and we can make it farther next time.”
But next year’s squad may be without its two co-captains.
Etherington is debating whether to pursue studying sports psychology in Sudbury next school year.
“I wanna have a chance to go OFSAA (again),” she said. “At the same time, I wanna try out for university.”
Nakogee wants to study civil engineering in either Ottawa or Sudbury. She will still play basketball but it will be without her Peetabeck teammates alongside her.
“It’s gonna be sad to leave that,” she said, “but it feels good to know I’ve been a part of that (making OFSAA).”
The team will be in good hands however, as Sackaney plans on continuing to run the basketball teams in Fort Albany.
The girls’ successes have given the school and its program credibility, he said. More sponsors have stepped and he thinks the program will continue to grow.
“It was cool to come back into community,” he said. “I felt vindicated for all the stuff I’ve been doing in Fort Albany. There were times where I wanted to leave and do something else. Just because it’s so hard to get these kids to games.”
But now, he said, “we got credibility and now we have more opportunities to make it.”
Sackaney will also be involved in coaching a girls basketball team at the North American Indigenous Games next summer.
Asked if any of the Peetabeck girls will be on the squad, he laughed.
“I can’t say that. They have to go through the tryout process like anyone else,” he said. “But you never know.”
Well, our short summer up here in Northern Ontario is beginning to fade. Summer is so precious to all of us in the north and this year we started very late...