By Charlie Pinkerton
A lot has changed since Merissah Russell and Fabienne Blizzard met four years ago.
Russell was in Grade 7 then and was at one of her older sister Maiyah’s touch football games. Blizzard was attending because her daughter played on the same team as the older Russell. Blizzard remembers watching the Russell sisters race down the sideline of the field after the game and thinking that the younger of the two must have been 15 years old.
Merissah lost the race to her older sister – who’s now a member of the women’s volleyball team at the Royal Military College – but swears it was only because she was barefoot.
“I’ll give her that one,” she says.
“We’re a very competitive family.”
The result didn’t matter to Blizzard, who then – like now – was heavily involved with youth basketball in Ottawa and throughout Ontario.
Blizzard was wowed by Russell’s speed and approached her to find out what sports she played.
“It was a, ‘Ya I play basketball, I’m pretty awesome,’ type of thing. (I was) tooting my own horn because I didn’t know who the lady was at first,” Russell says.
Russell’s mother remembers it a tad differently. She remembers her daughter telling her future head coach an exuberant, “I’m a baller!”
Blizzard asked Russell her age and got her answer: 12.
“I was like, ‘what?’,” Blizzard says with a laugh. “Have your mum call me.”
“After that it was kind of history,” Russell says.
Later that year, at 13, Russell says she was cut from a Team Ontario Under-15 team. She says it was the first team she ever got cut from, and that’s when she says a “switch flipped”.
While also playing Nepean Blue Devils basketball, Russell started training regularly with Blizzard’s Gloucester Cumberland Wolverines Grade 9 boys team.
“The first few days were tough because she couldn’t do a left-handed lay-up and she couldn’t do some other things because she was only in Grade 7; she was just very athletic,” Blizzard says. “But after six months she was ballin’.”
Russell cracked Team Ontario’s U15 team the next season. They won bronze at the 2016 Canadian National Championships. As a member of the team again last year, Russell won national gold. A month prior, she helped Canada’s national team to a silver medal at the FIBA Americas U16 Women’s Championship in Argentina, in her first tournament play with Canada Basketball.
After spending her Grade 9 year at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School, Russell leapt at the opportunity to join the upstart Capital Courts Academy program that is coached by Blizzard. Russell and Blizzard now start each day together when Blizzard picks her and other players up from around the city to bring them to Cairine Wilson Secondary School for their day of school and training that, during the season, regularly lasts 12 hours.
Russell was the lone Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) all-star on the Blizzard-coached Capital Courts Academy team this year. She led a squad of only eight girls to a 6th place finish in the team’s debut season in the OSBA.
When asked to explain her and Blizzard’s relationship now, Russell smiles and lets out a deep sigh.
“Oh my goodness… She’s the best everything for me,” she says.
“She knows my goals and how to get me there. Sometimes it’s not going to be translated the nicest way. Sometimes I’m not going to like her, and she tells us that, but I know it’s totally out of love. I love it.”
Capital Courts was bounced from the OSBA playoffs in the first round on March 3, which was also Russell’s 16th birthday. Just one week later she says she was woken by a call from Canada Basketball’s director of women’s high-performance Denise Dignard, offering her a spot on the country’s Commonwealth Games team.
“I jumped out of bed, said that I accept, and didn’t really hear anything else after that. I hung up the phone and went and celebrated with my mom. It was the best experience ever.” Russell says.
She was the youngest player on Canada’s 2018 Commonwealth Games’ roster.
Russell found the floor in each of Team Canada’s five matchups at the Games, playing alongside fellow Ottawa-area native Catherine Traer, who Russell first met while attending a Gee-Gees camp years ago. Canada finished just shy of a medal in 4th place.
“Getting that chance to step foot in a competitive environment where it’s not just high school or even provincial – these are like real women that have experienced life, and you’re playing besides them and they’re smarter than you, they’re faster than you, they know how to use their body in the right way because they’ve been playing for such a long time… It’s just a fast type of pace and you have no time to feel nervous, you just enjoy the moment. It was beautiful,” Russell said.
The Grade 10 student donned the Maple Leaf again in May in the all-star invitational Across Border Global Games. As one of four players in the younger 2020 class on the underclassmen team, Russell led all scorers with 36 points in Canada’s 109-96 win against the United States and was named Canada’s MVP.
Blizzard says it’s Russell’s skill, confidence and maturity that, on top of the athleticism she first saw in the girl four years ago, inspires such praise of her potential.
It may not be long before she suits up for Canada again. The FIBA U17 Women’s Basketball World Cup will be held in Belarus late this July. Russell is currently in the late stages of the team’s tryout process.
And though Russell is years away from graduating high school, she’s got high hopes for her on-court future.
“(I want to) hopefully go to the WNBA and then in the other season it would be overseas,” Russell says.
“I definitely believe that those goals are attainable,” Blizzard says.
“I always tell her: ‘you’re not great now, you’re good’. But I do believe she’ll get to that point where she will be great, and she will be a global player… To me, she will end up going to one of the top schools and will end up going to the WNBA because when Merissah puts her mind to doing something, I don’t think anyone can really stop her because she’s so driven when she has a goal.”
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