By Dan Plouffe
If you’ve followed sports long enough, you’ll hear that winning the championship is one thing, but repeating as champions is a different beast.
That’s usually doubly true in high school or university sport – it’s often a strong group of seniors that lift a program to glory, but then it’s a struggle to fill their shoes the next season once they’re gone.
That is not the case at all for Capital Courts Academy, who won their first Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association title last season and have now hit the holiday break with their sights squarely set on repeating come March 2023.
“The nice thing about our team is we do have seven returning players. And the difference is that those seven returning players are much improved,” highlights CCA head coach Fabienne Blizzard, who tells her players that they each have special powers, like Marvel comic book heroes.
“Now the Marvels have to figure out how to use their superpower to impact each other and inspire each other on the floor,” she adds. “That means we all have to share, so now it’s about: how do we share, because they’ve all improved so much?”
So you might think that CCA is more like the pro team that’s flooded with talent but can’t work together because each superstar’s ego needs to be stroked? Well, they aren’t that either.
“I just love my team,” underlines Grade 12 Cairine Wilson Secondary School student Achol Akot. “They’re all my best friends. It’s so fun to be around them.”
This is a group that grew very close during COVID, including a stretch last winter where everyone lived together in a rented house in Fort Erie, Ont. (CCA had a high-performance exemption to train through lockdowns, but couldn’t do so with all public gymnasiums closed in Ottawa.)
But there is one common sports adage that does ring true for the Capital hoopsters – they’ve got a target on their backs as the defending champs.
“That’s the thing,” Akot states. “Everyone’s coming after you.”
Blizzard says she’s excited that her players get to experience a high level of competition every game. Alongside six wins, CCA has lost twice as well – both times to league-leading Crestwood, 75-62 and 63-62. Blizzard also looks at the defeats in a positive way – it’ll keep her troops from being overconfident come season’s end.
The team can also draw confidence from their experience in the last campaign, when they upset all three top-ranked teams back-to-back-to-back on Final 8 championship weekend following an 8-9 regular season. And simply staying patient is another important weapon, adds the coach.
“I send them weekly reminders. So now we’re in week #14 – only week 14, so we have work to do, we’re early in the season,” Blizzard highlights after her team’s last home-court victory before the break on Dec. 9.
With consultation between the team’s coaches and technical trainer, along with mental performance, strength and academic staff, CCA has mapped out a journey that they hope will take them back to the top.
“I love where we are,” Blizzard signals. “We want to peak later. From the season plan, we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.”
NCAA basketball on tap for multiple CCA players
It’s a highly unusual occurrence, but Capital Courts will be graduating a star player midseason, with Montreal’s Cassandre Prosper set to enroll early at the University of Notre Dame and join the Fighting Irish for the winter semester.
CCA will get an internal boost that could help counter that hole, however. After missing action early this season, point guard Jessica Wangolo – one of three players from Ottawa set to graduate this season – is now back in the lineup to lead the charge up the court.
Wangolo and Catrina Garvey are still deciding on their university destinations for next year, while the other local senior has signed with the NCAA’s University of Central Florida Knights.
Akot didn’t initially think UCF would rise to the top of her list, but when she visited the school near Orlando on Labour Day weekend, she immediately fell in love with the campus, the team and especially the coaching.
“Here at Capital Courts, the coaching staff look after me. Coach Fab is like my mom and (co-founder) Merrick (Palmer) is like my dad,” explains Akot, who plans to study psychology. “So I wanted a coaching staff like that, and I think UCF did the job.”
The six-foot tall forward is thrilled to get the chance to play college basketball for a strong program that reached the second round of the March Madness tournament last spring, and she also feels a little relieved that she no longer has to field recruiting phone calls.
“It was a release. I feel like after I signed, I started playing better because I didn’t have that in my mind,” indicates Akot, who won a Canada Games bronze medal alongside Wangolo and Garvey on Team Ontario this past summer.
Blizzard says that rebounding and finishing ability are the main attributes that make Akot a star – err, a superhero rather.
“She wants every ball. She’s a competitor. Having that drive, and being able to leap out into the sky and grab anything that’s in sight, that’s a great superpower,” smiles Blizzard, who served as assistant coach for the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s Ottawa Blackjacks last season.
“She’s someone who’s come a long way. Achol bought in and did everything we asked her to do, regardless if she wanted to or not, or if she was tired – she’d still do it. I am so proud of her.”
Capital Courts will begin the second half of their season at home on Jan. 13 when they meet King’s Christian Collegiate for the first time since their upset victory in last season’s championship final.
The team will then enjoy a special evening the following night for the premiere of The Ripple Effect – a documentary produced/directed by Palmer looking back on last season’s historic championship and the program’s rise. Doors open at 7 p.m. for the free event (with donations welcome) at Shenkman Arts Centre.
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