By Martin Cleary
University of Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey has coached at her alma mater for 15 of the past 16 years and watched hundreds of young women run the court, drive the basket and shoot from every conceivable spot on the floor during her recruiting trips.
But two years ago July, when the now third-year head coach of the Fighting Irish travelled to Louisville, Kentucky, to scout a tournament, she got the shock of her life.
The lightning bolt that struck her came from Ottawa-trained Cassandre Prosper of Montreal, who ruled the court in every aspect you could imagine. Ivey was left thunderstruck.
“I was blown away,” said Ivey in a tone that indicated she still can’t believe what he saw from the six-foot, two-inch all-around guard. “I was so impressed. It was her ability to take over a game, her defence and her motor impressed me the most. She played so hard, scored and rebounded. It’s rare to see.
“She had energy. She played hard every play, was disciplined and had a great work ethic on offence and defence.”
Two years later, Prosper, 17, is wearing the Fighting Irish uniform. Ivey remains incredibly impressed with Prosper, especially with her smooth transition to the university game over the past month and her on-court presence in her first seven games.
Rated as one of the top North American high school girls’ prospects for 2023, Prosper had full athletic scholarship offers from between 40 and 50 American universities. While she was impressed with all the offers, she made her decision based on her relationship with the head coach. (Prosper received her first scholarship offer when she was in Grade 8 and playing as an outstanding 14-year-old on a team of girls 17 and 18.)
Prosper was totally impressed with Ivey right from the start and as their player-coach relationship grew it was a logical choice for her to head to South Bend, Indiana.
“It’s the way she approaches coaching. She’s a great leader, adapts to the players and wants them to succeed,” Prosper explained. “She treats us like her own kid and challenges us to be better.”
But before she could head to Notre Dame, the Capital Courts student-athlete needed to graduate from Cairine Wilson Secondary School, the home base for the academy. On Dec. 22, Prosper completed her high school semester and education. Four days later, she was at Notre Dame, enrolling in business and psychology and connecting with the women’s basketball program.
For the next three weeks, Prosper immersed herself in studying the Fighting Irish playbook, watching video and interacting with her new teammates, who were already four months into their pre-season and regular season, but happily welcomed her with open arms.
Joining a university team mid-season is quite rare. But Prosper figured she had accomplished everything she needed as a high school student and athlete and it was time to fast break into her university future.
Playing 2½ years with Capital Courts, she was an impressive force and led her team to its first Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association championship. During the 2022 season, Prosper was the league MVP, a first team all-star and the Final 8 MVP, after leading Capital Courts to the title. In the regular season, she averaged 25.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2.6 blocks a game.
She also was considered the top Canadian prospect, after an outstanding performance at the 2022 Biosteel All-Canadian game for the top high school players. She was named the player of the year, following a double-double effort of 15 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes.
“My last (full) year at Capital Courts, we won the championship and I was able to get different awards. I felt I did everything I needed to do in high school. When the opportunity came up (to enrol at Notre Dame early), I could graduate in one semester,” Prosper said.
When she entered Cairine Wilson, she had only been taught in French in Montreal. But she successfully made the language switch to English, and accelerated, taking some Grade 11 courses in Grade 10 and Grade 12 courses in Grade 11.
Prosper became only the second Notre Dame student-athlete to join the women’s basketball program during the season instead of the traditional August entry. Teammate Olivia Miles also enrolled early last year out of Blair Academy.
Ivey’s assessment of Prosper as a top-ranked high school player was matched by many recruiting agencies. The ASGR/HoopSeenW group ranked her the No. 1 player in North America, while the ESPN HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings placed her No. 16.
Prosper has played in tournaments around the world and left her mark as a quality player. In 2022, she was the MVP at the Basketball Without Borders Americas tournament, selected to the Under Armour top 60 and named Queen of the Court, rated an Under Armour Elite 24 player and was a top-12 guard in the United States by the Curry Camp.
Besides developing her skills and game at Capital Courts, Prosper also had two stellar assignments with the Canadian women’s U16 and U17 teams, winning the bronze medal in the FIBA Americas championship in 2021 and helping the national team to a fourth-place result at the 2022 World Cup. A tournament all-star in both championships, Prosper averaged 14 points and 9.6 rebounds at the World Cup and 18.6 points and 10.6 rebounds at the Americas championship.
In between her high school and national team basketball commitments, Prosper also gained valuable playing time and exposure in AAU tournaments in the U.S. with club teams Become One and Kia Nurse Elite.
Her transition to playing with the No. 7-ranked Fighting Irish has been smooth.
“They (her teammates) have embraced her,” Ivey added. “She has learned a lot on the fly and has done a great job studying our offence.”
“I expected it to be hard and challenging,” Prosper explained. “The coach and my teammates have made me feel welcome in the group. There’s so much support around me. I knew the transition would be challenging, but it’s easier than I thought because of the people around me.”
Prosper and Ivey have had many discussions about many topics and it’s no surprise she’s playing meaningful minutes for Notre Dame (17-2 overall, 8-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) and not watching from the bench.
In her first seven games since her debut on Dec. 29, Prosper has averaged 10 minutes, 2.7 rebounds and 3.4 points a game, while making four blocks, three assists and two steals.
“After two days here, I had my first game and since then I’ve been rolling. I love being here,” said Prosper, who has impressed Ivey early with her three-point shooting and overall defence.
Prosper comes from a family rich in basketball history. Her father Gaetan Prosper and mother Guylaine Blanchette were RSEQ all-stars during their days in the 1990s with the Concordia University Stingers. Gaetan played in four CIAU Final 8 championships, won three Quebec conference titles and was male athlete of the year in 1996.
But Prosper identifies brother Olivier-Maxence as her role model. Olivier-Maxence attends Marquette and plays for the men’s basketball team. He earned Big East All-Academic status in 2022.
Prosper started playing community basketball at age seven, but never felt any pressure to specialize in the sport. By 10, she discovered track and field and two years later was the fastest age-group sprinter in Quebec.
“I liked track and field better. Basketball was not my first love. I resisted. I didn’t want to do what my parents did. I wanted to be my own person,” she added.
“I loved to win (sprint races). I was the fastest in Quebec at 12. But in the summer of 2016, I played (basketball) in the Quebec Games. The whole summer there was no track because I was playing for the basketball team.
“I came back to track and I wasn’t the best any more. If I can’t be the best, I don’t want to do it.”
A few years later, she was recruited at a tournament in Virginia by Capital Courts Academy head coach Fabienne Blizzard.
Basketball had become No. 1 in Prosper’s athletic life and that road has taken her to Notre Dame, a hotbed for the university women’s game, where she hopes she can “be the best” in all aspects of her game.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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