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The Best Defensive Team in Alberta: A Recap of the Edmonton Boys Division One Championship and What to Expect From ST FX Going Forward

Updated: 3 days ago




Edmonton, Alberta - All basketball seasons have their ups and downs, but the title of city champions is reserved for only the greatest teams at the end of each season. The stage was set for a thrilling championship match between an underdog success story of Ross Sheppard school and an undefeated first place team in Saint Francis Xavier (ST FX). It was anyone's best guess as to how this game was going to play out and, on a cold, snowy Saturday evening, hundreds of local basketball fans, students, and families showed up at the home of the Edmonton Stingers (Flair Airlines Hangar) to find out. Both teams had earned themselves a berth at provincials through simply winning their semi-finals playoff game and making the city finals; that didn't take away from any anticipation going into this game. City champion was still a huge honour and, in a year where Edmonton had three 4a provincially ranked teams this game was important for both programs. Each team had something to prove going into this game and wanted to walk away with some new hardware for their trophy cases.

The ST FX Rams came into this championship game feeling good about themselves. They had just completed an undefeated regular season in league play with an average margin of victory of 29 ppg and came out on top of both their first two playoff matches wielding a comfortable 15.5-point playoff victory margin. They have one of the most balanced teams in the city and according to their head coach, Brad Farish, they have the best defence in the province. Led by their four veteran anchors they have prided themselves on being a very disciplined and hard-working squad that doesn't stop pushing the tempo until the final buzzer has sounded. This final was no joke for their team as the past two seasons had ended in unfortunate heartbreak that they wanted to finally overcome. Last season they lost their first-round matchup by just two points and the season prior, that they had a chance to seal a finals berth with a couple of missed late-game free throws, leaving them on the wrong side of a miraculous half-court buzzer beater for the win. This is a team that wanted to prove that they had put in enough work over the past two seasons to finally earn the title of city champions. 

The Ross Sheppard Thunderbirds on the other side, are a historically strong basketball school with a solid coaching staff that always seems to get the job done when it matters. This group had a solid showing over the regular season finishing third in league play and competing in several high-level tournaments. Archbishop O'Leary seemed to be the clear favourite to win the semi final matchup against Ross Sheppard, being the fifth ranked team provincially after previously being first seed earlier in the year. I can't speculate too much about what transpired during that game as I was not personally there. What I do know though, is that the game was a hard-fought contest between both squads and ended up in a layup at the buzzer from Kai Dunkley, Ross Shep's starting point guard and one of the best senior guards in Edmonton. The one thing that this Thunderbirds squad brought with them into the finals was grit and hustle. They may not have been the higher seed in their match or one of the best teams in the province, but they were a team that would keep fighting the whole game and was capable of beating even the strongest team, given the chance. You have to outwork Ross Shep if you want to truly beat them.

            Hustle and heart were never too much to ask for from a veteran ST FX team, and in a packed arena with their lossless regular season record on the line, they came out swinging. FX caught fire early on both ends. As a team that spreads out the offensive load among their team and prides itself on their defence, they brought exactly what anyone would expect. Scoring was coming from everyone and not a single offensive player stood out as the go-to weapon in the first half. This earned them a commanding first-half lead. The offence wasn't even the best part of the Ram's game as their stifling defence held Ross Sheppard to under ten points in the first quarter, providing them an 18-point lead going into the break. They had strong defenders at every position on the floor but were led by their floor general in Kalan Smith, a senior guard who, according to FX's head coach, is "one of the best defenders in all of Alberta". Kalan leads by example and helps run the floor on both ends with confidence and leadership that never faltered all game. With a defensive system that had every player smothering opponents and limiting shots in the paint, FX left Ross Shep “looking lost” offensively and left to the locker rooms feeling pretty good about how they had come out in such a big game.

            Throughout the season FX played phenomenal team basketball and this first half put this on display. No single player was the offensive weapon, and everyone appeared to be gelling and working together flawlessly. The coaching staff are huge fans of FIBA basketball and their coaching style reflected that. The overabundance of teamwork and hustle on both ends of the floor was exemplified throughout the season for ST FX and was especially apparent in this first half of play. A huge credit goes to the coaching staff for doing a great job at instilling these values and creating a culture of hard work that paid off over the past three years. The depth of this team was also proven as they were missing one of their best regular season players during a large portion of the finals due to foul trouble; and were able to adjust their game plan effortlessly to continue their domination of the first half.

            The player in foul trouble in the first half was Aleks Popovic. This grade 11 starting center for the Rams was a key piece to this team's success all season and had shown significant improvement over the season. When I watched him at the start of the season, I had several questions and concerns over his play style and IQ. Seeing him in the finals, Popovic seemed to have pulled a 180 from that first game. His shot selection was phenomenal, he was using his size to his advantage, and he was out-rebounding everyone on the floor with ease. According to Coach Brad, he wasn't even playing his best brand of basketball in the finals, due mostly to foul trouble. In the two playoff games before this, he scored over 25 points and averaged 17 rebounds per game, using his size and length to alter several opponents' shots in the process. When asked about Aleks, Coach Brad had the following to say, "[Aleks] dominated this league as a grade 11 in my opinion and he did it without even fully believing in himself. I think the more he believes in himself the more you're gonna see the real potential of what Aleks has". Going into Provincials, Popovic is going to be one to watch, especially going into next season. This is just one of FX's players who should be a household name for post-secondary scouts as long as he keeps developing as I think he will.

            After going into the half with such a commanding lead it would have been easy for the Rams to go into the second half overconfident, allowing the Thunderbirds to catch them off guard. Instead, and to Ross Sheppard's dismay, ST FX came out even harder than they did in the first half. The Rams started the third quarter pressing the guards, forcing several turnovers, pushing the tempo in transition, running the fast break, and getting easy points every chance they could. This may have been one of the most impressive parts of the game for me. For anyone who followed this team over the season, this should be no surprise. This is exactly what the team was trained for and how they try to play every game. Every one of the seniors has bought into a hustle culture and a defence-first mindset from day one, which has been a major contributing factor to their deep playoff run and undefeated regular season. 

            Not too long after this second-half push from the Rams, Ross Shep decided to finally come alive and push back. They started hitting their stride and went on a run of over ten unanswered points and it seemed they had finally adjusted to the Stingers home court and found their range from deep. The three-point shot is a vital part of the Thunderbirds game and when their shots start to drop it’s hard to slow them down. Kai Dunkley put the exclamation point on this run by hitting a contested three far beyond the high school three-point line and making it look effortless. The Thunderbirds seemed like they finally had it, and it appeared the tides were starting to shift in their favour. As Coach Brad preached though, the Rams never looked nervous and just kept pushing and looking for ways to end this run. Someone had to rise to the occasion and stop the bleeding for ST FX and in one of the biggest games of his high school career to date, rookie, and starter, Nathan Yamba-Yamba came alive. He made back-to-back three-pointers and used his length to block a drive to the hoop in the process to slow this Thunderbirds run to a halt. This type of commanding play is something you would expect to come out of a vet in a high-stakes game such as this, rather than a rookie. Yamba-Yamba being the spark plug in this scenario was extremely impressive to me, which speaks volumes for the potential and confidence that this kid has. Yamba-Yamba is a 6 '6'’ wing with guard-like handles and a motor that doesn't stop. He hustles for every board and loose ball and can shoot the lights out from deep. “In that [championship] game, he showed up…it’s a big game that would make the most normal kids nervous…I’m not saying that it’s a surprise. He was [just] Nathan” (Coach Brad). This type of high-level competition and experience that the team will get heading into the provincial weekend will be a huge learning experience and should have Nathan looking like a stand-out next season, more than he already is.

            Basketball is a game of runs. In this championship game, FX was able to capitalize on all of theirs and finish the game strong. Taking their last third quarter right to the final buzzer and earning their first division one city championship since the 2016/17 season. A fitting end to a dominant regular season and, after the previous season's heartbreak, this was a well-deserved victory. The team celebrated in the moment, but everyone knew that the job wasn't finished. The end goal for this team was still winning a provincial title, and after a strong showing in this league final, the Rams had to be feeling confident moving forward. The first seed provincially in the final rankings are the Raymond Comets. Earlier in the season the Rams played the Comets and though they lost in a close game, Coach Brad was still feeling confident against their competition. "Raymond played hard and won. We were up for most of the game, and we lost in the fourth. They had a home-crowd advantage. It was a very competitive and favourable environment for Raymond, so I like our chances".

            When asked what was going to make them stand out from the pack in provincials, Coach Brad couldn’t stress enough about the importance of his group's defensive prowess. This group has one of the best defences in the province and is going to lean into this going into provincial championship weekend. The other part of this team that the coach stressed multiple times during my interview with him was how deep this team's offensive arsenal is. They do not have a single star player that they rely on each game and save the day when they are in need. They have an entire team of polished and skilled players that each individually has a chance to go off in any given game. The coach described this as a blessing and a curse as it is every coach's dream to have such a deep roster, but it hurts the individual player's chances of getting recognized by scouts due to the unselfish nature of their game. This style of play was not going to change heading into the provincial championship weekend though. "At this point, we have had success. We won our city, we did well in the playoffs, and we have gotten into a good position with these teams. Now, it's just continuing to improve and commit". They have an identity as a defensive team and are going to lean into this and capitalize on that going into next weekend.

            This championship was well-deserved for the Rams, and I look forward to watching them in Red Deer over provincials’ weekend. I want to send a huge thanks out to Coach Brad for sitting down with me for an interview this week and look forward to covering the ST FX team more going forward! If anyone reading this would like me to cover their team or would like to have a conversation with me, please feel free to email me at hpaulichuk@gmail.com. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it!

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