It was a given that Lo-Ellen Prep basketball would have a different look to start of the 2020-2021 season - and for a change, these adjustments have absolutely nothing to do with the current pandemic.
Launched two years ago, the local Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) program featured an impressive core of 2002-born talent, with the obvious given that the campaign which was cut short this winter would include a larger than normal graduating class.
So, tongue firmly planted in cheek, it's out with the old and in with the new for head coach Jennifer Bourget and company. And as anyone who has followed the Sudbury OSBA offering closely can attest, the need to tap into a larger percentage of out of town recruits was almost inevitable, at least if the end goal was the remain reasonably competitive (and help move young athletes on to the next level).
Thankfully, basketball cross-connections being what they are, the base upon which the Knights have been able to attract young women with post-secondary dreams to the nickel city now involves a healthy mix of the Orillia/Barrie region to the south, and the likes of Timmins and Thunder Bay to the north.
"I got introduced to the Sudbury basketball culture when I had the opportunity to do some POD (provincial development) training a few years ago," said Ally Smith, a 5'9" guard who helped to lead her Orillia Secondary School team to an OFSAA silver medal last November. "Last summer, I played in an AAU tournament with coach Jen and some of the Sudbury girls."
"The OSBA is a lot of the best players in the province, all in one league. I knew that I would have to get to that league if I wanted to play post-secondary basketball. And I felt if was going to go to a prep school, that it was definitely going to be Lo-Ellen Prep. Coach Jen's philosophies regarding the sport encompasses all that is valuable to me."
Joining Lo-Ellen next year along with club teammate Rhys Bazuk, Smith has suited up with both the Orillia Lakers and Barrie Royals (JUEL), moving quickly through the ranks not long after her introduction to her current passion. "I did gymnastics when I was little, but then, when I first picked up a basketball, I just remember thinking that this was going to be so much fun," she said.
Though she will be heading into grade 11, Smith has already given some thought to life beyond high-school, pretty much a given in this league, once the potential is identified from the early teens for pretty much every player on the Lo-Ellen Park roster. "There are definite benefits to playing in Canada, and also benefits to playing in the States," she said.
"I want to ensure that I will have a chance to get playing time. I definitely need to do some thinking."
Fifteen-year-old Emily Sanzo should have plenty of time to think. The truth is that the drive from Thunder Bay to Sudbury is a long one, easily twelve hours or more. Still, it's a trek that she welcomes willingly, sharing the same end dream as Smith and the others.
"Having to stay with a billet family will be a little tough, being away from my family, but they are very supportive of this," said Sanzo, a 5'10" point guard. "In Thunder Bay, we rarely will play in the top two divisions when we go to the States, which means more limited opportunities regarding being scouted."
"I feel that playing in the OSBA, we will be at a constant high level, instead of changing divisions every once in a while."
A member of the 2018 Team North Ontario Summer Games crew that met regularly in Sudbury, Sanzo would practice with several athletes who have been part of the LOE program, including 2020-2021 teammate Charlotte Church. The seed was then planted, the thought of moving from home to pursue her dreams now swirling in her mind.
"At first, it wasn't super serious, in terms of talking to my family about moving, possibly," she said. "I feel that as I got into grade nine and high school, it started to get more serious as I went on."
Her ball-handling skills refined by virtue of a growth spurt that came a little later on, Sanzo understands that cranking her game up a notch or two is going to require a perpetual emphasis on improvement over the course of the next two years. "I would say I want to focus on becoming more vocal, and also on my decision-making, knowing when to score and when to pass."
Even the returning players will need to evolve, however. With a large graduating class compounded by the decision of stalwart Claudia Pellerin-Olutayo to sign on with the Niagara Prep, veteran Aneisha Rismond will take on even greater responsibility.
"I think it changes my role," said Rismond. "She (Pellerin-Olutayo) would bring a different game, and I really liked her game, her aggressiveness. Going into next season, I would like to take up that role."
A dancer in her youth, a time when she attended Alliance St-Joseph in Chelmsford, the 16 year-old eldest of two children in the family (14 year-old Tyson is a AAA hockey player) found the move to basketball a little easier than expected. "I think the footwork (in dance) helped with my footwork for layups and pivoting," she said.
"I found the cross-over pretty easy for me, coming from dance. Dribbling was a little bit harder, especially since I am taller, so I have to get low."
Now in her third year with Lo-Ellen Prep, Rismond will be one of three grade twelve athletes on the 2020-2021 team (along with Grace Smrke and Kaitlyn Simard), all as the squad transitions to a much larger group of grade nine to eleven girls.
"When I started, the older girls were very welcoming to me," said Rismond. "I want to be a leader. I want them to know that they can come to me if they have questions, that kind of a leader."
Rounding out the Lo-Ellen Prep roster are Bree Bourget, Sophie Moore, Alexandra Pino and Syla Swords, though coach Bourget noted that there still could be a couple more additions prior to the fall.