At its peak, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Rangers basketball program had as many as four travel teams competing in tournaments across the province. This was in addition to the almost 60 kids in both the house league and developmental programs that were running at the same time.
Numbers are lower this year, with a healthy developmental program, but only one travel team is currently practising and playing out of Crossroads Public School.
Kyla Pylypiw got her start in NOTL six years ago in the developmental program. The Grade 8 student at St. James Catholic Elementary School in St. Catharines is now a key player for the U15 Rangers, who began training for their first tournament at the end of November.
Kyla is one of three NOTL girls on the team, coached by her father, Shawn. As he explains, basketball in Ontario is not controlled the way hockey is, with players being tied to playing for their municipality of residence. Hence, the Rangers can draw girls from across the region.
Pylypiw began coaching Kyla in the developmental league, and, after three years, he felt he had a good group of girls to move on to the travel program. He sees the developmental program as a great feeder system for the travel teams.
“When we first started, there were only about 20 kids coming out. Each year they grew and grew, and it’s great for the area, and for the sport,” says Shawn.
With a lot of the skills being worked on at younger ages, he and co-coach Rachel Bice can focus on enhancing those skills with their 10 players. More importantly, though, they will spend much of the month working on both offensive and defensive plays, as well as positions on the floor.
“This year we have two actual post players, and I’ve never had that until now. We’re definitely skills-based, too, and we have to tinker with some things, and try to improve on them.”
The Rangers don’t play in an actual league. Instead, they are a tournament-based team. Pylypiw says they will enter at least five tournaments this year, in addition to a few local mini-tournaments against teams from neighbouring Niagara municipalities.
Over the 35 to 40 games the U15 girls will play, the focus will be on competing at the Ontario Basketball Association (OBA) tournament in Durham next May.
The OBA Tournament is a competition with which NOTL Rangers founders Jennifer and Bruce Caughill are very familiar.
In 2009, the couple began the program in NOTL, after their daughter, Katie, had played in Niagara Falls for the Red Raiders the previous year. That Red Raiders novice team had seven NOTL girls playing on it. The Caughills felt it made sense to branch out and form their own club.
Success came quickly for the U11 girls. Coached by Jennifer and Bruce, the team won OBA gold in Division 4 their first season.
The following year, the club added a U10 Novice Girls team, on which the Caughill’s younger daughter Maddie played. A novice boys team followed the year after.
In 2011, that original girls team, then playing at the U13 level, won the OBA silver medal in the highest division, followed by a bronze finish in 2012.
Maddie’s Rangers squad, however, saw even more impressive success. Playing at the U12 age level in 2014, they won Division 2 OBA gold, making them the ninth best team in the province. Two years later, their U14 team won Division 1 OBA gold, crowned the top team out of 105 programs across Ontario.
“That team is a great story. They were second last in the province of Ontario their first year,” says Bruce. “A couple of programs, the Red Raiders and a Pelham team, collapsed, and we were able to pick up some of those players. It helped that we had two female former CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) players (Jennifer Caughill and Sue Sentance) coaching the team, too.”
Though he played five years of CIS basketball at Queen’s and Western, Bruce claims that gold medal “was one of the best basketball moments of my life.”
Both Caughill and Pylypiw credit the support of the NOTL community for the success of the program.
Caughill says early supporters, such as Ward Simpson and the Virgil Business Association, recognized the value of the program and stepped up with financial support. He also points to the long-term sponsorship of Meridian Credit Union for keeping the Rangers program affordable through the years.
Each year, the Rangers have hosted at least one tournament at Crossroads Public School, inviting some of the top teams in the province to the region. That tournament features a sponsor appreciation day, during which supporters are invited out to the gym and recognized for their support.
With both Caughill girls now “graduated” from the Rangers program (the U19 Girls team won OBA Bronze last year), Bruce and Jennifer won’t be seen on the floor at all this year. Instead, they will play a supervisory role as members of the Rangers board.
But Bruce is happy the travel program is continuing under Pylypiw, and even happier that the team was borne out of the developmental program. He says it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation.
And Pylypiw is happy to be on the floor, working with his daughter and her teammates this year, aspiring to continue bringing OBA success to NOTL.