Burgeoning Canadian high school hoops league helps top women take next step

A Crestwood player drives to the basket during Tuesday's game against Southwest Academy. (Myles Dichter/CBC Sports - image credit)
A Crestwood player drives to the basket during Tuesday's game against Southwest Academy. (Myles Dichter/CBC Sports - image credit)

One coach is in a deep squat by his bench. The other has his arms raised in disgust at the referees.

There are empty pizza boxes throughout the stands, at the feet of a surprisingly boisterous crowd for a Tuesday night.

It's about as professional an environment as possible at Toronto's Crestwood Preparatory College, where the Lions are playing Southwest Academy of London, Ont., in an Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) girls' basketball game.

Despite some early clock malfunctions, you would never know this is high school. The level of basketball is high and there's a definite buzz in the crowd of about 100. Even the minutiae are on point, including those refs that are probably a bit too whistle-happy.

Since its 2016 inception, the OSBA has quickly become the main hub for Canada's best high schoolers to grow as players and improve their chances of forging a career in basketball and helping the country win its first Olympic medal since 1936.

Toby Fournier is a dunking dynamo at six-foot-two who stars for Crestwood. Dunking is not normal at any level of women's basketball, let alone high school, but Fournier threw one down just for fun in warmups.

She's already dunked in-game so many times she barely remembers her first, though there is still one important goal.

"I'm still looking for a dunk on somebody. That's also really important," she said.

It's that confidence that head coach Marlo Davis said is his main goal when guiding the high-school program.

"We're going to be in some hostile environments. And I think your heart and your mind and your mental toughness is something that's going to be continuously tested in this game of basketball," he said.

Davis, of Toronto, had a brief U.S. college career before moving into coaching. He also works with Canada's U-18 team.

He came to Crestwood in 2015 and started with a group of young players who could barely earn games against OSBA teams the following season. Before long, Crestwood was not only a league member, but the 2019 and 2020 champions.

"I think women are now starting to find their identity in terms of sports is not just for boys anymore," Davis said. "Those stigmas kind of are fading away where now young girls are like, 'Oh, I can still be me and play.' And that I think has driven the commitment level from young girls to continuing to play."

Fournier beamed when asked about her two-and-a-half years working with Davis.

"It's just been an amazing experience. It's a great program, amazing girls. Just overall it's been amazing for my basketball development," the 17-year-old said.

Myles Dichter/CBC Sports
Myles Dichter/CBC Sports

College attention

Fournier has already attended two national senior team training camps, and she said her phone started ringing off the hook the minute she was eligible for college recruitment, right in the middle of exams last year.

She's whittled her list down to eight, including UCLA, which sent a scout to Tuesday's game. But the breadth of talent is evident in the fact Yale and Wisconsin were also there to see other prospects.

Duke head coach Kara Lawson, whose team rosters Crestwood alumna Shy Day-Wilson, said the OSBA is drawing eyes across the U.S.

"The league is very competitive and it's a higher level than most local [U.S.] high school conferences because it's just not the entire province, there are people from other provinces that come there too. And so it's a very high-level league and there's very good coaches in that league as well," Lawson said.

UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, part of Canada's Tokyo Olympic team, is another Crestwood graduate making an impact at the NCAA level. Fellow collegiate Olympians Laeticia Amihere and Shaina Pellington also attended OSBA programs.

Team Canada general manager Denise Dignard said performance manager Mike MacKay is involved with league planning, while head coach Victor Lapeña and assistant Steve Baur also have input.

"It's been instrumental from our perspective just to have opportunities for the young females to actually go in, have a proper daily training environment — the strength training, not just the basketball training — and then to compete against similar groups," Dignard said.

Early returns

Cassandre Prosper, a 17-year-old from Montreal, recently joined Notre Dame as an early enrollee from the OSBA's Capital Courts Academy in Ottawa.

She made an immediate impression on her new head coach.

"She got a huge block. It kind of shows what type of player she is, the impact she brings on both sides of the ball. I think she fits in perfectly," said the Irish's Niele Ivey.

"She's sweet off the court, but on the court, she's so fierce.. … She asks a lot of questions, she studies, she writes things down, we watch film, she's always in the gym. So you're looking at somebody that's hungry to get better, and she's only gonna make us a better team."

Fabienne Blizzard, the head coach at Capital Courts, saw Prosper struggle in the team's first playoff game last year.

"Cass didn't play very well, but the whole team stepped up and it was like, we can do this, we got your back. And it was amazing to see us do that," Blizzard said.

"And that's why everyone says in high school, no one's going to remember how many championships you won, but you're going to remember some of the best experiences that you had with the people that helped you do it."

Submitted by Fabienne Blizzard
Submitted by Fabienne Blizzard

Blizzard called winning "the cherry on top" of a program that prides itself on helping players blossom. And Capital Courts went on in 2022 to earn that championship cherry as Prosper was named both regular-season MVP and Finals MVP.

"Seeing how all the work we've put in and all the struggles we went through actually paid off at the end, I was just happy for my team," Prosper said. "Like we wanted this and we did that and I'm so proud of us. When we won, it was really like, Oh my God, it was amazing."

Prosper credited Blizzard and Capital Courts for helping her gain confidence as she moved away from home to focus on basketball.

"It's been an amazing experience. They really care about us. They really want to make us better, and they know their stuff, so you've got to trust them," she said.

'Everyday thing'

The OSBA differs from previous programs for its increased focus on preparing its players for a future in basketball — it separates those with serious hoops ambitions.

"It is an everyday thing," explained Blizzard. "You have your morning sessions, you have film sessions, you have strength training, so your days are full and your time management has to be very good because now you're expected to do very well at school as well if you want to have the marks to get into the schools that are recruiting you."

Blizzard creates custom plans for each of her players to focus on their various strengths and weaknesses. She updates them regularly with colour-coded report cards that Prosper said fosters two-way conversation about next steps.

As Canada sends more elite players to the NCAA, even more will filter up to the WNBA. Meanwhile, the overall depth should strengthen the senior national team, which is fresh off its best finish at a major tournament since 1986.

In conversations with CBC Sports, multiple Canada Basketball executives were optimistic about Fournier and Prosper as the future of the program — possibly as soon as the 2024 Paris Olympics, but definitely by Los Angeles 2028.

They could both debut as soon as this summer at the FIBA AmeriCup in Chile, where the competition will be a step up from the OSBA. There's little doubt that Fournier and Prosper will be ready.