A promising next few years await a young St. John’s College Senior A Basketball team who are already performing beyond their years.
Finishing third overall in the Hawke’s Bay Secondary Schools Division One league and their recent victory in this year’s slightly revised CNI Tournament is just the beginning, coach Damian Whitten says.
The team is made up of a core group of year 11 players and will only lose four year 13 leavers over the next two years.
“It’s still a very young team, so to be beating good older teams now is exciting for the next two years”.
However, Mr Whitten does not shy away from the fact that it has been a journey and the team has had to take a “lot of hidings” during its time together.
“Two years ago we virtually brought our Year 9 and 10s in when we were playing senior teams, so we got some big hidings but we kept our eye on the prize that that was going to happen and we shouldn’t be beating teams at that stage.”
Mr Whitten, who teaches Physical Education and Religious Studies, has been running the College’s basketball programme for the past 14 years.
The SJC Basketball Institute was set up about seven years ago and is focused on nurturing junior players passionate about the sport. This year they had four teams in the junior grade, and the three senior-level teams had a number of former institute players.
Being a school of under 400 students does not deter them from wanting to “compete against the top teams in the country” who have in excess of 1000 pupils.
“The only way you can compete is to try and outwork or work as hard as those programmes so that’s why we work so hard and why we work throughout the whole year,” he said.
While the bigger schools have “so much competition” to make the top teams, players at smaller schools need to “create that” and have “internal drive”.
But they do not “lose sight of the fact that they are young kids,” he said. “It is a game, and they should have fun and they should enjoy progress and relationships are vital.”
He believes it is down to this and the “supportive relationship between parents, coaches, and children” that the programme is doing well.
“Our focus is that we get better, improve, have fun and build relationships, and we’re hoping that maybe winning becomes a by-product of that but it’s a bonus.”
And it has proven to be a winning formula with one student playing in the United States, another one in the New Zealand Breakers and six who went on to play in the NZ National Basketball League (NZNBL).
He says it is proof “you can do it out of a small school,” but it is only possible by “putting in the work”.
Mr Whitten says it is a “shame” Covid-19 hit because “last year was a real success”. The disrupted year off the court has meant limited playing times and big competitions cancelled on the court.
A pre-season trip to St Patricks College in Wellington and the National Finals were called off due to the pandemic.
Only three teams participated in the CNI Tournament this year, compared to the six that usually do. However, the two that did participate are the only two who have won the tournament in its six-year history.
However, it created the opportunity for them to play in Basketball Hawke’s Bay’s Elite Men’s League alongside Napier and Hastings.
“We got dealt to, but we learnt so much and we held our own, we scored, and they had to play to compete with us.
“We had a win against one of the men’s teams which we shouldn’t be at this point. We had a goal that we were going to play everybody because we didn’t care about the result. That’s going to hold us in good stead, and we’ll get invited again next year.”
Now, with the season over, they are focused on preparing for next year.
“It’s probably the healthiest the programme has ever been. Now we’ve just got to take this really good young team and get some big results over the next few years, which I think we can do.”