Royals' season a swish so far

STEPHEN SWEET - Special to the Examiner

Basketball, especially at the younger ages, is about more than just winning and losing.

Teamwork, friendship and skill progression are all big parts of minor hoops play.

The Barrie Royals Major Bantam Girls No. 1 team covers all of the above.

"Our goal is to play hard," said Royals head coach Paul Hopper. "If you play hard and practise hard, things take care of themselves. You can't make winning your focus at this age.

"It has to be about getting better all of the time."

That isn't to say that it hasn't led to a lot of victories for the Royals, who, following a sizeable win on Monday against the Collingwood Trail Blazers, are now 25-5 on the year.

"This year has gone really well," said Daniella Hopper, who has been on her dad's team since Grade 2. "Every game we learn something new and improve as a team."

Six of the girls are now in their seventh year together, and it shows.

"It's really fun being on a team with these girls since Grade 2," said Gillian Hay, another Royals mainstay. "Everyone knows each other so well and we're improving every time."

They've come a long way since they've begun.

"Totally," Gillian said. "I recently watched this video of us when we were little and we were so bad. Everything has changed."

That involves new and more complicated strategies as the girls progress, and their coach is happy with how easily they seem to pick it up.

"Most of them are high-end academic kids and they're super-bright and super-coachable," Paul said. "So we run multiple offences and multiple defences.

"I don't even need to call a timeout," he added, "I can change our offence and defence on the fly by just yelling one or two buzz words, and that's rare."

Even though they're only in Grade 8, the Royals have progressed far beyond their age expectations.

"I coached senior girls high school (basketball) for many years, and a lot of these girls are doing things that kids in Grade 12 aren't doing," Paul said. "Some of these girls have played 300-400 basketball games (in their lives)."

They train year-round in order to work on their game, and they don't take it lightly.

"We practice hard and we challenge each other," Daniella said. "We train even harder in practices, and in games, it just comes naturally."

It would seem like putting a dozen teenage girls together consistently could cause havoc, but so far, it hasn't.

"There's been no fights on this team," Gillian said. "I know girls are usually catty and it's remarkable how we can spend every single day of the week with each other."

For a number of the girls, including Daniella and Gillian, it really is a daily occurrence, because when they're not playing basketball for Daniella's dad, they're playing volleyball for teammate Cierra Gross's dad.

"I see Daniella and Cee-Cee literally every day and never get sick of them," Gillian said. "We're just like sisters and it's awesome."

Practices become a natural setting for the girls to get together.

"They socialize on and off the court," Paul said. "They're from 11 different schools, so they play against each other on their school teams, but they get to play with their friends on the Barrie Royals."

With no set schedule in the Ontario Basketball Association, coaches set up their own games, and for the most part, they haven't been easy ones.

"We've been playing the top teams in the province from larger centres like Oakville, Scarborough, and Hamilton," Paul said. "We should be ranked near the top of the province when it comes time for provincials (in the spring)."

And although a strong finish would be nice, Paul's bright disciples have the right idea.

"We want to do well at provincials, and to medal like last year would be amazing," said Gillian of her squad that picked up a bronze last year. "But we just want to improve for the years that are coming after this."

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