Niagara United tryouts at the community centre. BERNIE PUCHALSKI

One look at Owen Dobbie’s face and you could tell the 17-year-old Pelham resident was loving his return to the basketball court.

The Grade 12 student at E. L. Crossley was one of some 25 players taking part in tryouts last Wednesday at the community centre for Niagara Basketball United’s Grade 12 team.

“It’s going to be a lot of exposure in front of college and university coaches and it’s really cool,” the 6-foot-3 player said. “I have never had this opportunity to have all the Brock and Niagara College coaches in one gym.”

The travel basketball program for boys in Grade 5 through Grade 12 is spearheaded by Brock University men’s basketball head coach Willy Manigat, and Niagara College men’s head coach Phil Mosley. Its goal is to produce more players who can play at the USPORTS, Ontario Colleges Athletic Association, or NCAA levels.

Niagara Basketball United had tryouts for all its teams this week and the Grade 12 tryouts attracted a who’s who of Niagara’s best Grade 12 and 12B basketball players.

Dobbie loved the competition.

“You always want to play against the best and it’s going to make me a better competitor. It makes you work harder if you want to get somewhere.”

At this time of year, the Pelham Panthers travel basketball player would be starting the high school season and getting ready for the Standard tournament.

“I was so excited for my last year, hopefully going to OFSAA [Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations championship] and getting to play the Crossley season with all my guys,” Dobbie said. “It sucks a lot.”

He is debating whether or not he will return for 12B, but plans to keep training hard during the pandemic.

“I want to work on my shooting and dribbling a lot and try and become more of a shooting guard or point guard.”

I love being physical but it gives me an opportunity to work on different things outside of what I am comfortable with

The week’s tryouts were non-contact, which doesn’t necessarily suit the bruising style Dobbie plays.

“I love being physical but it gives me an opportunity to work on different things outside of what I am comfortable with.”

He has managed to get some physicality in on the court.

“We just got a new court at home so I have been going outside and I have been playing my brothers one-on-one all through the summer. It keeps me a little bit competitive.”

Manigat was thrilled to see the program launch this week.

“I am super-excited and I know Phil feels the same way,” he said. “It is part of a bigger picture for the area if it goes the way we think it is going to go and the way it has been received so far. The kids from this area are going to be the ones to benefit as well as the coaches. We are hoping to develop more coaches at the same time as the players.”

Manigat liked what he saw at the Grade 12 tryout.

“There’s some good size and there are some players who are here for a reason. Anyone who shows up for any tryout is someone who wants to be coached and wants the opportunity.”

Manigat designed the practice plans for the tryouts at all the age groups, taking into the account the non-contact rules imposed because of the pandemic

“This is a different tryout than anything that has ever been run. You don’t have any contact, you don’t have any one-on-one competition and you are trying to evaluate things that are huge intangibles in any sport, which is their competitive nature,” he said. “You are trying to find ways to read between those lines during the tryouts to find the ones that are going to be competitive and want to compete.”

The skill level of players will be obvious but there are other characteristics the coaches will be looking for.

“Listening and the ability to take instruction are two of the most important skills in life,” Manigat said. “You know the kids who are keen and want to be really good. There’s something in their eyes and the way that they pay attention to detail to the information that is provided.”

Brian Bleich, a coach on the Grade 12 team and a member of United’s board of directors, is pleased but not surprised by the interest in the program.

“We have had a great response,” he said. “All the age groups are in the 24-to-28 range for players except for the Grade 11 age, where we have almost 40 kids. We had to divide them up into cohorts because of COVID because we can’t have them all in the gym at the same time.”

Training protocols being utilized are the same ones used by the Pelham Panthers organization during its summer and fall training sessions.

Bleich isn’t sure when game action will happen because Basketball Ontario announced recently that regional games and tournaments won’t start until April 1. It urged teams to continue participating in non-contact team practices

“We will be creating teams but they will be training groups or pods,” Bleich said. “They will be getting training sessions with our coach, sessions with a high performance coach on another day and also athletic development without the ball, including footwork and hand-eye coordination.”

Players will receive four to five hours a week of on-court training as well as weekly virtual meetings with guest coaches and assorted speakers.

Bleich is hoping things will improve and United will be able to do more.

“If in January or February they allow us, we will start contact,” he said. “If they allow us to do intrasquad scrimmages, we will have the 11s play the 12s and the 9s plays the 10s and so on once a week just to get some game stuff in.”

Bleich is hoping for the best.

“I think the best-case scenario is a summer league and I think the vaccine will be the big thing. Once we get the vaccine and it rolls out, we may be able to do some things in April and May.”


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