After a challenging but very successful 2022, the Under-19 Niagara Rangers girls basketball team is rolling into 2023 with eight new players and some renewed optimism.
Coach Shawn Pylypiw took a skeleton team to the Ontario Basketball Association (OBA) championships last year and came home with an Under-17 silver medal. He’s hoping to repeat or, better yet, improve on that finish when things wrap up later this year.
The Rangers took their first step toward that goal Friday night at Crossroads Public School. After a close back-and-forth battle in the first half, the Rangers lost ground in the third quarter to the visiting Ancaster Magic, finding themselves 12 points behind.
But the girls pulled together in the fourth, holding the Magic to only six points.
“We were able to transition to our offence and we scored 19,” Pylypiw tells The Local. “We won the game in the final seconds, 49-48.”
Ava Froese came through for the Rangers in that final quarter, dropping 10 of her 17 points in that eight minutes. Point guard Mikayla Wallace led the way with 20 points in the game for the Rangers and played tenaciously on defence as well, with five steals. Kyla Pylypiw matched Wallace’s five steals and added nine rebounds for Niagara.
“Amy Venneri and Tiana Hicks also made significant contributions to the victory through their grit and hustle,” Pylypiw added. “One of our smallest players, Melia Kotsanis, was manhandled most of the game, even thrown to the ground multiple times. But she bounced back up and pushed through. This was an important first step in the right direction for our season.”
Having 13 players on his roster this year must feel like a luxury for the coach, after taking only six girls to the Ontario championships in 2022.
“It was our first year back post-COVID,” Pylypiw explains. “Province-wide, teams were collapsing and we were hanging on by a thread. We went for gold, though, against the Scarborough Barons. It was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the girls last year.”
“We were limping down the court by the end,” St. Francis Catholic Secondary School student Kyla Pylypiw says of playing four games in two days at the OBA finals. “It was definitely a relief to get more girls to play this year. We know now we’re going to have support on the bench.”
Also returning from last year’s team are Froese, Hicks and Wallace. They’re joined by some new girls playing out of Niagara-on-the-Lake for the first time or others returning after having moved to other teams.
“Some other teams collapsed,” Pylypiw says, “while I think because of what we achieved last year our team might have been a bit of a draw for some girls. A couple of the new girls I coached the very first year we played. They didn’t have a home, so they wanted to come back and play again with us.”
Pylypiw got his start with the Rangers when Kyla was part of the house league skills development program that still runs out of Crossroads. He’s been at the helm of the travel team since his daughter made the leap to competitive ball.
“Kyla is in Grade 11 this year, so we have one more year with most of this group,” he says. “Some of the players in Grade 12 now will still be able to play with us next year depending on their age.”
Pylypiw was expecting scouts from Niagara College and Brock University to be in the crowd at the opposite side of the court Friday. Wallace and Froese have already captured the attention of Chris and Mike Rao, the father and son who coach the Niagara Knights and the Brock Badgers, respectively. Wallace, a Grade 12 student at St. Francis, has already earned a spot at Niagara.
“I’m hoping to take child and youth studies there,” Wallace says. “I’ve been to a few of their practices. I haven’t had a signing session yet, but that’s coming soon.”
Wallace will be following in the footsteps of fellow former Rangers Beth deBoer and Mackenzie Schroeder, who debuted with the Knights in 2019.
Froese, the tallest girl on the team, didn’t start playing basketball until she was in Grade 8. The Grade 11 student at Smithville Christian High School has been in regular contact with Mike Rao and is hoping to catch on with the Badgers.
“I’m excited to see where my future takes me with basketball,” she says.
Unable to get regular practice time in the Crossroads gym, Pylypiw moved their sessions to Port Weller Public School. The facility there is much smaller, but they are making do with what they have.
“We’ve been used to Crossroads, with the bigger gym and hardwood floors,” says Pylypiw. “We’re happy to have a gym, and the staff here have been great. The facility is able to fit our needs for now. Most of our games, though, will either be at Crossroads or at a high school, for the bigger facility, and some stands for our spectators.”
The U-19 girls have been the only travel team in the Rangers system for a few years now. But, with 44 kids from Grade 1 to 6 currently involved in the Rangers Saturday morning house league run by Genille Kroeker, Pylypiw is optimistic that after next year there will be some younger players interested in playing travel ball.
“Having that core group out there is important,” the NOTL resident says. “For that to happen, there would have to be someone who wants to take on the coaching responsibilities and everything that goes along with it. That’s where the starting point would be.”
The road to the 2023 OBA championships continues for the U-19 Rangers when they host the Grimsby Grizzlies this Friday night at Crossroads. They then travel to Grimsby for a tournament the weekend of Feb. 4 and 5.