From winless to undefeated: a basketball success story

New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (Print Edition) | Robert Williams
March 6, 2020
Section B Page B10

ROTHESAY • When the Rothesay Netherwood School prep boys basketball team entered the coast-to-coast National Preparatory Association four years ago, it didn’t win a single game.
The closest score was a loss by 25 points, said head coach Damian Gay, a former Saint John Mill Rat turned math teacher who has built the program from the ground up.

Four years later, RNS has done what few Canadian basketball experts could have predicted, posting an undefeated 12-0 record this season in league play, with their eyes on a national championship later this month.

With a roster that features players from across the Maritimes, Ontario and even Spain; RNS has turned itself into an Atlantic Canadian basketball powerhouse.

But Gay is far from content with what he’s built so far.

“We’re going to be the best high school program in the world,” he contends. “We’re going to get to the point where kids are buying RNS jerseys at sports stores.”

It started with the goal of dethroning Harvey High School, the reigning champion of the province’s A division. After taking them down, Gay said the program set its eyes on Fredericton High School, the team that has dominated AAA basketball in the province for decades.

They knocked them off as well.

Now, RNS aims to take down Canada Topflight Academy, one of the top basketball programs in the country. The Rothesay squad beat them by a single point this season, but the road to a national championship will likely go through the Ottawa-based team.

But their league play is only a small indicator of what the RNS program is building. The Riverhawks have played in showcases and tournaments in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Florida and New York this year, facing off against some of the top teams in the U.S.

“Essentially, you’re trying to find ways to lose,” said Gay. “We’re going to these places, and we’re playing in packed gyms, even when we’re not a marquee game.”

He points to the New York showcase, where his team lost all three games -- one by 10 points to the top-ranked team in the state. His team has gone 17-0 since that trip, but he said he’s more proud of those three losses than anything else they’ve accomplished this season.

Calls have already started pouring in from NCAA programs, with all the Ivy League schools -- which includes programs like Harvard and Yale -- touching base with Gay this season. Other schools like Stanford, Kansas State and Seton Hall have also been asking about players, he said.

Samuel Alamutu of RNS is listed by North Pole Hoops as the seventh top prospect in the 2021 class. But he’s joined by a cast of players who are also working their way up the national rankings in their respective classes, including Kellen Tynes (13), Matteo Zagar (17) and seven-footer Tyler Fiaui (20). And Daniel Keripe, the school’s top soccer player, is now being considered by some universities as a two-sport athlete.

The secret, said Gay, is that RNS is an academic-first institution. He said the word is out that players are going to be treated as student-athletes, not just basketball players hoping to punch their ticket to the National Basketball Association.

“I’m paid to be a math teacher,” said Gay. “I’m not paid to be a coach.”

The program has earned the praise of the school’s athletic director, Kayla Blackmore, who called this season “nothing short of impressive.”

“Coach Damian Gay has built this program with his bare hands over the past 4-5 years and has brought in hard-working and driven student-athletes who have helped make our school community a better place,” said Blackmore.

Travelling with the team to the national championship will be the number 13 jersey, brought in honour of Gay’s first recruit to the program, Andrew Milner.

Milner died last spring after his canoe capsized in Moyie Lake, near Cranbrook B.C. He was playing basketball with the University of Calgary Dinos, where he won a national championship in his rookie season.

“It’s been a year to honour him,” said Gay. “It’s something that all our players take very seriously.”

The team will head to Toronto at the end of the month in search of their first national championship. (ED NOTE: NPA championships have been postponed/cancelled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.)