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Some basketball players at Canada Games facing murky future

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The Canadian Press
8/16/2009 10:23:21 AM
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SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Three weeks before the bell rings on another school year and Megan Lukan still has no idea where she'll spend her Grade 12 year.

She's not alone.

The guard from Barrie, Ont., a member of the Ontario team at the Canada Summer Games, is among a group of the country's best young basketball players who find themselves facing an uncertain future after funding cuts forced Canada Basketball to scrap its National Elite Development Association (NEDA) program.

Lukan remembers the day in March when the players were given the sad news.

"Our coach sat us down after practice, some people expected it and some of us were completely oblivious and didn't know it was coming," Lukan said. "I was heartbroken, personally."

NEDA brought together the top high school age boys and girls in Hamilton to live, train and go to school, an idea borrowed from similar programs abroad.

"So much promise and so much hope at this point, to have to step away from this program seems like such a tragedy," said Canada Basketball CEO Wayne Parrish.

Lukan is one of four players on the Ontario women's team that attended NEDA. The defending Canada Games champions cruised to a 78-23 victory over host Prince Edward Island in their opening game Sunday at Credit Union Place.

Jocelyn La Rocque and Alexandra Yantzi scored 14 points apiece to top Ontario, while Sam Rioux scored six points to lead P.E.I.

Yantzi, who lives in Burlington, Ont., and bussed to Hamilton every day to attend school with her NEDA teammates, said the timing of the program's demise is especially disappointing. Canada's young women's teams are coming off a successful summer - the junior women, with a core of NEDA players on the roster, finished a best-ever fourth at the under-19 world championships, and the under-16 team won silver at the recent FIBA Americas tournament, earning a berth in next year's world championships.

"We are doing so well, you can see in the standings the women's basketball program is starting to do well again," said Yantzi, who will play college ball at Lehigh University. "It is disappointing. This program has made me a stronger person, a better player, a better person, so it's hard to give us such a great thing that I've had for a year."

The bad news was particularly tough on Edmonton twins Katherine and Michelle Plouffe, who made the difficult decision to leave home to live and train in Hamilton a year ago.

"I was not expecting that at all," Katherine said.

"The program was really just huge in developing young women to the national level and junior national level," Michelle added. "We're getting results so it's disappointing to see the program being cut."

The two say the move to Hamilton was worth it, if only for a year.

"We were glad we went, it was a good experience to get the level of exposure we did," Michelle said.

Alberta opened its Canada Games with a lopsided 89-14 win over the Yukon on Sunday. Claire Colborne scored 23 points to top Alberta, while Michelle Plouffe added 16.

The demise of the NEDA boys program hasn't caused as much upheaval as all but two players graduated in June. The girls program had eight Grade 11 players that planned to return for Grade 12.

Jen Lennox, a six-foot-two forward, said she has to move back home to Kitchener, Ont., after a year spent with NEDA.

"It's disappointing," she said."It was devastating when we heard the news. We were all in the gym together balling our eyes out, it was so sad. It helped me improve tremendously, I've been able to do things I never thought I could ever be capable of doing, I'm just a way better player now because of that program."

There's still a chance the program will operate in some form. Parents have been planning fundraising to keep the players together as an elite club team with NEDA interim girls coach Mark Walton.

Canada Basketball will provide guidelines for the program.

"Sort of like a pilot program, we would supply curriculum, we'll do everything we possibly can short of financial involvement," Parrish said.

Parrish pointed out that two coaches also lost their jobs when NEDA folded, girls coach Christine Stapleton, and Greg Francis on the boy's side.

The NEDA program began in the fall of 2006, but ran into trouble when Canada Basketball took a $500,000 blow its budget when it lost its funding from the Road to Excellence program - the funding body for summer Olympic sports. The Road to Excellence turned its focus on sport programs likely to produce Olympic medals, a move that Parrish argues penalizes team sports.

Team sports have joined forces to lobby for different funding criteria, and Parrish said the Canadian Olympic Committee has recently formed a committee to focus on unique issues facing team sports.

"That's a good thing," Parrish said.

In the meantime, Ontario point guard Karly Roser is keeping her fingers crossed the players will somehow stick together.

"Since this program started, we've been doing better," Roser said. "I think NEDA really helped just bringing the best girls in the country together to compete, get a feel for the international game, it prepares you."

Roser, a Hamilton native, will be on the bench at the Canada Games after breaking her arm in the gold-medal game against the U.S. at the FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico. Roser and several other members of the under-16 nation team, arrived in P.E.I. from Mexico early Sunday morning, missing Saturday's opening ceremonies.

Roser arrived with just a splint on her broken arm, and went to hospital in P.E.I. before Sunday's game to have it casted.

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