Coach Desi Collinson has been playing basketball for as long as he can remember.

“My older brother would play a lot, and I spent a lot of time at the rec centre, and I just remember competing against him, all the time,” he says.

“When you’re growing up around Skidegate, it’s kind of embedded into you to be a basketball player.”

After graduating from high school, Collinson went on to play at Langara College in Vancouver. He returned to Haida Gwaii, where he’s training the next generation of basketball players, as coach of the Queen Charlotte Secondary School Saints, and the Junior and Intermediate teams for the Skidegate Saints.

“It creates lots of better opportunities for a lot of young individuals who have been aspiring to be not just basketball players, but get a good education and leave the reservation, leave Skidegate, and then come back and make the community better as a whole for everybody.”

Underdogs at the provincial championships

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The QCSS Saints didn't win at the AAAA provincial championships, but coach Desi Collinson says it was a victory for them to be there in the first place. (submitted)

It has been a big year for the Queen Charlotte Secondary School Saints. When Collinson started on as coach about 5 years ago, the team was still in the B division.

They moved up to the A division, and then into the AAA division. This past year, the team made it to the highest level for high school basketball, the AAAA division.

As one of the smallest schools in the province, making the cut was a big triumph.

“I’d been preparing for this,” says Collinson.

“When I first started it was like baby steps, and it felt like it was taking forever and ever, and finally the moment came.”

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The Junior Skidegate Saints team poses at the All-Native Basketball Tournament in Kamloops this year. The team won their division for the third year in a row. (submitted)

Heading into the provincial championships, the Saints were favoured as the underdogs. Collinson says he heard from people around the country, who said they were rooting for the team.

“It was a Cinderella story for everybody, that fantasy Cinderella story inside people’s minds where they want the underdog to win.”

The victory didn’t happen on the scoreboard. The Saints were pitted against reigning champions, the Walnut Grove Gators in the first game, and lost 80-56.

“Once it was actually over, I was emotionally drained. I just had a whole lot of energy drained out of me, “ says Collinson.

Despite the early defeat, Collinson says it pushed his team to the next level

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Desi Collinson stands with four of five players who are graduating and moving on to post-secondary this year. (submitted)

“We’re back in action. The bar has been set. The level of competition is never going to go down, it’s just going to continue.”

Collinson says there’s a lot of work to do this year, but he says next year, the QCSS Saints will be ready to face off against the province’s best next time around.

A long legacy of basketball

The QCSS Saints take their name from Skidegate’s basketball team. The Skidgate Saints are no longer the underdogs. The Junior, Intermediate, Senior and Master teams regularly dominate the All-Native Basketball Tournament, with all of them coming in first this year.

“Just like anybody else, we have to start somewhere, and then make our way up. Not being the underdog is always a good thing, but that means working twice as hard as the person that’s trying to beat you.”

That hard work comes with the lasting legacy basketball has in Skidegate. Basketball first came the Haida Gwaii through those who attended residential schools. Collinson says, despite that, the Haida have made the sport their own.

“When something is brought back to Haida Gwaii, it’s usually turned into its own thing. [The Saints] brings back memories of who played before you, how came before you and how you’re going to carry that torch on stronger for them,” says Collinson.

Building a stronger community through sport

For Collinson, one best parts of coaching is seeing his players grow-up, and be successful. He says 100 per cent of his players have graduated high school.

This year, five team members are going on to university, two of them on basketball scholarships.

“Once one generation is changed, it can change the rest of the generations. Once the bar is set, in a small community, it changes.”

Having five of his star players move on is leaving Collinson worried about the coming season. The change in roster means Collinson has a busy summer ahead of him. In addition to working two jobs, he’s on the court every day, training new recruits.

“They’re young studs. You can just see the potential within them. I can see four or five university players. It’s a beautiful thing,” says Collinson.

“I need to grab a hold of that while it’s there. If not I’ll regret it for in the future. I’ll regret it for their future and my future. I need to put in a lot of work.”