The U19 girls basketball game between team Ontario and team Alberta at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) was slated to begin and the stands were already packed with fans and family from both sides.

"Leave it out on the floor," is what coach Susan Barberstock tells the Team Ontario U19 girls basketball team before the final game that the team will play at this year's NAIG.

In the moments leading up to the final game, Barberstock says that she feels like she's going to be sick from nervousness. A sentiment that is echoed by the other coach who is also her daughter, Sara MacNeil.

"It means go until you have nothing left, you can be tired after the game but right now you have to leave it all out on the floor," says MacNeil.

This is Barberstock's second year coaching girls U19 basketball at NAIG. Last time she was coach the girls won gold in Regina, Sask. during the 2014 Games. She spends her time coaching basketball teams and has brought teams to the World Youth Volleyball invitational in Hawaii and also to the Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix last year.

Yin, yang duo 

She's loved basketball and played throughout high school and college but never competed as an athlete in NAIG herself. Through word of mouth, she found out about NAIG and got involved right away.

MacNeil is a NAIG veteran also as she competed in the 2014 Regina games, taking home the gold medal with her mom. Now, at 22-years-old, she's aged out of being a competitor but decided to return to the games as a coach.

So far, her experience as a coach at NAIG has been different than her role as a competitor, but it's been a rewarding experience adapting to a leadership role here at NAIG, where she competed three years ago, and creating that relationship with the girls on the team.

Stick with your dreams, if you don't try out then you'll never know if you would have made the team."  - Susan Barberstock, Team Ontario U19 coach

"I'm used to being out on the court. So the experience has been very different and I find myself taking things I've learned and teaching the girls," says MacNeil.

Coaching with her mom she says is like a Yin and Yang duo, where she brings the strategy and new moves, her mom brings the communication and keeps the team grounded.

Heads held high

MacNeil played basketball at Sheridan college but has since taken time off from competing to focus on her studies at Cambrian College, but that hasn't stopped her from being involved in coaching with her mom. This is her third year being a coach.

Since this is her second year being involved with the games, Barberstock had some thoughts about this year's games.

"It has been fun, but it's very spread out. In Regina, all of the venues were much closer together so the teams were able to go out and support each other and forge more friendships between the boys and the girls."

Barberstock says that whether the girls win or lose, she hopes that they can walk away with their heads held high knowing they've had the opportunity to compete at a national level with other Indigenous girls from across North America.


Team Alberta, Blue, and Team Ontario go head to head during U19 girls basketball gold medal match action at the North American Indigenous Games on Friday, in Toronto. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

As the word spreads about NAIG and more people learn about it, Barberstock has some advice for any athletes who would like to compete.

"At a tryout, give it your all. Go to more than one and communicate with the coaches. We see a lot of different players trying out, so we need to remember you. But you should stick with your dreams, if you don't try out then you'll never know if you would have made the team," she says.

This year, Barberstock noticed more athletes at the tryouts because the word is getting out, which is good. NAIG provides a positive space for the youth to get away from their communities and make new friends.

"It's fun to stay with the girls. I love playing and coming out to have fun. Making new friends from all over the country is also a highlight," says Sydney Gautchier, one of the players on the U19 girls Ontario team.

Ontario takes gold

Before the game begins, both of the coaches anticipate that team Alberta would be their toughest competition yet. Both teams have been undefeated this week with five wins each.

In the end, Team Ontario walked away with the gold medal, beating Alberta 66-59.

"We're really proud of Sydney, she worked really hard to get here," says Carolyn Gautchier, Sydney's mom who also played basketball when she was younger.


Sydney Gautchier of Team Ontario poses with her mom, Carolyn, after defeating Alberta 66-59 to win U19 basketball gold at the North American Indigenous Games on Friday, in Toronto. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

"The girls really gel and work well together considering they've only been together for a week. There's been a lot of nice shooting," she says.

Sydney, who played on the U16 girls Basketball team in 2014 says it's good to be back. When She competed during the last games, the team came away with bronze so coming away with gold in her last chance to play feels good.

"To be able to win in my last games and in my home province has been really fun," says Sydney.

"It gives them time to rejuvenate and refocus," says Barberstock.

"NAIG gives the players an opportunity to play in the biggest Indigenous sports tournament in Canada, and gives them a chance to get scouted so they can go on to compete," says MacNeil about the benefits of competing at NAIG.