Tiny school plays big, fighting for No. 1 ranking in N.L. basketball

A tiny school on the southwest part of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula is in the middle of a David and Goliath battle on on the basketball court.

Fatima Academy has 54 students and a team to be taken seriously

The tiny school, with its 54 students, boasts one of the province's best basketball teams. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

A tiny school on the southwest part of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula is in the middle of a David and Goliath battle on on the basketball court.

Fatima Academy in St. Bride's — an all-grade school with 54 students — is going up against one of the province's largest schools, Holy Heart of Mary from St. John's, for a provincial boys' high school basketball title.

"Basketball is life to them. Basketball is everything to them," Fatima's coach, and a school graduate himself, Chris Mooney said.

"They want to win. They believe they can win everything. I think that's something to do with it too."

'Ball is life' for Fatima boys like Mitchell Careen who play in the rural community of St. Bride's, on the Cape Shore of the Avalon Peninsula (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

In the 2017-2018 school year, there are 18 students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 at Fatima Academy. Despite its size, the team is ranked No. 2 by the Newfoundland and Labrador Basketball Association.

We gotta work like dogs ... we're not supposed to be here.- Braedan McGrath, Fatima co-captain

Holy Heart, the team to beat and the holder of the No.1 rank, has 1,030 pupils in Grades 10-12. 

"Like the boys say, 'Ball is life' here at Fatima," principal Darlene Walsh said.

"Basketball has been the game of choice here for many, many years. As long as I've been here, and that's 25 years."

Famous graduates

In their small gym, which also houses the school's stage which itself turns into the cafeteria during lunchtime, big things have already happened.

As your eyes spin around the ceiling, one that's low enough to slap a basketball out of the air if you shoot a three-point that arcs a little too high, you see banner, upon banner, upon banner of the school's athletic success.

Cross-country running, volleyball and basketball, but in the last few decades just basketball. 

The school can already boast being the starting point for basketball greats Carl English and Jenine Browne. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Above one the baskets, hanging proudly, are two pictures. One is of Memorial University Seahawks standout Jenine Browne, who turned down scholarship offers from all over the United States and Canada, choosing to stay and play at home.

Browne led the country in scoring for three seasons and was a four-time USports First Team All-Star. She's also the third leading scorer, of all time, in Canadian university basketball. 

The other photo is of Carl English, a man who started out at Fatima and is now currently the second leading scorer in the National Basketball League of Canada. 

At Fatima they wear their pride on their sleeves. Coach Chris Mooney's hometown of Branch is tattooed on his forearm. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

For a school of 54 students those two names are big reasons why each and every lunchtime the little gym fills up with hoop dreamers of all-ages opting to grab basketballs. 

"Any other school you go to in St. John's, it's Grade 10, 11 and 12s and those Grade 10, 11 and 12s are playing ball with each other. Out here it's Kindergarten to Grade 12 so you'll come over here and you'll have a Grade 4 playing with a Grade 12," said coach Mooney as he tried to explain the team's success.

'We gotta work like dogs'

With players ranging in age from 18 down to one 12-year-old seventh-grader, each game is a fight to prove they belong with the province's best basketball schools. 

"We just gotta work. We gotta work like dogs," said co-captain Braedan McGrath.

"We're not supposed to be here."

Fatima Academy will play against the much bigger Holy Heart St. John's team in the Elite 8 tournament Feb. 16-18. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The team's triumphs are creating waves of pride through the school and neighbouring communities.

"It's a big community event," assistant coach and teacher, and Fatima Academy graduate, Chantel Nash said.

"If you were here on the day that there is a tournament, you wouldn't be able to hear me speak and you'd see crowds of people making lots of noise."

As the boys get ready for the Elite 8, or the tournament's official name — Hall of Fame Cup — on Feb. 16-18, two of the players drag out a large blue mat.

The gym isn't as big as in some of the rival schools so to avoid hitting the wall when running toward one of the baskets the mat is put against the wall; it has has saved many young men from crashing into the concrete.

When the battle for boys' basketball supremacy is fought at the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Centre in St. John's, lots of eyes will be on Fatima Academy.

As the boys say, ball is life at the school. Some might argue that it's in their DNA.