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This family is building a basketball dynasty in small town Manitoba

When Tianna O'Connor's high school basketball team shoots for a fourth championship trophy, the pressure's on... especially from her own family of basketball stars.

The Manitoba town where basketball is all in the family

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3 years agoVideo
10:26
When Tianna O'Connor's small-town high school basketball team shoots for a fourth championship trophy, the pressure's on - especially from her own family of basketball stars. 10:26

In the little border town of Sprague, in the southeast corner of Manitoba, basketball is practically a religion. In many small Canadian towns the hockey rink may be the church. But here, the school gym is the cathedral.

"I think basketball will always be our life here," said Jared Baines, the principal of Ross L. Gray School in Sprague.

Tianna O'Connor is the school's star player. She's in Grade 12, and is a starter for the Ross L. Gray Lady Raiders. The 17-year-old has been with the team for three seasons — and they've won three straight provincial titles.

Coach Darryl Pederson motivates the Lady Raiders. Tianna O'Connor, number 54, is their star player. (CBC)

"I think it brings the community together and it shows just because we are a small town, we can still do stuff. They might think the city teams have thousands of people, so they are great. But it still shows we can do it," said O'Connor. 

This year, the provincial championships were held in Rosenort, Manitoba. Every athlete feels the pressure, but for O'Connor, it's been building for five decades.

Doris Hovorka is Tianna's grandmother. She has been involved with basketball in Sprague for the last 50 years.

Hovorka is a retired teacher and now runs the local museum. All of her daughters were dominant players for the Lady Raiders in the 80's and 90's.

Three generations of basketball talent. The Hovorka family, centre, watches Tianna play at a recent game. (CBC)

"Basketball has been a big thing, going through many families in the community.  Four of my daughters played basketball and they were all stars," said Hovorka. 

It was Doris and her husband who brought the sport of basketball to Sprague in the first place.

"My husband started basketball while principal of the school. There were very little sports in the school. We hired the first head coach in 1968. That is how it all started," said Hovorka.

"Basketball is in the blood," agreed Tianna's mom, Melissa Hovorka. 

The Lady Raiders faced an uphill battle this year. Four of the starters from the past championship team graduated, leaving O'Connor leading a new group of players and trying to keep the winning tradition alive.

Sprague lost the opening game of the tournament, putting the team on the consolation side of the provincials. Not the outcome the team or fans hoped for.

"I felt bad at first, after a loss. I felt like I was disappointing someone. I would have liked to win for coach, and team," said O'Connor in the locker room after the game.

"I am going to give her a big hug. Tell her she will be OK, get on to the next game. Start all over and do it again," said Melissa before seeing her daughter. 

Tianna gets a hug from her Mom after a tough loss. (CBC)

And even though they walked away with the consolation prize, Tianna was voted the most valuable player of the tournament.

"It is a great pleasure watching my team succeed and how much we worked to get to where we were," said Coach Darryl Pederson, "It was a pleasure to coach Tianna."

In the end, Tianna will go in the record books with 101 total wins. Her coach also goes in as the longest-serving coach in the team's history. They'll each have a spot in the local museum. 

Right now, in that museum, Tianna's grandmother is curating a 50 Years of Basketball exhibit for a community celebration in May.

"Somebody had to start basketball, but the community has been behind the sport since the beginning," she said. "It is important to have kids in sports, helps them grow. I'm proud of all my kids."

The Lady Raiders may have lost this year, but Tianna will go into the record books with 101 total wins under her belt. (CBC)


This documentary was written and produced by Travis Pederson as part of the Doc Project mentorship project. To hear the full audio documentary, click the listen button above.

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