Last month's trip to Cuba was more than a basketball adventure for the St. Albert Skyhawks.
The eye-opening experience reinforced how lucky the players were to live where they do.
"We're really fortunate to come from a First World country," said Kendall Lydon, a Grade 10 Skyhawk. "Can you imagine how hard it would be to grow up there like that?"
After the week-long training sessions and scrimmages against athletes their own age that were identified as potential candidates for the Cuba national basketball program, the Skyhawks left behind uniforms, shoes and equipment for their new friends.
"They were so excited about us giving them the littlest things and that felt really good," Lydon said.
It was a humbling experience for the Skyhawks.
"We gave them things that we take for granted, stuff that we can buy here but they can't really afford there," said Andrea Heavener, a Grade 12 Skyhawk. "It was really heartbreaking because on the last day we gave them everything we had and they gave us little things like bracelets and earrings. Even though they can't afford anything they were still giving us something. It meant so much to us and we left the gym crying."
The facility where the Skyhawks and Cubans hooped it up also made a lasting impression on the high school team.
"Half of it was outdoors and one day it was raining and we couldn't play because the court was wet. It made us realize how lucky we are that in Canada we have a roof and walls that close in our whole gym and our floor was waxed too. Their floor was just exposed wood and we didn't want to fall on it but they would still hit the floor for the ball and that's dedication. We'll hit the floor on our waxed floor but they will do it anywhere," Heavener said.
The playing surface was also hard on the shoes the players wore.
"It eats them up and none of those girls had shoes that fit them properly. They would be hand-me-downs from their family members or wherever they got them from because they couldn't afford new shoes, really," Heavener said. "We'll buy a pair of shoes at the beginning of the season and if we decide we don't like them we'll just put them off to the side but that is not the case there. It was a big deal for them to get new shoes, and again it just really showed how lucky we have it with the things that are here."
As for the basketball, the Skyhawks were overwhelmed by the talent level of the Cubans.
"They were really fast and their all-around game was really good," Lydon said. "It was really great to see how they played and how we could benefit from that. We can take some of their moves and how they played and use it to our advantage."
The stifling heat was almost as tough to adjust to as playing the Cubans.
"The first day we were almost blown out of the water because it took us a few hours to adjust to the humidity when we were playing because it's so hot. That's when we knew it was going to be a tough week and it was," Heavener said. "The girls were really good basketball players too. We probably won't play a team that's built of girls like the Cuba girls. Playing them really made us realize the little mistakes we make in a game because they would pick up on those mistakes right away."
As for scrimmages, the Skyhawks and Cubans did small groups of two versus two and four versus four, which included a little tournament of two Skyhawks and two Cubans on each team. When the teams scrimmaged full court against, the Cubans were victorious three times by margins of 30 points (first day) and by one point twice. In their lone win the Skyhawks prevailed by two points.
The language barrier was a big hurdle for both teams to overcome.
"We showed them drills that we do at practice and they would show us drills they would do but it was funny because none of us understand each other. You would say pass but they don't know what pass means so we would use body language to demonstrate that," Heavener said. "It was hard to learn their drills because you have to watch it a whole bunch of times before you could figure it out."
During their stay in Cuba, the 3A provincial rankings were released and the Skyhawks were seeded second overall behind Springbank High in the south central zone. The Skyhawks' record in December was sparkling 6-2 (2-0 in the metro Edmonton premier conference and 4-2 in tournaments, including the season-opening tournament victory at Medicine Hat).
"It's very exciting because we all have this big goal of finishing real well at the end of this season and for us to be told right now that we're number two means a lot. People believe in us and they know we can do good," said Heavener, 17, a versatile third-year Skyhawk who has been racking up the points at shooting guard.
League play resumed Tuesday as the Skyhawks hosted the winless St. Francis Xavier Rams but the score was unavailable at press time. Tonight at 6:15 p.m. the Skyhawks visit the rival Paul Kane Blues (1-2), who are unranked in 4A.
"We want to keep it up and do as well as we can. We want to come out as good as we did in December. We're going to be working hard and trying to make other teams realize we're still a threat," Heavener said.
The Skyhawks are aiming for their sixth straight appearance at the 3A provincials as the Edmonton zone winners for the fourth year in a row. Their roster is made up of eight returning players and three Grade 10s, including Lydon, a newcomer from Washington State.
In Grade 9 she was a starter on her high school varsity team, the Chehalis Bearcats. With the Skyhawks the all-purpose forward is thriving at both ends of the court and has already attracted the attention of university and college coaches in Alberta and Ontario. Heavener, Grade 12 guard Hilary Annich and Grade 11 guard/wing Shelby Hucul have also been scouted heavily.
"I really like how this team plays and how Mr. Dedrick coaches. I really enjoy it," said Lydon, who was featured in a story by her local newspaper about how devastated the Bearcats were to hear she would not be back for her Grade 10 season. "I'm really excited to play with these girls because they all contribute a lot and the intensity they play at."
Despite being an American, Lydon was able to join the Skyhawks in Cuba as head coach John Dedrick and the team's trainer, Jesse Lipscombe, found a loophole in the political red tape for her to make the trip.
"It was cool how Jesse and Mr. Dedrick found out a way that I could go. Originally I wasn't able to go but then it only took a couple of weeks for them to make it happen," said Lydon, who wound up in St. Albert when her dad was transferred through his work.