Valemount grade 8 basketball team
“The Greats.” left to right: Shae-Lynn Carlson, Jocelyn Brady, Gabrielle Baker, Katlyn Jensen, Taylor Clark-Felton and in front Denice Kapungu. Not pictured: Diquita Cardinal.

Here is the tiny one. It’s small alright. A small team from a small school. And what’s this? The tallest girls aren’t under the net. Coach doesn’t wear a suit. He doesn’t look like much of a basketball player. There are only six players. Pah!

It’s the final game and they are up against the #1 ranked team in the Zone: Prince George Secondary School (PGSS). Next year, when the girls are in Gr. 9, Zones will be the proving ground for Provincials. This year, the PGSS bench has 15 girls. Valemount’s has six.

But the six girls hold onto one of Coach Tim Nusse’s mental power-ups: Sometimes when the little guy doesn’t know he is a little guy, he can do great big things.

This story ends with them losing their final game of the season. How can this be a good story?

This story is more than just basketball. More than just one team. It’s the story of big things done by each of Mr. Nusse’s small teams in a small school in a small town.

Seven girls showed up this year who had never played much basketball. They show up, not to try-outs, but to a team that will accept anyone who wants to play. That’s how it works under Mr. Nusse. As long as you take the game seriously, you get to play.

Small team; egalitarian; inclusive. Surely this team has no chance against the big schools that cut as many students as try out.

These six Gr 8s and one Gr 7 student showed up to join a culture built over 20 years; the traditions are too many to mention – stomp cheer after free throws, Mr. Nusse’s tie, indoor-only shoes, keeping stats each game, standing up when fellow players leave the court, you’re special book if you’ve played 5 years, mental power-ups, Mr. Nusse’s jokes and on and on.

Mr. Nusse wears his indoor-only runners, clean loose-fitting clothing. Speaks in a slow, methodical way with a hint of American Midwest which is where he grew up. He’s not afraid to smile or laugh during practices, teasing the players just as they tease him.

Tim Nusse Valemount girls basketball coach
Tim Nusse

On a small team, where you can’t afford to lose players, Nusse needs a way to connect with the girls; correct their technique without crushing morale. Humour is one way (No your other left hand!); he crouches down during time-outs when the girls sit, so he doesn’t loom authoritatively. He reviews with the whole team – doesn’t single out girls who are hard on themselves. He gains respect and trust – the girls learn to observe.

How do you motivate a bunch of teenage girls who have never played basketball and who aren’t necessarily friends off the court? How is it possible that Mr. Nusse, who will be coaching his 20th year next year, has taken so many teams to provincials?

Passion is one reason, teacher Karrie Iselmoe reflects.

“He’s passionate. And the kids thrive off of someone who has a passion.”

Iselmoe, or “Miss I,” the science teacher, is the assistant coach this year.

Nusse says he sees the connection female players have with a female coach.

“Karrie gives them that connection. She fills in that spot that I can’t fill in. It’s been just terrific having her there the past two years.”

Both she and Mr. Nusse share a coaching philosophy, which Iselmoe uses in her classroom – you don’t lower the bar. You set the expectation at a certain level you know the students can attain. And you don’t budge.

Female athletes like to think the game, Nusse says. They respond well when you explain how a drill fits into the game as a whole. He says that is one reason why he has enjoyed coaching the girls.

15 years ago, Nusse started filming their away games to show to parents. The former high school’s gym was too small for games, so parents seldom saw their kids play. The team’s video camera holds VHS cassettes that can be popped directly into a VCR. Nusse has stored close to 100 videos in his basement. They are carefully archived by year, whether junior/senior, and the opposing team. He will pull out tapes from a year before to show his current team how to beat another team’s defence. Sometimes girls will ask to borrow a video of a game from years ago.

Most of all, it’s a way for Nusse to really watch the game. A coach is always focussed on the strategy, which players to swap out, what the other team is doing and how to counter it… and so, often on a Sunday, Mr. Nusse will watch hours of tape of his junior and senior teams to prepare for that week’s practice. It’s several hours on top of an already gruelling schedule. Nusse takes off three months from his self-employed carpentry business to coach. He manages three teams: the Gr. 8 girls, the junior girls and the senior girls. To be competitive from a small town, you travel a lot. Teams must play so many games to be eligible for the district tournament. Nusse & Iselmoe travel every weekend, driving a bus or car, arranging billeting at other schools where the team will take over the Drama room or Home Ec room with sleeping bags. Sometimes all the girls will sleep on the soft gymnastics landing pad. They will cook their own food to save money.

Valemount girls basketball

There’s no trust fund for this team, no big pot of money. Nusse volunteers all his time. He billets the girls, and the team fundraises for tournaments through concessions at community events. The school also contributes some money; some private donations roll in.

Nusse builds up the team block by block, much like he does in his carpentry job. At the beginning of the Zones tournament in Prince George two weeks ago, each girl pulled out a piece of paper from Mr. Nusse’s mental power-up bag. The idea of preparing mentally for a game isn’t unique to this team. But Nusse decided to write down quotations to read before each game. Each girl picks one out and read it to the others.

“I thought – we do all these warm-ups before a game to get our muscles ready and get our lay-ins tuned up. We need to mentally power-up also.”

Nusse gathers these quotes from all over the place. They often reference the fact the team is small. From a small school. From a small town. But being small doesn’t have to mean achieving small things: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

It takes Nusse a while to figure out who should go where. Where is each girl’s strength? Her weakness? Her potential? Often he places girls where he sees potential. A glimmer of something extraordinary, if yet undeveloped.

Shae-Lynn Carlson is the Gr. 8 girl who leads the team on the court, thinking and giving directions. Nusse says the reason he placed her as point guard is because he saw how she leads the girls, both on and off court. As the tallest player, many coaches would have placed her under the basket. Another girl was doing her lay-ins improperly. He said rather than correcting her right away, he wanted to let her find her own way – he imagines she will become a creative ball handler, similar to girls he has coached in the past.

Over the past 19 years, about seven players have gone on to play at college or university. Another seven or so have been offered but declined, or have been extremely close but were cut in the final round.

Single A teams come from schools with 80-90 senior girls. At Valemount Secondary the number of senior girls currently stands at less than 15. AA and AAA teams are also ranked based on the size of the school. Single A schools play other single A schools etc.

Nusse says an unusually high number of players have been offered basketball positions after high school given that Valemount is small even for single A. Post-secondary coaches consider players from all divisions.

Former Valemount Secondary player Linnaea Van Der Zwan now plays for the Grand Prairie Regional College team. She is back in town for the summer and has invited the girls to train with her at the high school.

It’s an extension of how things worked when Van Der Zwan played at Valemount Secondary. With fewer players, it’s often necessary to borrow junior players to play on senior teams. And so the peer mentorship and the high level of play conditions the younger players for when they reach senior years.

Van Der Zwan’s team went to provincials every year she played at the senior level – which in Valemount can start as early as Gr. 9. The best they did during her years was 6th in the province out of approx. 80 single A schools.

Valemount girls basketball 2

Nusse is quick to define success not just as provincial results (they once came in 4th provincially), but also in terms of team camaraderie, skill development, and attitude.

Part of their success comes from Mr. Nusse’s funny jokes. Kidding. It’s become a tradition for the girls to roll their eyes when he delivers a pun or Knock-Knock joke.

“His jokes aren’t funny!” says a smiling Jessica Shalla, a senior player. “You can’t laugh at his jokes.”

His jokes are one way he humbles himself off the court. He tolerates returning jokes about his thinning hair. Mr. Nusse has found another way to be the glue of his team. Something other than a dictator or a tyrant. While the other coach is screaming, Mr. Nusse is”¦ thinking? He shifts the weight on his feet, arms crossed, watching with measured intensity, gathering evidence. His shouts to the court, while they may be critical, are not angry. It seems his brow is never furrowed.

The girls anticipate his cues, and his belief.

“He believes in us sometimes more than we believe in ourselves,” says Shae-Lynn Carlson, one of the Gr. 8 girls.

It was Shae-Lynn who thought she heard it first. The way Mr. Nusse said “Grade 8s.”

It sounded like he was saying “The Greats.” Shae-Lynn wrote it on the whiteboard during a water break. She says she wishes she could have captured on film the look on Mr. Nusse’s face when he saw it “He had a look of pride, success and a sense of courage.”

Since the start of the season The Greats have “grown exponentially” says Iselmoe.

Valemount grade 8 girls basketball
“The Greats” presenting a book of stories to Coach Nusse.

Jacquie Baker, mother of Gr. 8 player Gabrielle Baker, says it’s impossible to describe how far the team has come this year. The Bakers are moving away next year. When they announced the move to Gabrielle and her sister, Gabrielle’s reply was that then she couldn’t play basketball with Mr. Nusse.

Baker likes to see her daughter doing something that encourages her to drive herself.

“Often girls are not given a place to develop aggression,” Baker says. “I think that’s important.”

20 years ago, the school’s then-athletic director told Nusse that his girls team would never last. It was the boys he should focus on. Four Gr. 8 girls had come to Nusse and asked him to coach a team. Nusse, the parent of one of the girls in that grade, had helped set up a program at the elementary school. He was on crutches at the time and off work after breaking his pelvis during a carpentry accident.

“I couldn’t exactly tell them I didn’t have time.”

Nusse had played basketball all through school, and saw that he could offer them something beyond basketball.

A teacher at the school, Kathy Peterson, heard about Mr. Nusse’s potential team. Her daughter Devanee had played competitive basketball in high school in McBride and went on to play university basketball in the U.S. Peterson supported Nusse’s idea and together they started the first girls’ team at the school in many years.

Nusse says Peterson helped lay the foundation of rules and respect during those first years. He recalls she laid down the law one day when two girls were significantly late for a meeting time.

The first couple of years were building years. The school had no budget for the team the first season. But Nusse persevered.

“I guess God prepared me to be a girls basketball coach by giving me four daughters,” he says.

It wasn’t until 2001, that Nusse realized a block was afflicting his teams. They would never capture first place.

“I could sense and see that we would get to a certain point in the competition and then the feeling that we’re just a small school, small schools can’t do this, would kick in.”

He says in 2001, the girls were in the zone championship game. The winner was going to provincials. They were up against a school five times the size of Valemount. At halftime, Valemount was ahead by one point. Nusse realized he needed to think of something brilliant to say to inspire the team. While he was thinking, the team captain said she needed to address the girls. “I did not come here to win or lose a trip to provincials by one or two points,” the captain said. “You girls are not playing to your potential, you know it, and I expect you to play to your potential.”

The girls scored 48 unanswered points and they won their trip to provincials.

It was a turning point in the program. Two of the girls from that team went on to play at university.

“I saw the attitude that we’re a small school, we can’t achieve above a certain level – it just disappeared there,” Nusse says. “It’s become part of the girls program that of course we can achieve; we just have to do the work, have the mental attitude.”

The self-assurance and ownership of the game isn’t just in scoring points. During one nasty game against Jasper, the referees were not calling foul on the other team, even though several Valemount players had to receive medical attention after the game. Their best player was body slammed into the wall. After a Gr. 10 girl was body slammed to the floor, the Valemount captain led the team out of the gym. She told the girls: we don’t have to stay here and put up with this. The referee said to Nusse: They can’t leave the game like this! Nusse said he was siding with his girls. He was proud.

“They were making a statement that they don’t have to stay in an abusive situation. That’s going to serve them well for the rest of their lives.”

Nearly every year, close to half the girls at the school enroll in basketball – other schools can’t believe the participation rate is so high. Even though his teams are shrinking with the decline in the school population, he still has that same rate of participation. It is still something girls look forward to when they graduate from elementary school.

Nusse says when his youngest daughter graduated, people thought he might quit coaching, since that’s often how it works. But the mom of his two god daughters phoned him one day and told him: “My daughters just told me that you’re going to coach them basketball all five years of highschool and they’re going to go to provincials in Gr. 12.”

Nusse sat down and thought, “Ok, I guess I’m going to do that then.”

Last year, his goddaughters Linnaea and Hayley van der Zwan graduated. But several girls in Gr. 9 came up to him and told him “You’re going to coach us basketball until we graduate.”

So the end is not yet in sight.

The granddaughter of Peterson, the teacher who supported his first team, will be in Gr. 8 next year. Diquita Cardinal has been the Gr. 7 player seconded by the Gr. 8 team this year. And so things come full-circle.

At the final game against PGSS, it’s clear that basketball is the window through which the girls are learning a lot about life.

They have won two games, lost another, and are now facing the #1 ranked team in the zone. If they win this game, they will have to play two more games, bringing the total to six games in two days. They have only one spare on the bench. The other team has more than twice the number of players.

Mr. Nusse puts on his tie.

The tie is only worn when the team goes to the finals of their tournament. This year the Gr. 8 girls’ favourite tie is one with a dalmatian holding a bunch of helium baloons by the string. Just the tie, no suit. It’s another symbol of his belief in his girls.

Then he tells them that this challenge is like many in life. You need to learn how to handle these challenges when they happen.

Valemount is down 12-2. They are getting burned by PGSS. In the first quarter Nusse calls a time-out and pulls the girls together. “Girls, we’re on track to lose this game 72 to 20. Is that how you want to finish this season?” It suddenly clicked. It was one thing to lose. It was another to lose drastically.

During the last three minutes of the game, the score was around 55 to 36. Mr. Nusse asked the girls to set a goal. The team decided they were going to score two baskets without letting the other team score. The girls scored 3 unanswered baskets, eventually losing the game 55 to 41.

“Mr. Nusse told us he was so happy and proud to be part of our team and that we should be proud of how we finished that game,” Jocelyn Brady said. “Almost everyone had teary eyes at the last team meeting of the season.

She says Mr. Nusse always says that basketball is 60% mental, 40% physical and 10% heart.

“I think I didn’t realize how true that was until this last tournament.”

The girls went home with a shiny silver medal. Gabrielle Baker said along the #2 rank, the girls also left a mark in Prince George.

“We were no longer the little Valemount team that everyone expected to beat,” Baker said. “Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you will lose. It means you have to work that much harder to win. We had finished the season living up to our name: The Greats.”

Valemount girls basketball

At the wind-up party for the season, the Gr. 8s, junior and senior girls had a potluck in the Home Ec room. The Gr. 8s read stories about their year which they put into a book as a gift for Nusse.

The players’ voices waver as they talk about their appreciation of Nusse. Hard-working, dedicated, the best…

“I’m so grateful I got to play on Mr. Nusse’s team with these amazing girls who became one of Valemount’s many, many great basketball teams,” Brady told the room of players, parents and coaches.

A mountain is a challenge to climb not a barrier to discourage. That is Mr. Nusse’s favourite quotation.

“From my years our team really trusted each other,” Van Der Zwan says. “It didn’t mean we had to be best friends off the court. It’s learning to trust people and give and take. Just to be part of something – something to be proud of for sure.”

By Laura Keil