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The Queen Charlotte Saints basketball team huddles before the start of the third quarter in their game against the Walnut Grove Gators in Langley March 12, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The Queen Charlotte Saints basketball team huddles before the start of the third quarter in their game against the Walnut Grove Gators in Langley March 12, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

B.C.’s Cinderella basketball tale comes up short Add to ...

The matchup was uneven from the start, but in the end the smaller school from Haida Gwaii couldn’t pull off an upset.

On one side was Walnut Grove Secondary, a high school attended by about 1,800 teenagers and the defending champions in boys basketball in British Columbia. The opponents, the Queen Charlotte Saints, come from villages on Haida Gwaii and have a school of only 142 students.

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The Saints would not normally qualify for the B.C. Boys High School Basketball Championships for large high schools, taking on instead other small schools, but the team has played well above its size this year. It has two strong players and went 14-2 in exhibition contests over several winter trips outside the isolated islands in the province’s northwest.

But the initial game against Walnut Grove always loomed large for the underdog Saints.

On Wednesday morning, the No. 13 Saints could not conjure what it would take to upend the No. 4 Walnut Grove Gators, losing 80-56. Both teams will play three more games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Langley Events Centre, east of Vancouver. Walnut Grove will try to defend its title, while the Saints will vie for a consolation position.

The Saints’ story has attracted media attention and two television stations, Global and CTV, chronicled the team on Wednesday.

There was a sense of disappointment, but the Saints have always been more than just wins and losses.

Most of the boys on the Saints wore black T-shirts during the early morning warmups for their game. The shirts protested pipeline plans by Enbridge Inc. to move oil to the West Coast for tanker export from Kitimat. The people of the islands of Haida Gwaii are strongly opposed.

“I’ve got this sinking feeling about Enbridge,” the back says, and on the front: “No pipelines. No tankers. No problems.”

The game score was lopsided, but was close for a while.

First, both teams were nervous, and making mistakes, but Walnut Grove led by 10 at halftime. In the locker room at the intermission, the Saints sang a Haida song to rouse a comeback, and it seemed to work, briefly. With about 200 people watching, support split about evenly for the two teams, the Saints stormed out to an 8-1 run to get within three points.

Then Walnut Grove tipped the game back, pouring in 11 points on the way to victory.

The Saints’ Nathan Vogstad, in Grade 12 and heading to study and play at Simon Fraser University in the fall, scored the most points for either team, 25, but like his own team, shot poorly.

“We let it slip away,” said the 17-year-old in the hallway after the game. “We showed a glimpse of what we can do.” He felt the team could have wrested a win on another day, but was in good spirits and still relishing the setting of the provincial championships and three more games.

“It’s amazing to be here.”

“They were pretty good,” said Walnut Grove’s Jadon Cohee, last year’s MVP who’s now in Grade 12. In the fall he is set to play at Seattle University in NCAA Division I college basketball.

He said the Saints, even from a tiny high school, deserve their spot among the top 16 teams in the province competing in Langley. “They’re physical and strong.”

Saints coach, 28-year-old coach Desi Collinson, sat in the locker room after the game. As a teacher, he tried to imbue his team with a sense of self and pride, a representation of the character and spirit of Haida Gwaii and their village of Skidegate.

“They didn’t play with nothing to lose,” said Mr. Collinson of the game. “They forgot to have fun. They weren’t enjoying themselves out there.”

Follow me on Twitter: @DavidEbner

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