Topflight’s got next in the nation’s capital

 

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Canada Topflight Academy celebrates winning the 2018 National Preparatory Association National Championship. Photo: North Pole Hoops.

By Charlie Pinkerton

Confetti litters the court as a group of lanky teenagers dance together to the tune of Drake’s Back To Back blaring through gymnasium speakers. Over the YouTube broadcast of the scene that seconds earlier was a national championship basketball game, play-by-play announcer Jason Thom proclaims, “Is this the beginning of another Ottawa Canadian basketball dynasty?”

The team celebrating is Ottawa’s other best basketball team.

Two weeks before, a squad of unmissable high schoolers stroll into the L’ecole Saint-Laurent Express gym in Montreal. Canada Topflight Academy stand out immediately as a legion of long-limbed teens in loose-fitting Canada-red Nike track suits.

Once they shed the signature team apparel and take the hardwood, it becomes their effortless skill that’s alluring. Topflight’s warm up compares less closely to a high school team’s lay-up line than it does to NBA All-Star Weekend’s slam dunk contest. It’s surely what the National Preparatory Association (NPA) shot for when it formed two years ago: maximize the exposure of its players by having every matchup play like a high school all-star game.

One of the Topflight stars is called Muon.

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Ottawa Topflight Academy’s Muon Reath. Originally from South Sudan, Reath has lived in Ottawa from the age of 4. He’s the No. 1 ranked Canadian high school basketball player of the Class of 2021. Photo: Charlie Pinkerton

 

Muon Reath turned 15 years old in October. He’s 6-foot-7. He remembers dunking for the first time in Grade 7. The gangly 160-pound Grade 10 student knows he still hasn’t grown into his frame.

“My coaches all say that,” Reath says with a smile. He doesn’t think he’s reached his peak height, either.

Reath is Canada’s No. 1 ranked player of his age group, according to NorthPoleHoops.com, a launching partner of the NPA. Topflight’s coaches Tony House and Willy Manigat do their best to temper the hype around their youngsters, but the North Pole Hoops rankings certainly aren’t overlooked by the players.

“It’s like the (Canadian) ESPN,” Topflight’s Lual Akot suggests of the site’s rankings. Akot is North Pole Hoops’ 5th ranked Canadian player of the class of 2019.

 

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Lual Akot, originally from Edmonton, moved to Ottawa in 2011. Photo: Charlie Pinkerton.

“Muon’s the next big thing. He’s the future. I believe in him,” David Muila, the team’s starting centre says.

Reath says he tries not to focus on it.

“It doesn’t feel like it, it just feels like I’m just playing. I feel like there’s guys who are better out there at the same time. It’s just weird,” he says.

Reath’s recent predecessors as the most highly-touted Canadian basketball high schoolers include NBA first overall picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, as well as R.J. Barrett, this year’s best, who committed to Duke University and is considered No. 1 by ESPN of players coming out of high school worldwide.

In Montreal, where the NPA hosted a showcase of games in February, North Pole Hoops president Elias Sbiet says when it comes to players in Reath’s year, “There’s Muon… and then there’s everyone else.”

“I feel like I’m not there yet, but I could get there,” Reath says.

Topflight won the NPA’s inaugural National Championship last year. The self-described premier elite basketball program operates out of Notre Dame High School, while the girls’ version of the program, which launched this year, functions out of Immaculata High School.

Reath admits that, despite all of the hype, NPA play doesn’t come easy.

“The reality is it’s harder than you think,” Reath says during a break from his team’s mandatory study hall, the day before they travel to Montreal. “You think you’re going to come in and it’s going to be a breeze; you’re going to play your game and drop 20 every game and stuff like that, but it’s actually hard competition. People are actually going at it.”

The team’s study hall splits Topflight’s players’ days. When Notre Dame’s end of day bell rings at 3 p.m., they settle in for study hall, then workouts, then practice; it’s just less than an 11-hour scheduled day.

“Training is wild. You’re here most of the day, and then you go home, get undressed and it’s not even that long, and then you come back the next day,” Reath said.

Wednesdays the team has their evenings off, while Sundays are reserved as a rest day.

The academy’s cost? $10,000. However, financing in the form of scholarships are available to players based on their skill and personal need.

House, the program’s head coach and president, is a basketball junkie. The St. Pius X High School grad played at the University of Manitoba and grazed attention from Canada’s national team.

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Tony House at a Canada Topflight Academy practice in February. Photo: Charlie Pinkerton

Sidetracked from a conversation about Topflight in mid-February, House describes his week: Topflight coaching on Monday, day-trip to Toronto for the 1000th game of the mascot of the Raptors (a long-time friend of House’s), back to Ottawa for Valentine’s Day with his wife, Topflight coaching on Thursday, and hit the road to Montreal on Friday for a slate of Topflight games that they’ll be playing until Saturday night.

House says Topflight takes up about 60 per cent of his life.

As for the commitment from his players, House says, “This is your life. Forget your friends. Forget your girlfriend. This is it.”

It’s not lost on them.

“I’d say you don’t have time for a girlfriend, that’s for sure,” Aiden Warnholtz, Topflight’s starting Grade 12 point guard, says with a laugh. Warnholtz’s academic success is a pride point of Topflight and the NPA as a whole. He maintains above a 96 per cent average. He says his Wednesdays off are often spent studying.

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Kanata-native Aiden Warnholtz carries the ball up the court. Photo: Charlie Pinkerton

“You don’t really have a social life right now, you have to put that aside because you want to play basketball for the rest of your life, so I guess it’s worth it,” Akot said about the commitment. He’s hoping his Grade 8 sister will join Topflight’s girls program next year.

“This is basically my family now because I’m with this team every day and I spend more time with this team than my own family,” says Muila, Topflight’s all-smiles-off-the-court, all-business-on-the-court 6-foot-8 big man.

Muila was cut from the Louis-Riel basketball team a few years ago but moved to De La Salle High School, where he began to find his rhythm on the court.

“Tony saw me, and he was one of the only coaches that actually took in that I was talented,” Muila said.

After going to one of Topflight’s open sessions, he still wasn’t sure he would be a good fit for the program. Now, he says that it’s saved his life and kept him out of trouble in the “rough neighbourhood” that he’s from.

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David Muila and Tony House chat on the sideline during a game. Photo: Charlie Pinkerton

“It helped a lot of players, especially me. It can change peoples’ lives, this is serious. It’s not just about basketball,” Muila said.

Each intend to play at the Canadian university or NCAA level. They all say playing professionally is their goal.

Their top-ranked underclassmen teammate isn’t shy about his aspirations, either.

“I want to go pro. I’m hoping to go Division 1 and see where I can go from there,” Reath said.

For Topflight at the Montreal showcase – their final three regular season games of the year – its business as usual: three blowout wins and no losses for the Ottawa boys.

Topflight only lost once to Canadian competition all season, finishing with an 11-1 regular season record overall.

After one game that was an admittedly underwhelming performance for Reath, the leisurely teen reflects, “I just wasn’t into it. Because of the drive.”

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Lual Akot (left), David Muila, and Muon Reath at a game against the NPA’s B.C. Christian Prep in Montreal. Photo: Charlie Pinkerton

The two-hour trip to Montreal is one of the shortest that Topflight made for an away game all year. Their following weekend featured a 13+ hour road trip to Virginia, where they played Oak Hill Academy, the perennial American high school powerhouse that’s produced the likes of NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Rajon Rondo. This year their team has four of ESPN’s top 100 ranked recruits.

House wanted the game to be a learning experience for his team.

“I tell them, do you think you’ve really got what it takes? Well here’s your chance to show it,” House said.

Oak Hill walloped Topflight 101-56.

Back in Canada the weekend after, they headed to Brampton for the NPA National Championship tournament. Exceptional overall play from Warnholtz and sharpshooting from Javon Westcarth (another Ottawa-native) carried Topflight to the NPA Championship game.

In the championship game played on March 4, Reath matched up with the top Canadian prospect of next year: GTA Prep’s AJ Lawson, a 6-foot-7 combo guard who’s two years his senior.

Reath does not underwhelm. He dominates defensively, recording countless blocks throughout the game.

Tied at 59 with under two minutes left in the third quarter of the back-and-forth game, Reath records an out-of-nowhere block from the weak side of the court. Warholtz hits a three-pointer on the other end, before another block by Reath leads to an easy basket by Akot to extend Topflight’s lead to five. They wouldn’t give it up the rest of the way, winning the NPA National Championship 83-78.

Back-to-back national championships sounds like the beginning of Ottawa’s next Canadian basketball dynasty, but Warnholtz, this year’s National Championship MVP, and Akot are both graduating, while Muila and Westcarth are in their fifth year of high school. House says he plans to move away from the bench to focus more on his executive role next year.

As for what the future holds for Topflight and for Reath; to again borrow from announcer Jason Thom, as he narrated over-top a group of red-clad Ottawa teens dancing in celebration of their second league championship, “You’ll have to stay tuned to find out.”

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