By: Jack Cochrane

Kia Nurse Elite basketball team practicing for the summer months. (Jack Cochrane/TMU J-School)

Flurries of feet rush by as a ball bounces with every step toward the net. The tension is palpable. One could almost cut it clean through with a knife. Despite this, Brooke Macleod remains unfazed; for her, this intense atmosphere is simply part of her routine. As a dedicated athlete at Crestwood Preparatory College, she thrives in this environment, where education and sports blend to shape promising futures. For Macleod, life in a prep school isn’t just about basketball; it’s about honing her skills on and off the court, preparing her for the challenges that lie ahead in her athletic and academic journey.

Preparatory schools and the sports teams they support allow the union of  young athletes’ education and sporting careers to better set them up for a future in their respective careers. 

In the United States, they exist for a multitude of sports and are particularly popular for young basketball players. Recently, some prep school teams have started to rise in Ontario, following the trends States-side. For young women with dreams of honing their skills within their respective sports and potentially molding that into a future career, these schools enable them to do so. 

“We often talk about the sacrifices of being a high-tier athlete, without recognizing that these girls are still teenagers,” says Marlo Davis, a coach at Crestwood. “I think Crestwood really excels at marrying these two concepts and allowing our girls to be both.”

Crestwood, Toronto’s leading prep institution, was founded in 2001 and features a variety of sports programs. Basketball stands at the forefront of their repertoire. One of the first prep schools in Canada, it is one of the more renowned options for athletes in Ontario.

“It’s helped me open my eyes to a whole new level of basketball,” Macleod said. “ I didn’t know this was an option before but the schools are so accommodating. They help us with our practices and time management.”

The increase in Canadian prep schools, which began approximately eight years ago, marked a significant shift in the landscape of women’s basketball. Drawing inspiration from their counterparts in the United States, these institutions merge the schedules of athletes in and out of their classes. With the aim of making athletes’ lives more streamlined while also doubling down on their training, these schools have become instrumental in providing exposure and opportunities for aspiring female athletes.

“I don’t think there’s a huge variation [between boys and girls interested in the sport], but it’s the participation that makes the difference,” says Sheron Lau, chair of the board of directors for the Canada Basketball Foundation. “It’s still not as common for young girls to participate in sports, so if you want girls to participate in sports, you have to support it through the school.”

The Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association is the primary league for preparatory teams and schools in Ontario. The organization is committed to ensuring that each participating high school delivers a top-notch educational experience alongside a rigorous daily training regimen tailored to basketball proficiency. Hali Burns is one such coach in this league, dedicated to training a new generation of young women and fostering their dreams of pursuing basketball as a career, whichever direction that may take.

“Speaking from experience when I went, I didn’t live in this practical era.” Burns recounted. “Going straight from a high school scenario to a university setting was very eye-opening and very hard because I didn’t know what to expect. So basically we’re preparing them to be set up for success, both academically and athletically.”

Burns, like many other people in her position, aims to give opportunities to female athletes that weren’t afforded to her during her career as a player. After facing a career-ending injury Burns, who at the time was coaching on the side, decided to switch focus and coach full-time. She went on to coach many teams including the Mohawk College Mountaineers, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and Team Ontario. Now, Burns is a coach for Lincoln Prep, a school that operates out of Hamilton.

Prep schools, while offering opportunities for young athletes like MacLeod, have also attracted various criticisms and concerns. “It’s an accessibility and affordability issue,” Joe Sutor said. Sutor’s daughter was part of a girls basketball program for some time. “We could afford it, whereas some families or athletes might not be able to. Another issue we had is, it’s not a standardized system,” he said, noting that education quality can vary from school to school.

The issue of accessibility extends beyond prep schools. In 2022, the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation found that the “cost of programs and equipment [in various sports programs] was identified as a barrier for 43 per cent” of over 8,000 Canadians surveyed. 

With prep-school tuition, sign-up fees, travel feels, and equipment this presents a huge barrier for those who wish to pursue the sport at the next level but are unable to afford these steep prices; compounded by the fact that many of the most well-known prep schools net a fee equal to or far exceeding the average Canadian university year’s tuition starting around $12,000 for less established programs and going up to more than $30,000 for institutions like Crestwood.

It’s now the final quarter and Macleod is up against the clock. At this moment, academic and athletic pursuits converge, and all that matters is the game ahead. The rhythmic squeak of sneakers against hardwood fills the air as Macleod immerses herself in the thrill of competition. Amidst the echoes of past victories and defeats, she finds solace, a fleeting escape from the pressures of academia. Win or lose, these next twelve minutes symbolize more than just a quarter; they represent resilience, perseverance, and the unwavering pursuit of passion. As the final buzzer sounds, Macleod catches her breath, chest heaving with exertion. Tomorrow, she’ll return to the academic grind, but for now, she revels in the present, knowing that every moment on the court shapes her journey.

Accessible Audio: