The Belle’s of St. Mary on a Crusade for provincial history

The Big Three at St. Mary are driving towards a goal of four-on-the-floor.

Powered by veterans Christina Buttenham, Hilary Hanaka and Amira Giannattasio, the St. Mary Crusaders intend to become the first Triple A or Quad A high school team in the history of Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations senior girls’ basketball competition to capture four consecutive gold medals.

From left to right: Christina Buttenham, Amira Giannattasio and Hilary Hanaka.  (Photo: Gerry Graham)

From left to right: Christina Buttenham, Amira Giannattasio and Hilary Hanaka. (Photo: Gerry Graham)

The three-time defending champion Crusaders took a step closer to qualifying for the 2013 OFSAA tournament in London by defeating the St. Ignatius of Loyola Hawks 51-43 for the Golden Horseshoe Athletic Conference AAA championship in Oakville on Tuesday (Nov. 12). St. Mary can punch its ticket to the annual provincial showcase tournament with a victory Thursday at home against a representative from Peel Region at 1 p.m.

But the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association squad won’t be satisfied with just another appearance at OFSAA. They want to win it again. That’s particularly important to Buttenham, Hanaka and Giannattasio who are set to sign letters of intent on Wednesday afternoon at St. Mary to attend NCAA Division I schools next September. It’s the first day of the early signing period.

“It (OFSAA gold) would be an amazing way for us to finish our high school careers,” said Hanaka, a point guard who, like Buttenham and Giannattasio, has performed at the senior level since Grade 9. “It would be icing on the cake.”

Buttenham, a forward and the highest scorer on the Crusaders, said: “It’s really important to all the seniors, especially, because it’s our last year and we didn’t win the city championship (losing to the St. Thomas More Knights).”

How many times do you see three players from the same team in the same year signing with NCAA Division I schools? Not often, says St. Mary coach Nate McKibbon.

“We’ve been trying to figure that out,” McKibbon said. “We can’t remember any other time on the girls’ side anywhere in Ontario. I know Cathedral had some boys’ teams in the late ’90s that might have done it. It’s a testament to how hard the girls push themselves at practice. It really is a special thing. I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.”

McKibbon and Rich Wesolowski worked together during those championship years until Wesolowski stepped aside last month.

St. Mary captured Quad A gold in 2010 and took top honours at the Triple A level in 2011 and 2012. Overall, the Crusaders hope to bring home a 12th OFSAA girls’ basketball title. They won four out of five provincial championships from 1996-2000 and did it again from 2002—06, but no school has ever strung together four in a row. Only General Amherst, at the Double A level, has accomplished that feat (2004-07).

Giannattasio’s scholarship is to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hanaka is headed for the University of Vermont in Burlington, while Buttenham has agreed to attend the University of Iowa in Iowa City. McKibbon says each of the graduating seniors contributes in her own way on the court.

“Amira is just a flat-out shooter,” McKibbon said. “She can shoot from anywhere on the court and is a really creative with her dribble. She’s always a threat when the ball is in her hands. She’s going to hit the big shot when she needs to. We’ve got to do a better job of getting her opportunities.”

A guard, Giannattasio was the MVP at Westdale’s SOSI tournament earlier this season. She played for the Transway JUEL club championship team and was a member of the most recent Canada Drive summer program. She will be suiting up for the Northeast Conference Mountaineers.

“Hilary is the glue,” McKibbon said. “She’s one of the most under-rated players I’ve ever coached. She’ll take a charge, make an assist, grab a rebound or hit a shot. A lot of time it doesn’t show up on the score sheet. She just has a way of making a contribution. I know she’ll make a play when she needs to. And it’s usually one that she sees happening before anyone else on the court does.”

Hanaka saw action for the 2011 Cadette Canadian national team. She’s been a part of six Ontario Basketball Association championship teams and four times she was an Ontario provincial team member. At nationals in 2012, she was selected the Most Valuable Player. Hanaka, with the Hamilton Transway organization, won the JUEL league title last summer. In addition, she was MVP of this year’s St. Mary’s Invitational tournament.

Hanaka and the University of Vermont Catamounts play in the America East Conference.

“People notice the points with Christina,” McKibbon said, “but she does a lot of the little things that I’m most proud of. Defensively, she’s a different player than when she started here. She relishes the challenge of matching up against the best player on the other team. And she scores in so many different ways. She can shoot the 3 and she can finish around the rim. She has built on her pull-up game, or mid-range game, which is really a lost art. She’s an incredibly hard worker.”

Buttenham was selected to the Ontario provincial team on three previous occasions. Six times she has been an OBA champion with Hamilton Transway and in 2012 she was a member of the national Cadette squad. After winning the most recent JUEL league championship, she earned all-star recognition at the St. Mary’s Invitational, More Hoops and SOSI tournaments.

With the Iowa Hawkeyes, Buttenham will be competing in the Big 10 Conference.

“I watched films of myself from a long time ago and it was so messy,” Buttenham says of her improvement over the years. “I’m really excited about playing for Iowa. I would like to contribute to the team in my first year. I think I can do it.”

Giannattasio, too, is eager for the university-level challenge. “It’s a new chapter in my life. It’s like another family to join.”

Hanaka, whose younger sister Julia also plays for the Crusaders, said: “I’m very excited to continue my journey in basketball (at the U of Vermont) and see where it takes me.”