There was plenty of reason for the Sudbury Jam to celebrate this past weekend.
For starters, the local youth basketball club was enjoying a rare chance to play host to an invitational tournament, with a total of ten teams gathering in Sudbury for 15U boys and girls competition.
Additionally, both Jam teams advanced to the championship encounters, with the young ladies knocking off the Parry Sound Stingers 45-18 in the gold medal encounter.
Arielle Douillette and Sophia Zulich paced the attack with 14 and 11 points respectively, as the Jam also received key contributions from Alysha MacEwan (7), Kate Dahmer (6), Mia Fillion (4), Kaithlynn Winn (2) and Dayna Fairwell (2).
Rounding out the winning roster are Jayme Anderson, Marissa Graffi, Kristina Valle, Josée Fillion and Milla Cocco. Meanwhile, over at Macdonald-Cartier, the Jam 15U boys were in tough against IEM Newmarket, dropping a 64-39 decision in the final.
Eric Senechal drilled nine points in a losing cause, with Miguel Poulin adding six. The gold medal contest followed a "right down to the final buzzer" matchup in the bronze medal game, as IEM Aurora edged the Sudbury East All-Stars 60-59.
The weekend also marked the first tournament action for Sophia Zulich since the grade nine student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School was named to the final 16 player roster for Team Ontario a couple of weeks ago.
Amazingly, the 6'0" talent has just three years of basketball competition under her belt, joining the club team after a single season introduction to the sport as a member of the Sudbury Youth Basketball League.
"I was told that I should go and try basketball, I was relatively tall at the time," said Zulich. "I tried it and adored it." Improving in leaps and bounds, the well-spoken teenager ventured quickly into the world of rep basketball.
"I enjoyed it that much, that I figured I was just going to go out and tryout," she said. "My coach that year (Miranda Lehto) just saw my build and gave me an opportunity to play."
Certainly, Zulich's height is striking. But what has quickly set her apart is the overall scope of her game, a skill-set spectrum that she takes a great deal of pride in continually expanding.
"A lot of the bigs are not as fast, and they sometimes only work on one part of their game," said Zulich.
"I'm getting to be an all-around player, working on my speed and strenght, my shooting and ball handling."
Focused beyond her years, Zulich has rapidly recognized the variations that are required in her game, depending on the venue.
A post player in club, and to some extent, as a grade nine rookie on a talented Lo-Ellen senior girls team last fall, she expects to be moved to the wing on the provincial team, with yet another switch likely at the post-secondary level.
"My shooting and ball handling have to keep improving, because at the next level, I'm not going to be playing post," she said. "I will probably be a guard."
Extremely goal-oriented, Zulich was taking her second crack at the Team Ontario tryouts this year, constantly revising her target along the way.
"I saw the competition, and I immediately thought that I wanted to be one of those girls, to be better than those girls," said Zulich. "I thought I could make the second tryout, the top fifty."
"When I got into that group, I realized just how good these girls are - so I started competing. I never really thought that I might make the team until they actually told me."
Suddenly, her summer schedule has become a whole lot busier. Training camps in Toronto and Ottawa, a late June tournament in Montreal, the Nike Invitational in Chicago in July, all leading towards nationals in Regina from July 24 to the 31.
It's not a road she can travel alone. "I've been really fortunate to have all of these opportunities, going to camps and stuff, so I would really like to thank my parents," she said.
"And my high school coach, Jenn Bourget - I would be nowhere near the player I am today if not for her, and all of my club coaches."