N.B. basketball players killed in crash remembered as champions in spirit – Metro US

N.B. basketball players killed in crash remembered as champions in spirit

BATHURST, N.B. – The last game for Bathurst High School’s senior varsity basketball team was fairly typical of their season.

The boys played hard against Moncton High School, but couldn’t get the upper hand in a 75-65 defeat.

Led by two of their leading scorers Nathan Cleland and Codey Branch, both 17, the Bathurst High Phantoms had a spotty record of wins and losses as they made their way through this season’s high school basketball circuit in New Brunswick.

School superintendent John McLaughlin can’t remember when the team – made up of boys aged 15 to 17 – last won a provincial championship.

“They were champions in spirit,” McLaughlin said Sunday with a sad smile.

“They always will be champions in our hearts.”

Seven members of the team were killed in a horrific highway accident early Saturday morning. The team’s coach, Wayne Lord, was driving a school van when he lost control in bad weather and slammed into a tractor-trailer just outside of Bathurst.

Lord’s wife was also killed in the accident and his daughter was among four other people – including the coach and two other players – who were injured.

One of the team’s leading players was Cleland. His sister, Emily, said her brother averaged 20 points a game and recently scored 27 points in one contest.

“He loved any sport, but he really loved basketball,” she said. “He has been playing it since he was four years old.”

Cleland said her brother was in Grade 12 and was planning on taking a year off before going to Holland College in Prince Edward Island for firefighting or emergency response training.

Cleland and Branch were killed in the crash along with teammates Justin Cormier, Daniel Hains, Javier Acevedo, Nickolas Quinn and Nicholas Kelly. Elizabeth Lord, 51, was the wife of the coach.

Kelly was the youngest member of the team at just 15 years of age.

“The team was improving,” McLaughlin said.

“They had a lot of support here.”

Sean Middleton, the captain of Moncton High School’s basketball team and a Grade 12 student, described Friday’s game as “intense.”

“We ended up beating them after a very hard-fought battle,” Middleton said in a message exchange on Facebook.

“It was always a little intimidating playing against Bathurst because they have a good-sized team and are quite skilled.”

Branch had recently transferred to Bathurst High School from a French school in the area because he wanted to be involved in the English school’s more advanced basketball program.

Some of the players, like 17-year-old Javier Acevedo, were involved in multiple sports and were considered the star athletes of the school.

“We’re a relatively small high school but we participate often at the highest triple-A level,” said Neil Carrington, the school’s volunteer rugby coach.

“When you get one good athlete in one sport, coaches will often get them to participate in other sports.”

Carrington said he was in the process of trying to poach some of the varsity basketball players for his spring rugby team.

Like many at the school, he doesn’t know if the senior basketball team will be able to continue.

Only a handful of players are left, including three students who didn’t go on the fateful Moncton trip because of sickness.

“Sports teams are an incredibly important part of many students’ lives,” Carrington said.

“It’s a good source of character building and I can only hope that they will continue as normal with the rest of the teams for the balance of the year.”

The Phantoms took their name from an old legend of a ghost ship that haunts Chaleur Bay in northeastern New Brunswick.

Many people in the Bathurst area say they have seen the burning galleon ship on the horizon – a portent, it is believed, of bad weather.

Unfortunately, no one had any idea the weather on the night of the crash would prove to be so dangerous.

Coaches and school officials in northern New Brunswick said treacherous driving conditions are a fact of life. They said travelling in the winter with school sports teams is also a fact of life.

The school district may review its policies about team travel as a result of the tragedy, although nothing is planned in the near future.

“It’s a tragic accident and we have to learn from it,” Carrington said.

“We have to see what we can improve.”

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