Kai Leighton feeds a pass to a waiting Brendan Eshom during first half action in the Rainmakers home opener against Caledonia. Charles Hays took full advantage of their boisterous home crowd, coming away with a 95-62 victory. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)

Kai Leighton feeds a pass to a waiting Brendan Eshom during first half action in the Rainmakers home opener against Caledonia. Charles Hays took full advantage of their boisterous home crowd, coming away with a 95-62 victory. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)

MVP of the Week: Leighton’s Heights

Kai Leighton has plenty left to achieve in his final season as a Rainmaker — and beyond

Fresh off a championship season that culminated in the AA provincial title, the Charles Hays senior boys basketball team is back at it this season hungry for more. Now a senior on the Rainmakers, Kai Leighton is focused on ensuring this happens before he starts the next chapter of his basketball journey.

Basketball wasn’t the first sport Leighton tried out when he was young, originally giving soccer and swimming a go. (Rupertites will likely be familiar with Kai’s cousin Amy Leighton, who has set a number of winning marks in the swimming pool, and received the Premier’s Award for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport.) It wasn’t until age eight that he found himself on the basketball court in a serious manner, but he quickly took to all that the hardwood had to offer.

“I was swimming and I was playing basketball, and once I got to middle school practices for both of those sports were every day. And I couldn’t do both,” Leighton explained.

How to solve the dilemma?

“One day I just skipped swimming practice to go play basketball, and that was it.”

While it may have been a loss for the Prince Rupert Amateur Swim Club, it was a major gain for the city’s basketball teams, starting at PRMS with coach Cary Dalton. A former football player, Leighton quickly noticed that practices were cranked up a notch under the new boss.

“His philosophy was that if you’re in better shape than the other team, then you’re going to win games,” Leighton explained, adding that the team’s running exercises would either equal or surpass their on-court drill time.

The training paid off though, as in Leighton’s Grade 8 season the Storm ran all the way to provincials and secured one of the school’s highest finishes ever in the province.

Rainmakers forward Kai Leighton goes up for the uncontested lay-up. (Nick Laws photo)

Following graduation it was off to Charles Hays, and the opportunity to play for the vaunted Rainmakers basketball program. As with all Grade 9’s, Leighton started on the Junior Rainmakers team under a familiar coach, Kevin Sawka. The pair had worked together for a number of years in minor basketball, and Leighton is quick to credit Sawka for aiding him on the path to where he is now, especially noting the work Sawka performed on perfecting his shooting motion, and preparing him for the faster pace he would encounter when he jumped up to the senior squad the following season.

“That was a good foundation year for the rest of my high school basketball career,” Leighton said. “He was a great coach to build a strong foundation, as was Mr. Dalton. Both coaches are very passionate about their sport.”

“Once I got to Grade 10 it was a lot faster paced,” Leighton recalled of his next, and current team, the Senior Rainmakers. “The teams you’re playing against are a lot stronger and a lot bigger.”

Kai Leighton leads a fast break for the Rainmakers against the Kitsilano Blue Demons last year. (Matthew Allen photo)

With the new team also came a new coach, the well renowned and long-time coach of the senior team, Mel Bishop. Like his previous pair of instructors, fundamentals are also at the heart of Bishop’s game.

“Almost all of our practice is fundamentals: basic shooting, ball handling, rebounding, over and over again,” Leighton commented on his coach for the past three seasons. “He’s a perfectionist, and it’s good to see and to be around that. He’s very disciplined, and does things proper.”

The Rainmakers 2019 provincial title was their first since 2001, when they also prevailed in the AA category. The final was a 78-51 win over the George Elliot Coyotes out of Lake Country. Leighton said it was a year the entire team had been confident about, and one they’d awaited for a long time.

READ MORE: Rainmakers win 2A championship at provincials

“I think everybody who follows basketball in Prince Rupert had been waiting for that team. That was the team with Liam McChesney, Eric Lees, Daniel Cachero, Colby Stephens,” Leighton said of the Grade 12 starters, with himself rounding out the starting five.

“That team had been playing together since they were in Grade 8, so we said that when they got to Grade 12 we were going to win it. We all grew up together, played basketball together, and it made it that much better.”

Leighton noted as well how much the city rallies around the team. “I really appreciate all the support I’ve gotten from our community. I get texts and calls from my parents saying that their friends are watching and streaming our games, and they may not even live here anymore. People who you think wouldn’t even watch basketball. Everybody shows up to the Rainmakers games.”

The win was one of a series of results against top competition – including back to back second place finishes in the No Regrets tournament in Vancouver – that have caused those outside of the Northwest to wake up to the talent Prince Rupert is producing on the basketball court.

Kai Leighton calls out instructions during the Rainmakers home opener against Caledonia. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)

Leighton points out though that no matter how well the team does, they will always face a geographical climb that is unlikely to ever be overcome.

“Availability of games is tough because we are far away from all the competition in the lower mainland. It’s tough to get good competitive games,” Leighton said. “We pay a team’s way just to play us; no other highly ranked team is going to have that issue,” he added. These games are always up in the air however; a pair of scheduled home games against Pitt Meadows on Jan. 3 and 4 falling through serving as proof.

READ MORE: Rainmakers start defence of home court with a splash

Even regional games are no guarantee. The Rainmakers home opener was supposed to take place on Dec. 13, with another home game the next day, but both were cancelled after their opponents Caledonia and Nisga’a ran into bus and highway problems on the long and winding Highway 16.

Still, it does not appear that the Rainmakers will allow this to hold them back, as a team or as individuals looking to take their basketball game to the next level. Liam McChesney is in the NCAA at Utah State and Eric Lees is in Victoria playing with the Camosun Chargers. Leighton has his sights set on college basketball as well, although he isn’t sure which institution he plans to pursue yet. That will be a job for 2020.

Kai Leighton rattles the rim in the final game of the No Regrets Basketball tournament. (Blair Shiers photo)

Before that though there’s one more major competition that Leighton hopes to check off his list. He has made the final 14 cuts for Team B.C.’s U19 basketball entry in the North American Indigenous Games this July in Halifax. Along with Rainmakers teammates Tyler Jones and Caden Pagens, Leighton will be hoping to make the final 10 that will represent the province.

After passing through the Northern qualifiers in Terrace, he made the next round of cuts after play at the Olympic Oval in Richmond. The coach of Team B.C. is already well familiar with Leighton; David Lafontaine is entering his fourth year as the head coach at George Elliot, and watched Leighton and the Rainmakers defeat his team in the provincial final. The team will be finalized in March, following provincials.

The Junior All Native Basketball Tournament is on Leighton’s resume as well, and as a part of the Prince Rupert U17 boys team the Tribesmen have come out as champions the past two seasons. Leighton is looking to go back to back with the Rainmakers as well, and believes the players are there to do so.

“This team has played a lot of basketball, and a lot of basketball together. When we go out and play we play well, and we dominate teams,” Leighton said. “If we execute and continue to play our style of basketball, I think we have a good chance to win it again.”

Read our last MVP of the Week | To Poland and beyond: Karlie Fudger hits the global stage

Alex Kurial | Sports Reporter
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