It is 3:30 at Lasalle’s Riverside Academy in 1993. Inside the gymnasium, the girls’ basketball team is about to hold their first practice of the year.
A scrum of students is on the court, and in the stands parents and friends are watching, trying to find some sense to this game. There are several basketballs everywhere, including some purple and black Raptor balls with a head picture of David Stottlemeyer with the words ‘Basketball has come to Canada’.
In front of one of those nailed-to-the-wall baskets in the corner, 13-year-old Jennifer Neill is dribbling a basketball and practicing lay-ups.
Next to Riverside Academy, elementary school Ecole des Rapides is letting out and 10-year-old Alison Neill is making her way through the main exit and walks the short distance to the Academy, where she joins the group. She picks up a basketball and launches a two-hander over the heads of the scrum towards the basket.
It hits the front of the rim, bounces back against the backboard, hits the back of the rim and then lazily drops through the hoop.
Fast-forward to 2003 and the women’s Concordia basketball team. Co-captain Jennifer Neill is playing in her final year of eligibility, and the forward has just scored 14 points and pulled in six rebounds against the Brandon Bobcats from Manitoba.
A few months later, second-year guard Alison Neill is in the game with three minutes left to hold off a McGill Martlet surge. She effectively sinks in a three pointer, and is back on defence before the McGill players can lower their heads.
It is not a closely guarded secret, but many Concordia Stinger basketball fans are not aware of the team’s sister duo.
“I don’t think anyone knows about us because it isn’t really a big deal to us,” 24-year-old Jennifer Neill explained. “I could see why people might find it interesting, but for us it is just playing basketball and going to school.”
Both women followed a similar road to Concordia.
Jennifer did not play at a higher level of basketball until 16, when she played AAA Juvenile ball at Brookwood under the tutelage of Coach Bob Maks, who is now Concordia’s assistant coach.
During the summer, she played for Sun Youth’s traveling team. “It was a high level and I got to be looked at by teams in the States since we mostly played in tournaments in the U.S.,” said Jennifer.
The exposure earned her a U.S. scholarship. “Then I had to decide to stay in Canada or go the States,” she said. Her decision was to remain close to home. She played for Vanier College, and also played touch football for two years before graduating from commerce and entering Concordia’s marketing program.
“The reason I went to Concordia is because the John Molson School of Business is the best English business school in Quebec,” she said. “Also, the basketball team was much better then anyone else.”
Jennifer plans to pursue her studies in marketing before working towards her Master’s Degree. “I would also like to continue to play basketball somewhere and maybe start coaching,” she continued.
The afternoons hanging around the Riverside Academy court proved worthwhile for Alison. “My sister’s coach at the high school got to know me from coming to watch the games and waiting for her at the school to finish practice,” she explained.
“He saw I knew the basics and he let me shoot around on the sidelines. Eventually, as I got better, he even let me practice with them once in a while. It was a great way to get me more involved and interested in the sport.”
When Alison entered high school, there was no bantam team, so she eventually played on the juvenile team. “When Alison would get in the games as point guard I would run up the court beside her to make sure she was Ok,” said a smiling Jennifer.
Alison also played under the guidance of Bob Mak’s AAA Juvenile Brookwood team, the Sun Youth traveling team, and the Cheetahs women’s team at Vanier. “When I was ten, my father saw that I had some talent and he put me in summer camps,” said Alison. “So for me it was always basketball and school and no time for much else.”
Alison is also studying marketing and has two years remaining at Concordia. “The goal for the next two years is to help the team win the Nationals. I’m sure I will end playing ball in a senior league somewhere or coaching basketball,” she said.
Both Jennifer and Alison give full credit to their parents for where they are today.
“My father played, refereed, and coached practically every sport imaginable,” said Alison. “My sister and I were always athletic and into sports, so they encouraged us in every sport that we played.
When I started to play for Brookwood my father drove me there three times a week just to practice. They also paid for all of my camps and other fees. Both of my parents would attend every single game that they could.”
Both women insist that there is no competition between the two. They will admit to some healthy one on one competition during the off-season. “We play one on one mostly during the summer,” said Jennifer. “Playing against Alison has helped me develop some ball handling skills. I was a post player at every level before playing at Concordia. Alison is one of the very best shooters on our team and has a quick release. I think that shooting over me has helped that.”
Alison receives the same deserved attention from her coach. “Alison worked very hard over the summer and during training camp,” Stinger women’s basketball coach Keith Pruden said. “She is learning to play hard and smarter against players who are bigger than her.” Pruden refers to the three point shot in the dying minutes of the game against McGill. “Alison was in perfect position for the entry pass and waited an extra second for her team mates to cut to the basket before she took the shot.”
2003 represents the last year that the sisters will be playing together with the Stingers. Jennifer is finishing her fifth year of eligibility at Concordia. Alison still has two playing years remaining with the team.