Riya Donnelly has developed into one of the province’s top young basketball players by doing things her way.
The 17-year-old from Charleswood, who recently committed to play U Sports ball for the Algoma University Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., left Oak Park High School to play her Grade 12 season in the inner-city at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute.
A strong connection with DMCI coaches Wyatt Anders and Carriera Lamoureux had Donnelly wanting to make a change. It ended up working out as the 5-8 small forward led the Maroons to a convincing victory over the Westwood Warriors in the Winnipeg School Division conference championship in March.
"I heard a lot of backlash from a bunch of people around Manitoba. Personally, I was skeptical of transferring to an inner-city school. It’s not something I was used to and it’s quite the drive from where I live," said Donnelly, Oak Park’s junior varsity athlete of the year in 2020.
"But I was able to practise with the team during the summer and I realized that I found my people. I found a culture that I would grow in. So, backlash and people talking about me behind my back and starting rumours about me really didn’t matter in the long run."
"... I was able to practise with the team during the summer and I realized that I found my people. I found a culture that I would grow in. So, backlash and people talking about me behind my back and starting rumours about me really didn’t matter in the long run.” — Riya Donnelly
Prior to making the switch, Donnelly met Lamoureux, who played at Algoma from 2015-2017, at the gym and the two began to train together. Coincidentally, Donnelly also met Anders at an outdoor court as they live in the same area. Anders, DMCI’s head coach, began to help Donnelly with her game. While he was happy to coach her, Anders advised Donnelly to stay at Oak Park for her senior year, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She wanted to close out her high school career playing for Anders and Lamoureux.
"It didn’t matter what the venue was, whether it was an outdoor court and it was raining slightly, or whether it’s a terrible indoor court with nine foot hoops, she’d be hassling me pretty much every second day about getting in some work," Anders said.
"… If you were to say Riya Donnelly two years ago, people would ask who you were talking about. She used the pandemic, which very few people did, to get better… And in that pandemic year, she went from no one knowing her, to the provincial team wanting her, being a Top 10 player in the city, to being recruited by Ottawa which is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. That just speaks to her character and dedication."
It’s easy to stay motivated when there’s another hooper in the family. Donnelly’s older sister Asha, 19, is a guard in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference for the Providence University College Pilots. Asha got into the game first and Riya followed in her footsteps. The sisters have been beating each other up on the family’s driveway ever since.
"... in that pandemic year, she went from no one knowing her, to the provincial team wanting her, being a Top 10 player in the city, to being recruited by Ottawa which is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. That just speaks to her character and dedication.” — DMCI coach Wyatt Anders
"There are moments where we’ll have to step off the court or have a parent or coach come in between us because it gets so heated. There are moments where we’ll start shoving each other and there are moments where we’re playing well and we’ll give each other compliments. But then, the next play we’re at each other’s throats. It’s just how we are," said Riya.
"She definitely keeps my competitiveness and edge. She’s the main person I turn to if I need a spark and she’s the one person I’ll listen to if I’m not playing well."
Donnelly takes a lot of pride in her family’s heritage as her mom Kres hails from Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island nation off the coast of Madagascar, and her dad Brian is Irish. Donnelly estimates there are fewer than 5,000 Mauritians living in Winnipeg.
"Everybody always asks me where I’m from and I love playing the game of ‘Can you guess where I’m from?’ And people are usually way off," Donnelly said. "… But I think because I’m from two very different places and two very different people, I have a good grip of how to navigate a sports world that isn’t as inclusive and can sometimes be discriminatory to some minorities… Especially being at DMCI, I transferred to a school with a diverse population. My school has all different kinds of cultures and it’s super cool just to be a part of it."
Donnelly, an honour roll student with a 97 per cent average who also makes time to coach Westdale Junior High girls basketball team, also wants to give back. She recently began working at the Manitoba Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Council alongside Lamoureux, who’s the organization’s manager of special projects.
"I come from a family, especially my mom’s side, who was prejudiced against and faced racism in sport. My mom played basketball, but she was bullied out of her sport when she was younger for being an immigrant and being from a different country," Donnelly said.
"I cannot imagine, and I don’t want any young female player to ever feel like that. So, if I can do a small part in keeping them in sports and keeping them having fun and growing, I will do my best to help out."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...