Last week the Herald had an opportunity to sit down with the Panthers starting two guard Nathan Willey to discuss his recent record breaking achievement in basketball. A few weeks ago, during the Eagle’s Perch Sr. Boys Basketball Tournament, Willey made noise in Merritt Secondary School (MSS), breaking the school’s all-time scoring record. The young hoopers valiant efforts brought the Panthers all the way to the championship round of the tournament, but more importantly, it helped further grow the culture of basketball in the Nicola Valley. 

Willey is one of the seniors that play for the Panthers. He started out his playing career with Merritt’s local youth basketball league. 

“That’s when I was introduced to basketball, and that’s also when I started to enjoy it,” he said. “It was competitive so I saw the sport in a different light compared to just playing for fun.” 

Willey continued to play throughout elementary and continued on in high school. Unfortunately for the young player, his high school career would be cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting high school sports. 

“Once it hit, we didn’t have anything for sports, so I just spent all day playing basketball and thats when I really fell in love with the sport, and developed a passion for it,” he said. “I played hockey, soccer, and softball but basketball was definitely number one.” 

Having a shortened high school playing career, number eight was determined to make his last season in MSS his best one yet. The Eagle’s Perch tournament is the biggest basketball tournament in school history. The 16 team invitational kicked off with the Panthers facing off against Princeton Secondary, the same school Willey’s older brother Nick faced as a Panther when he had a career night a few years prior. 

The Eagle’s Perch tournament invited classes from the different elementary schools around the Nicola Valley to view the opening game between MSS and Princeton Secondary. Izaiah Reyes/Herald

“He had 44 points against them that game,” Willey recalled. “He was telling me before the game that I should break his record. I told him I’ll try because up until then, my highest scoring game was 37.” 

By halftime, Willey already had scored 31 points, which made the crowd, including his brother excited for the rest of the game. 

“Everytime I scored, I’d look over the sideline and Nick would update me with how many points I had.” 

Willey would eventually beat his brother’s record by logging in 45 points, however, with a lot of time left on the clock, he would set his sights onto a new challenge in the same game. 

“My coach Evan Sahota, who holds the school record with 47 points, told me to go and pass it,” he explained. “I remember breaking that with 49 points, and then I made one last bucket before I subbed off.” 

Ending the game with 51 points, and more importantly the victory, Willey credited his success to his team’s level of play. 

“I have a lot of success when my team has a lot of success,” he said. “A lot of the buckets I had were thanks to my teammates making the right plays, finding me when I had the hot hand, and feeding me the ball on a lot of breaks.” 

The celebration of his performance will be short lived as the following day, the Panthers faced off against the Lake City Secondary School, for a chance to advance to the championship game later on that day. 

“Williams Lake is a pretty good team,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I could repeat what I did the night before.” 

“I remember having a good game, nothing too crazy,” he said. “At the end of the game I went to the score keeper to ask how many points I had.” 

The score keeper told Willey he scored another 50 points, which was a huge surprise to him.

“I looked over the sheet to confirm, and there it was,” he recalled. “Everyone was surprised because it was a pretty quiet 50, but my teammates were really hyped because I had back to back 50’s.”

“He’s a great player that’s always trying to improve. I’m very proud of the way his game has progressed on offence but especially on the defensive end,” said Assistant Coach Evan Sahota.

“One of the things we preach is ‘sport is a great way to prepare us for the life’s challenges. Nate’s mindset will serve him well going forward, whether it be playing basketball at the next level or doing whatever he decides to do.”

The championship game against Mount Boucherie was where Willey felt the culmination of his team’s hard work. A packed gym greeted the Panthers as they battled it out for gold. Unfortunately, the squad fell short of their goals, only finishing second place, but this did not take away from the appreciation the crowd had for the home team’s efforts. 

“It was a really good feeling,” he said. “A lot of people in Merritt were congratulating me, saying how proud they are. As the tournament went on, we gained more fans, and I thought that was really cool having the locals come out to our games. People from Kamloops were even reaching out trying to talk to me about it.” 

Nathan Willey holding up the second place trophy for the 2023 Eagle’s perch tournament. Izaiah Reyes/Herald

From putting up stellar performances on the court, Willey has gained support and admiration throughout town. 

“I’ve been told by a lot of people, including other coaches, that I can really play,” said Willey. “Coming from Merritt, I think that’ll be cool to play basketball at the next level.” 

With what is shaping out to be a great season for him, the starting guard of the Panthers wants to maintain playing at a very high level to finish off the season, and hopefully continue his playing career in the post-secondary level.

“I’m hoping to play university basketball,” he said. “Nothing major or official yet but I’m going to start reaching out to coaches soon.