February 9, 2024

Halvorsons, Roughriders celebrate ties to Luther Invitational Tournament

A decade has elapsed since a member of the Halvorson family last played in the Luther Invitational Tournament, but the connection endures.

Joani Halvorson, whose three children all played basketball at Luther College High School and the University of Saskatchewan, refereed the first two games that were played in the Semple Gymnasium at LIT 2024.

Between Thursday’s back-to-back officiating assignments, she was kind enough to consent to an interview about the tournament, its long-standing ties to her family, and an expanding link to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“Do you want me to get my Roughrider Foundation hat?” she said with a laugh while sitting down in the coaches’ and officials’ lounge.

Joani’s son, Jonathan, is the Saskatchewan Roughrider Foundation’s Development Manager.

Jonathan’s sister, Kaylee, is engaged to Roughriders receiver Mitch Picton.

Jonathan and Kaylee were preceded at Luther by their sister, Jordyn, who began Grade 9 in the fall of 2006.

Jordyn’s enrolment at Luther sparked an uninterrupted Halvorson streak that continued until Jonathan graduated in the spring of 2014.

“It’s amazing what Luther has provided for my kids,” reflected Joani, whose own experiences with the school and LIT date back to her childhood.

Joani’s father, Nick Patola, was beloved as “Mr. Basketball” in Saskatoon.

As a high school coach, Patola coached in LIT on numerous occasions.

“It started with me as a little child when I first heard about LIT,” Joani reflected.

“My dad was the Head Coach of the Mount Royal Mustangs and they would come here. I grew up always coming to this tournament when Mount Royal got a spot.

“I sat in the old gym on the old wooden bleachers that Mr. Becker and everyone else put together. The next thing I know, my kids are coming to Luther.”

Jordyn and Kaylee both attended Luther when LIT was solely a senior boys tournament.

A female component was introduced in 2013 — 60 years after the inaugural LIT — when the Challenge Cup was introduced.

The Challenge Cup, smaller in scale than the traditional eight-team senior boys draw, was held for three years while the transition was made to the full-scale event we know today.

Since 2016, LIT has consisted of eight senior girls and eight senior boys teams. The expanded field was made possible by the opening of the Semple Gymnasium.

Games are now played in the new facility and at the old gym, which is now known as the Merlis Belsher Heritage Centre.

The last LIT to be played entirely in the old gym was in 2014.

“By that point, the rims were probably a little more shaky and the bleachers were probably a little less comfortable,” said Jonathan, who debuted in LIT with the Luther Lions senior boys team in 2013.

“But something about that gym made it very special. For the Thursday night game, you’d have people standing and surrounding the floor. You’re just not going to get that atmosphere in basketball anywhere else in Regina, let alone in Saskatchewan.”

Jonathan feels blessed to have been a part of it.

“At that point, I remember it feeling like it was our NBA,” he said. “When you’re a little bit older, you look back and you get a grander scope on sports, but when you’re in high school and you’ve grown up with it, that was kind of the ‘it’ tournament in the province and especially in Regina.

“I remember watching guys I played with at the University of Saskatchewan, like Andrew Henry. He’s a Luther legend. Watching him play in LIT when I was in Grade 7 of 8 really set the precedent of how important it is when you’re growing up.

“Seeing guys you idolized a little bit and then getting the opportunity to play in it is pretty cool, because the school gets behind it. The students and the teachers and everyone who is involved in Luther has some role in the tournament in some capacity.

“You don’t quite see that in almost anything else, so that’s very unique.”

From a personal perspective, a unique moment stands out.

“Selfishly, it would absolutely be the dunk I got in LIT,” said Jonathan, still relishing the memory.

“I always thought that was so cool, watching the older guys warming up. When I was in Grade 6, 7 and 8, I’d be watching these supreme athletes dunk a basketball, and I then I finally got a moment where I stole the ball, got a breakaway, got a slam, and everyone cheered loudly.

“I felt like it was an NBA game at that point so, in my head, it was a big deal. In reality, it was probably a little high school kid barely squeaking it over the rim, but it felt pretty cool.”

That scintillating slam helped Luther defeat the Saskatoon Bishop James Mahoney Saints 81-70 in a consolation semi-final on Valentine’s Day 2014.

To this day, the tournament is still close to the Halvorsons’ hearts.

“I started refereeing here probably 20 years ago and after I earn my spot to be at LIT, I always get the early game on Thursday,” said Joani, a teacher assistant who works closely with special-needs students. “I work half-time just so I can be here in the afternoon (of LIT’s opening day)

“It’s just a fun place to be. It’s a joy … and it’s kind of coming full circle.”