Once Burnaby South Grade 10 big man Sasha Vujisic found his health and his fitness, the road to a AAAA B.C. title turned into an expressway. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics)
Feature High School Boys Basketball

New B.C. champs say ‘Presto!’ Rebels didn’t quibble with fate’s 11th-hour offer of new identity en route to ending 39-year title drought

LANGLEY — In the aftermath of victory, everyone wanted to know the how and the why.

How did a seemingly average Burnaby South Rebels basketball team, one that only a month ago lost its city league final by 24 points and had to win a sudden elimination game just to get to the provincial tournament, do what it did Saturday, beating the Semiahmoo Totems 80-72 to win the 16-team B.C. AAAA championship title as a No. 8 seed?

And if they were really as good as they showed before a near-capacity crowd at the Langley Event Centre’s Arena Bowl, why did it take so long to show?

Caught up in the emotion of the moment, Burnaby South head coach Mike Bell summed it up as best he knew how as all around him, players wept, coaches hugged and fans cheered.

Burnaby South head coach Mike Bell stood witness to the amazing late-season transformation of the Rebels. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics)

“The team hadn’t jelled at the older ages and finally, to have this team just jell is absolutely amazing,” said Bell. “We have the deepest team in the province, but also the deepest coaching staff. We all bring something to the table. We all said that once we get in (to provincials) anything can happen. We just have to get in.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth than Bell’s wide-angle response to a victory which gave the program its first B.C. boys senior varsity basketball title since 1979.

Yet if you had seen the way the Rebels looked in so many games over the course of their season, incredible one night and awful the next, you couldn’t help but what wonder if Bell had discovered some kind of magic elixir that he wasn’t about to share. After all, these looked like two completely different basketball teams.

It was time to get to the real nitty-gritty.

ROOKIE BLUES

Dave Smith is the veteran member of that deep coaching staff of which Bell speaks.

Not too many seasons removed from being the team’s head coach himself, Smith has been at Bell’s side as a faithful lieutenant over the past few campaigns, and amidst the post-game festivities on the floor at the LEC, one of the few so-called grey-beards amongst a very youthful pack of celebrants.

Ask him to explain the  late-season metamorphosis which took place on the roster and his answer provides  a window into the developmental process of a high school basketball team and how it can often times, based on the maturation rate of its personnel, wrestle with its actual true identity.

Dave Smith (left) and Cody Cormack embrace fellow Burnaby South coaches in the elation that followed a victory over the Semiahmoo Totems and the program’s first B.C. senior varsity boys basketball title since 1979. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics)

So when you put the questions of ‘How?’ And ‘Why?’ to Smith, it becomes very clear how certain recent events set in place all of the championship dominoes.

“Well, we weren’t fully formed,” Smith said of the state of the Rebels as late as last month. “We had two different styles that we were battling. Well, not battling, but experimenting with. But when Sasha started to come into his own, it was very clear how we were going to be successful. It was going to be ‘get it to the big man and play off of that. It’s how we beat (No. 1 seed) Oak Bay (in the quarterfinals).”

Smith is speaking, of course, about the team’s 6-foot-7 Grade 10 post Sasha Vujisic, who in Saturday’s win over Semiahmoo scored eight points with four finger-wagging blocks and a game-high 15 rebounds.

Last season, under current South assistant Cody Cormack, he helped Burnaby South win the B.C. junior varsity title, and along with current regulars like Jiordano Khan and Baltej Sohal, had moved up to join the senior varsity this season.

Yet in the early part of this season, the young Vujisic, already blessed with a man’s frame, did not have his fitness and constantly battled lower-body repetitive strain injuries, Nonetheless, he continued to work to try to meet the goals Bell was confident he could achieve.

“Once Sasha came into his own and got confident and got fit,” continued Smith, “we went to him as often as we could and we made it clear to the guys that this is our style now.”

Vujisic himself had finally begun to battle through his obstacles, and when that happened, and he could show his true self on the floor.

“At the beginning, I actually struggled to run,” Vujisic admits. “Coach Mike often sat me out of games. I could only go three-to-four minutes at a time before I needed a break. We often do a lot of non-stop scrimmages and I got a case of shin splints.”

Add an ankle injury in there for good measure, and you could call that December-January window an extended dues-paying shift on the hardwood.

Yet around the time of the practices which led up to Burnaby South’s Feb. 23 sudden-elimination game victory over Kitsilano, the win which secured their berth in the B.C. AAAA draw, Vujisic was gaining full health.

And in one of those practices, his pairing with 6-foot-7 senior forward Jusuf Sehic illuminated a light bulb.

“It started in the practices before the Kits game,” confirms Vujisic of the pairing, which in Saturday’s B.C. final against Semiahmoo played to rave reviews for a fourth straight night. “I don’t know what it was, but something clicked. We all started to play aggressive. The bigs would sprint the court, and when we did, it just seemed to give everyone else a ton of energy.”

COULD THIS BE REAL?

By the time Saturday’s championship game had rolled around, Bell was feeling pretty confident that his line-up had reached full chameleon mode.

He could start his guard based group of Kyle Kirmaci, Noah Pastrana, Baltej Sohal and Jiordano Khan along with Sehic.

Or, to completely change the look of his team to that of a twin-towers look filled with high-low options on offence, and shot-blocking, rim-protecting presence on defence, he could simply tap Vujisic to come in off the bench.

Burnaby South’s Jusuf Sehic, seen here being guarded by Semiahmoo’s Vlad Mihaila, finished his high school career by being named AAAA tourney MVP. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics)

Besides, as Smith would later admit, Vujisic began to appreciate the opportunity to study a game’s opening few minutes, then enter its flow of play. It was not only a curveball to the opposition, it was a way for the team to save some fouls.

So effective was the transformation that by Saturday, Bell could literally pull the strings from the bench, playing the game’s tempo and tenor like a puppet master.

After Semiahmoo’s Vlad Mihaila went on a tear between the third and fourth quarters, scoring 10 straight points off treys and dribble penetration to pull the Totems to within 61-53, Bell called for time.

In came Vujisic to join Sehic, and over a four-minute span that took the game clock down to four minutes remaining, the Rebels went on an 11-3 run to lead 72-56 and effectively win the program’s first title in 39 years.

“The atmosphere has changed a lot since,” admitted Sehic who after scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds en route to being named tournament MVP, finished his high school career the same way he had dreamt it unfolding. “Now it feels like every time a player has the ball, they’re looking for the open man. They’re looking to make their teammates better.”

With 6:32 left, Vujisic got a huge block which sent Sehic down the floor on a fast break.

With 4:13 left, Semiahmoo guard Jordon Chen quickly worked an outnumbered situation in his team’s favour down the floor, but the Rebels snuffed the opportunity when Vujisic sprinted the floor to join Sehic as the two bigs beat their fellow guards down the floor and prevented a basket.

Semiahmoo’s spectacular Mihaila scored a game-high 33 points in the loss, while post Adam Paige added 18, the latter having to play a smash-mouth level of hoops inside against the Rebels’ two posts. Both of the Totems’ seniors finished with 13 rebounds in their final high school games.

The rest of Burnaby South’s balanced offence? Sohal had 17 points, Kirmaci 16 and Khan 15.

THE X’S AND O’S OF MAGIC

Sehic admitted being named MVP was surreal.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I have been dreaming of this exact moment for the last month. Every single night, it’s the same dream in the exact same place. I’ve just been thinking of this moment and nothing else.”

And that makes this fleeting, organic union between the senior Sehic and the Grade 10 Vujisic so special.

Out of nowhere it appeared, revealing itself to be so multi-generationally special that it delivered something that 38 straight classes of Rebels hoopsters could not produce.

And now it’s over, almost before it started.

King of like…magic.

There is however, so much more hope for the future, especially if 6-foot-7 Grade 11 Aidan Wilson can form a similar partnership next season with Vujisic. Sehic and  guards Vince Sunga and Stefano Benedetto are the only main-rotation Rebels to leave via graduation.

In their place comes another class of rising Grade 11s from a South team which was seeded No. 6 at the recent 32-team B.C. junior tournament, and finished the season at No. 1 in the last set of provincial rankings.

Burnaby South head coach, visibly shaken by leading his team to the B.C. AAAA Saturday, embraced all of those he called a part of the Rebels’ basketball family. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics)

And so it’s at this point that I ask Smith, a true coaching veteran my last question: “How great is it that you can be involved in a sport where, in such organic fashion, change can so quickly ripple through a team, altering its destiny forever?”

“So great,” says Smith. “We showed signs of doing this all year. But personally, I think for our guys it took a tough loss, a loss that hurt them, and of course that was the Byrne loss.”

The precise details? On Feb. 8, in the Burnaby-New Westminster city final, Burnaby South was shellacked 90-66 by crosstown rival and AAA power Byrne Creek.

It’s not a surprise that they lost because Byrne Creek, which fell in Saturday’s AAA final to South Kamloops, has had their number consistently over the course of the past few seasons. Instead, it was the fashion in which they fell, and its proximity to the start of the Lower Mainland AAAA tourney that struck the deepest chord.

“That one really hurt them so we got their attention,” Smith continued of the South players. “The season is so long and the games just pile up and the losses don’t hurt enough. But that one really hurt them and so we got a little more discipline and our passing got better.”

And so let’s add it all up, shall we? The cache of wounded pride, the rise in both health and confidence of Sasha Vujisic, and finally, his 11th hour partnership with soon-to-be B.C. MVP Jusuf Sehic. Suddenly it all makes sense.

Of course it does.

Basketball, like life, happens outside the vacuum. Its dynamics are in constant motion, and as we watch with fascination both the coaches and kids who pursue it with such passion, we stand witness to nights like Saturday.

The last night of our long season together.

It never fails to bring both heartbreak and elation, and in the biggest picture of all, the one which stands the test of time, it tells us a little bit more about the hows and the whys of our own lives.

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