Princess Margaret head coach Karmin Dhaliwal, in his first senior varsity season at the helm of the Lions, has led the team to the B.C. championships for the first time since 1977. (Photo property of Princess Margaret Athletics 2022. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Boys Basketball

A Big Dance dandy! After 45 years away, a pride of Princess Margaret Lions follows the lead of its special head coach to a berth in B.C. boys Triple-A tournament!

SURREY — Records to verify the following have not been kept, yet as the B.C. senior boys basketball championships prepare to bed down for a final sleep before its 2021-22 re-start finale tips off Wednesday morning at the Langley Events Centre, you only need to collect the facts to understand that something very special has indeed transpired.

We’re talking about, of course, the wonderful journey to the Big Dance traversed by Surrey’s Princess Margaret Lions and its young, big-picture head coach, and when you consider it all, the likelihood is slim to none that any team has reached our province’s final 16 with quite the same talking points.

The plotline: A program which has qualified for the B.C.’s for the first time in 45 years is doing so this season with a 27-year-old head coach who is not only in his first season as the Lions senior varsity head coach, but had never before coached a senior varsity program in his life.

On Wednesday, the No. 9-seeded Lions take on the No. 8-seeded, defending B.C. champion G.W. Graham Grizzlies of Chilliwack in a 10:15 a.m. Triple-A game, one which those behind the draw have anointed the closest game of the bracket’s opening day.

Yet how has a team which has not turned the B.C.’s-or-bust trick since 1977 managed to take such a gigantic stride from the unknown to Cinderella relevancy in such a short time?

Prince Margaret Lions (left to right) Harkamal Gill, Harjap Grewal and Mustafa Patel cheers on the squad over its historic run through the South Fraser zone playoffs. (Photo property of Princess Margaret Athletics 2022. All Rights Reserved)

“Ever since I got here, I have always preached to the guys that what we are doing every day is bigger than basketball,” explains Lions’ head coach Karmin Dhaliwal. “I know a lot of people say that, but for me the biggest reason that we have achieved is that my players know I care for them outside of basketball.

“I have seen what happens when you show genuine care and interest in their lives, and then I have seen how that bigger picture translates onto the court,” Dhaliwal adds.

Simple in theory, yes, but also a soul remedy so appreciated by a core of 12 players — a rare dozen which had never played any club basketball — who just needed a real reason to huddle together with purpose.

Princess Margaret, located at 72nd Ave. and 128th St. in the shadows of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s main campus, is a school with a segment of its student-body population affected by its shares of socio-economic and inner-city struggles.

Dhaliwal points out that fully half of the team come from single-parent households, and this past year, two of those players were forced to come to grips with the unthinkable reality of losing their fathers.

“The team won only a few games in their Grade 8 and 9 years combined,” remarks Dhaliwal, who assumed the reigns of the Lions as a JV group of Grade 10s in 2019-20.

“I had to put in the basic fundamentals,” he said. “And I am talking as simple as triple-threat stance, boxing out, defensive stance and how to pass.”

Yet this past Friday, in the South Fraser Triple-A zone third-fourth sudden-elimination game, Princess Margaret came through with a 59-52 win over Richmond’s R.A. McMath Wildcats to secure its zone’s final ticket to the Big Dance.

The team has been led by the play of a quartet of seniors in Ega Sembele, it’s 5-foot-10 point guard averaging 18 points and eight assists, Jal Gatluk, a 15-15 points-rebounds force at 6-foot-5; and the hustle and intangibles of Abdullah Ahmad and Harkamal Gill.

Princess Margaret’s Ega Sembele (right) attempts a lay-in against R.A. McMath’s Kyle Christofferson during South Fraser zone qualifer. (Photo property of Princess Margaret Athletics 2022. All Rights Reserved)

Grade 11 Manroop Singh is the three-point shooting artist of the bunch.

And along the way to this Miracle of March?

How about the chance meeting and coming together of generations at PMSS this season.

That’s when the young Dhaliwal crossed paths with Kerry Taylor, one of the true deans of the B.C. high school coaching world.

“Kerry was subbing one day and he mentioned it to me,” Dhaliwal explained of the provincial tourney drought which extended back to 1977, a team which Taylor himself played on.

That meeting came back in 2019-20, just before the pandemic hit, and that season, the JV Lions under Dhaliwal’s tutelage entered the Fleetwood Park invitational where it beat W.J. Mouat and Lord Tweedsmuir en route to a championship finals loss to the host Dragons.

The young coach knew there was a ceiling here which, if approached, would afford his current seniors the very opportunity which awaits Wednesday, and that is to face the East Valley champion Grizzlies with an Elite 8 berth on the line.

“Honestly, it blows me away,” Dhaliwal explained during an early-morning break at his school on Tuesday.

“This is my first experience coaching a group at senior and to me, it’s how humble they are. They didn’t grow up playing club basketball. They respect my voice. They respect that I want to put them in a position to be successful. They’ve put their egos away and they understand the bigger picture.”

Kerry Taylor’s trip to the B.C. championships is beginning to fade with age after 45 years. On Wednesday, a new pride of Lions returns to the Big Dance. (Photo property of Vancouver Sun files 1977. All Rights Reserved)

As he looks to opening day Wednesday at the LEC, Karm Dhaliwal admits his team has been touched by the blessings seemingly requisite to make this swift a journey to the summit.

Getting a chance to talk with Taylor, walking into an administration which understood the commitment that so many others don’t about what it means to have gym doors open in the mornings, and even having someone like its former VP Mike Sweeney, a guy with noted hoops past, pass through the school, even if it was only for six months.

“This isn’t a traditional basketball school, it’s starting from scratch,” Dhaliwal adds. “So even though (Sweeney) was only here for six months, it was great to have another basketball mind in the building.”

Symbolically, beyond whatever happens this week at the LEC, their’s is the story that proves that any program, regardless of the length of its drought, can be brought back to life with the right kind of love and care.

“We finally got some new rims in the gym,” Dhaliwal says with a laugh which suggests that, in his big-picture view, no detail is too small to ignore.

“Those rims were probably over 25 years old.. They were getting rough, and the guys were cutting their hands when they dunked.”

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