LANGLEY — This is a story about reaching that moment in life where everything and everyone you love the most has come together with such dreamlike precision that no matter how hard you train your focus, all the edges remain a blur.
“I can’t explain it,” Jake Mouritzen says with elated exhaustion in a voice so long ago torn and tattered by the journey of a high school basketball season just now complete. “I still don’t really understand what is happening.”
Our best dreams so often times make no sense at all, and for the head coach of the senior boys basketball team from Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Secondary, this was reality’s version of the same.
Four previous provincial quarterfinals and four previous Final Four semifinals had all ended in heartbreak, so this must be what it feels like to finally win it all?
Beating Prince George’s Duchess Park Condors 79-67 to win the program’s first senior varsity provincial title… the same Condors who beat them 72-64 in last season’s quarterfinals, and who just this past Jan. 11 had administered a dose of cold reality with a 108-88 victory over his team in the final of the St. Thomas More Chancellor Invitational in Burnaby?
“I told you three weeks ago that it was that loss that was the beginning of us doing what we did,” Mouritzen continued, referencing the severity of that Chancellor defeat, one which saw his team trailing by a helpless 68-31 halftime count. “We have all worked so hard ever since.”
And so on Saturday, as G.W. Graham’s army of Grizzlies’ faithful stormed the court at the final horn, there was Mouritzen fumbling through that crowd to first find and then hug his young children and wife Sarah. For him, a victory celebration all blurred around its edges had officially begun.
AN MVP’S JOURNEY
The Most Valuable Player of the 2020 B.C. senior boys Triple-A basketball championships sported a splint of sorts to help an injured right hand, and at one stage of Saturday’s clash, was sure he was set to cough up some teeth.
Yet as Grade 11 guard Clay Kurtz tried to sum up a team performance which he led with a 24-point, 12-rebound outing, all he could talk about was the feeling of gratitude he carried for being given the opportunity to be his best self.
“It’s incredible, but he wakes up every morning at 5:30 just for us to shoot,” said Kurtz of the early-rising Mouritzen, who makes sure the gym is open for his players to get in their work.
“To him, none of this has anything to do with him,” continued Kurtz. “He just wants us to get better as people and to build our character.”
All you have to do is ask him, and Mourtizen can tell a story of deep significance for any player on his roster, including Kurtz, who prior to the season, felt the need to finally make a choice of one sport after years of multi-sport activity.
“So 12 months ago I sat down with the Kurtz family and a I told them that I would support them no matter what,” begins Mourtizen. “(Clay) had to decide if he was going to be a hockey player or basketball player and we had put no pressure on him to choose basketball. We just made sure he knew what our G.W. Graham family would provide to him, and when he made that choice, I was all in, and he has worked harder than anybody. This was his coming out. He is an exceptional kid off the floor, but this week he showed that he is an exceptional basketball player, too.”
BEHIND THE SCENES… BY MIDNIGHT OIL
So much of what unfolds on a basketball court, especially in a championship game, is on one level, just so much minutiae.
Yet on another, it can carry a relevance so directly tied to the storyline and a team’s belief systems, as if it were an actual strand of DNA.
As the brief celebration from Friday night’s dramatic 50-49 win over 2019 B.C. runner-up Vernon faded into Saturday morning, the coaching staff’s midnight oil burned until approximately 4 a.m.
“We watched tape again and again, because (Duchess Park head coach) Jordan (Yu) has such a good team,” said Mourtizen, who was quick to assistant coach Mark Ramalho, a former player in the OUA at Laurentian, for all his help.
Yet the majority of the overall game plan, for whomever the Grizzlies would face, had been ambitiously installed over the nine-day period between the team’s win over MEI on Feb. 23 in the Eastern Valley zone final, and the start of the B.C. tournament this past Wednesday.
And a large portion of that prep work was designed to introduce the offensive concept every coach who played his team was game-planning to stop: The two man, high-low sets involving the Klim twins: Six-foot-10 Matthias and 6-foot-9 Zach.
“Teams obviously know that we’re big, so that’s hard for them,” said Mouritzen.
“But everyone thinks it’s easy for us, but it’s hard to get those seals,” he continued of the proper positioning required to allow scoring opportunities to develop between the two bigs, especially when every team knows that is specifically what is going to be happening.
“Most of our sets allowed us to look into that high-low, but I knew we couldn’t rely on it,” continued Mouritzen, whose tortured voice proceeds to sound even more tired as he explains the task the team had taken on to insure its best chance for success.
“So from the end of the Eastern final until the start of the B.C.’s we put in 12 different looks,” he said of the schematic disguises which were introduced to the players. “And they were all new looks that no one had seen, and we executed every one of them tonight.”
Over the first half, the Grizzlies seemed to keep those sets in their back pocket, but there seemed ample proof in their structure that the Klims took a combined four shots from the field and were a perfect 4-for-4.
Besides, its guard-based options with Kurtz, and seniors Cairo Almarez and Jude Hall were plenty, and in his spot duty off the bench as an energy role player, Aidan Buchanan was one of those splendid in-the-details type of players.
Over the second half, however, the Klims were impossible to miss.
They would go on to finish a combined 11-of-17 from the field, combining for 24 points and 23 rebounds… not mind-numbing numbers (Matthias had 14 points, and Zack 15 rebounds), yet on a team filled with other options, options they helped enhance because of their own presence and precision, the key word here was ‘efficiency.’
“You know, 6-9 and 6-10 is super tough to stop,” said Duchess Park head coach Yu. “Our idea was to push them out of the paint, but that’s easier said than done.”
The Brothers Klim were humbled by the moment.
“This is the greatest feeling ever, doing this with my brother, my best friend,” said Matthias of Zach. “And to do it in this arena, with this atmosphere, it’s crazy… the best thing ever.”
Added Zach: “This is the best me and Matthias have ever played together. The chemistry was unbelievable.”
That seemed most evident to start the second half.
While Duchess Park was every bit in the game as the third quarter began, the Grizzlies seemed to have new purpose, mounting a 12-0 run to start the frame and taking a 46-27 lead.
At the same time, the Condors did not score for the first five minutes of the quarter until Jackson Kuc was finally able to end the drought.
“The defensive plan was 100 per cent executed,” said Mouritzen. “We wanted to make sure they didn’t know what we were in. We played a 2-3 zone the entire game but we defended every spot, so we never had a guy in an empty spot. That’s what killed us the last time that we played them.”
Almarez scored 17 points in the win and Hall added a further 11.
For the Condors, Grade 11 Caleb Lyons scored a game-high 25 points, while Kuc added 24 and his game-high seven steals were as many as the Grizzlies got as a team while sitting in that zone.
KNOWING WHAT MATTERS MOST
Over the course of a tournament, so many moments stand out as striking, yet as I left the court Friday following the Grizzlies’ one-point semifinal win over Vernon, I shared with colleagues the quote Mouritzen had given me as his team qualified for the championship final for the first time.
“I’ve got two children and an amazing wife, and this is the fourth best day of my life,” he said in one of those straight-from-the-gut moments that make you check to see that your voice recorder was actually working.
The events of Saturday may have since officially replaced Friday at No. 4, yet the first three remain as they should be: Untouchables.
“You know, my best friend in basketball is Vlady Nikic,” Mouritzen began of the former Delview Raiders head coach who guided his North Delta-based team to the 2015 B.C. Double A title game where it fell to Victoria’s SMUS Blue Jags. “He came to the game and he sat behind us. He didn’t get it (a provincial title).
“(King George Dragons’ head coach) Darko (Kulic) didn’t get it in the last game (after a loss to Prince George’s Charles Hays in Saturday’s Double A final). I have a lot of friends in basketball, and I know how hard it is to win this game.
“My family’s life (wife Sarah is the head coach of the GW Graham senior girls team) is Graham basketball, and we’re proud to say that.
“It’s a pretty special day.”
For so many reasons it was, including the fact that it came on the 75th birthday of a tournament so special that it annually gives us what is most priceless and asks nothing in return.
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.