Belmont Bulldogs' senior guard Max Leeder has been a blue-chip leader and versatile player for the 2018-19 Belmont Bulldogs. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Boys Basketball

After 2018’s epic Final Four run, Belmont’s basketball Bulldogs remain in dogged pursuit of March Madness return

Kevin Brown can remember gathering with his Belmont Bulldogs last March to watch the unveiling of the 16-team B.C. senior boys Quad-A basketball championship bracket via livestream from the Langley Events Centre.

“To be honest, after I watched show, I liked our draw,” Brown said in reminiscence Tuesday afternoon. “I was looking forward to it. I was happy with it. And I wasn’t surprised that we went out earned those wins. We followed a good game plan.”

All of that from a guy whose team was not only seeded No. 13 in a 16-team field, but in one of the most upset-laden seasons in top-tiered B.C. boys championship history, was the event’s biggest surprise story, making an inspiring run to the Final Four and settling for fourth-place, the school’s best finish in over a quarter of a century.

This is brought to your attention to remind us that while metrics designed to handicap so many factors of team performance have indeed become mainstream, there is still no one better than the coach to weigh the myriad factors and then determine, from the gut, whether enough indicators are working in their favour.

“Fourth-place was wonderful, but we did have goals of being on the winning side of the provincial draw,” continued Brown, “and come the tourney, we peaked at the right time. So I was not surprised at our win. You just can’t expect to win.”

Now, as we fast-forward to next week’s Vancouver Island championships (Feb. 21-23 at Victoria’s Oak Bay Secondary), we find a Bulldogs team clearly on the provincial radar, carrying a No. 10 ranking in the latest Big 10 poll, and having completed a most ambitious body of work, one which they hope has them as ready as possible to not only make a return trip to the B.C.’s (March 6-9, Langley Events Centre), but another extended run through the field as well.

Belmont (19-16 vs. B.C. competition) has thus far played 16 games against teams which have this season occupied spots in Varsity Letters’ Big 10 Quad-A rankings, and although they have lost the majority of them, they have not lost sight of the fact that each and every one offered lessons to be learned.

Belmont head coach Kevin Brown during a teaching moment at TBI 2018 this past December, chats with Grade 11 swingman Hunter Thomson. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

“We of course don’t want to lose, but it is also a part of the process,” says Brown, who since Jan. 8 has steeled his roster for March by putting forth quality efforts in losses to No. 8 Tamanawis (8 points), No. 2 Burnaby South (10 points), No. 6 Vancouver College (13 points), No. 3 Lord Tweedsmuir (6 points) and co-No. 10 Semiahmoo (2 points in OT). “I built this schedule hard. I have no problem losing because I know we are going to learn from it.”

Belmont’s fourth-place finish at last season’s provincial championship was its best in 27 years. The Bulldogs, who have never played in a B.C. senior varsity final, finished third in both 1991 and 1972.

Yet while their most storied finishes are a part of generations past, there is enough present-day success to suggest that the overall state of the boys program has never been healthier. Last season, in fact, Belmont was the only school in the province to fashion top-four boys finishes at both senior and junior varsity.

That’s because, in an even bigger Cinderella story than its senior team, the JV Bulldogs finished fourth at their provincial tournament (held 10 days earlier, also at the LEC), one in which they were seeded 23rd in a 32-team field.

So as top graduating seniors like guard Nishad Tarak and centre Isaac Ickovich exited from the program last summer, the stage was being set for the melding of two B.C. Final Four teams this season.

“But to be honest, it started pretty rough,” admitted Brown. “We had injuries from Day 1.”

Belmont Grade 11 forward Markus Modrovic has stepped his game up to the senior varsity level after helping the Bulldogs reach the B.C. JV Final Four last season. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

It began when Grade 11 Riley Merryweather, the team’s back-up point guard and co-captain, underwent knee surgery. He is just now finding his way back to a larger role in the rotation.

The Bulldogs also lost senior guard Danny Song to a suspected fractured ankle in mid-December.

“He wasn’t supposed to even back until Febraury but luckily he was mis-diagnosed,” said Brown of Song, a quiet, coachable and determined player who despite missing a full month leads the team in scoring and has hit 80-plus three-point buckets. “He’s the kind of kid you really want on your team.”

The Bulldogs also lost senior guard and sixth man Daunte Nelson for three weeks.

Playing the province’s best teams with fully one-third of its rotation missing over the first half of the season, Belmont took its share of lumps.

Yet its two losses to Lord Tweedsmuir and Semiahmoo by a combined eight points, and its three-point win over Holy Cross over a one-week span from Jan. 26 to Feb. 2 suggests that, much like last season, they’re ready to start peaking at just the right time.

Senior guard Max Leeder, a tough, 6-foot-1 do-it-all guard/forward, lifted his game to new levels as that cornerstone veteran over the course of the team’s injury woes, playing all over the court, including at point guard.

Leeder has anchored a current starting group that includes Song and three members of last season’s JV team in forward Markus Modrovic (6-foot-5), swingman Hunter Thomson and 6-foot-2 guard Cole Belton.

Thomson, a self-starting energy player has eclipsed 100 made-threes this season.

“He is a self-made player,” says Brown. “He never leaves the gym. He missed a shot to beat Semiahmoo in overtime, then after the game, while we’re cleaning up, I look behind the curtain in our next gym, and he’s already on the shooting machine for the next hour.”

Belmont Bulldogs’ senior guard Danny Song (left), pictured here guarding North Delta’s Arun Atker at TBI 2018, has returned ahead of schedule from an ankle injury to lead his team. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2018. All Rights Reserved)

Seniors Nelson and Damien Bursey, along with Grade 11’s Merryweather and Joey Reaume give the rotation a four-deep guard group off the bench. In addition, 6-foot-5 senior forward Dawson Johal rounds out the front-court rotation where he has found a niche in certain match-up situations.

“We’ve worked hard to build a really good culture here at Belmont,” says Brown, a Vernon native and Clarence Fulton Secondary grad who came to Belmont for his teaching practicum in 2002-03 and never never left. He is now into his eighth season at the helm of the senior varsity.

“These are good kids who do well in their classes and in the community, and all of that is more important than basketball,” he continues. “But they love to live in the gym and they feed off of each other.”

Of course, they are going to have to fashion a top-two finish at the Vancouver Island championships to insure their return to the LEC in March, but while there are still a lot of big games they have to win before any of that happens, there seems little doubt they have done everything in their power to be ready for their chance.

“We’ve worked on the understanding that the real goals are all here at the end of the season,” says Brown. “When it comes, they won’t be scared and they won’t be new to the moment. The experience that all of our kids have had at the B.C.’s already has been good. It’s not going to be like a bright-lights situation.”

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