FERNIE — Fully encircled by the Rocky Mountains and sitting in the southeastern most corner of our province, Fernie (pop. 5,000) is not the first place you’re apt to label as a burgeoning hoops hotbed.
Yet when the 2020-21 B.C. high school basketball season tips off this December, Fernie Secondary’s fantastic yet faraway Falcons will wear the deserved tag of the best small town-team you’ve likely never heard of.
That is, unless you were part of the audience at the B.C. championship tournament the past two seasons.
The Falcons, who for the first time in school history sit at No. 1 in B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association preseason Single-A Top 10 rankings, are coming off a 25-3 campaign and a school-best fourth-place finish at provincials, and they return the vast majority of its player rotation under head coach AJ Kennedy.
Langley’s Credo Christian Kodiaks, a perennial power which did not qualify for provincials in 2020, is expected to come back in a big way next season and is ranked No. 2.
Chilliwack’s Highroad Academy Knights, second-place finishers earlier this month and led by rising seniors Elijah Grimard and Nico Kattenberg, sit at No. 3.
Prince George’s Cedar Christian Eagles, a B.C. quarterfinal loser to Highroad and led by its own pair of rising seniors in guard Ben Wolitski and forward Evan Staves, ranks at No. 4, while Vancouver’s St. John’s Eagles, a quarterfinal loser earlier this month to eventual champion Unity Christian, is sitting at No. 5 and paced by rising seniors Eason Tan and Armaan Sandhu.
1 Fernie Falcons
2 Credo Christian Kodiaks (Langley)
3 Highroad Academy Knights (Chilliwack)
4 Cedar’s Christian Eagles (Prince George)
5 St. John’s Eagles (Vancouver)
6 Glenlyon Norfolk Gryphons (Victoria)
7 Barriere Cougars
8 King David Lions (Vancouver)
9 Kelowna Christian Knights
10 Osoyoos Rattlers
Honourable mention — Similkameen Sparks (Keremeos), Gudangaay Tiaat’sgaa Naay Thunder (Masset), Aberdeen Hall Gryphons (Kelowna), Deer Lake Falcons (Burnaby), Northside Christian Northstars (Vanderhoof)
Fernie’s feature spot at No. 1, however, gives the 1-A tier a vast geographic expanse of ranked and honourable mention teams from the Kootenays west to Victoria, home of Glenlyon Norfolk’s No. 6 Gryphons, and upwards through Masset, Vanderhoof, Prince George and down through the wine country of Keremeos.
For Kennedy, the recent rise of Fernie boys basketball can be traced back to the opening game of the 2019 provincials in which the Falcons, seeded last in the tier at No. 16, gave No. 1 seed Glenlyon Norfolk a real push, leading by nine a minute before the half, before eventually falling 89-68.
“Going in at No. 16 two years ago was disheartening, so when we gave Glenlyon a game, it really helped with the self-confidence of the guys,” the coach says.
The maturation over one season was reflected not only in Fernie’s inclusion as the No. 5 seed in the 2020 B.C. draw, but in its back-to-back wins over Surrey’s No. 12 Ecole Gabrielle-Roy and No. 4 Barriere.
Fernie eventually lost 79-68 in the Final Four to the tournament’s No. 1 seed and eventual runner-up Highroad Academy.
The team which returns ranked No. 1 to begin 2020-21?
It was impossible to miss the presence of the team’s rising senior, 6-foot-7 forward Nesta Malcolm, who over his Grade 11 season, entered the B.C. championships averaging 26 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game.
“When we got him (on the senior varsity) in Grade 9, he was already 6-5, and those kinds of players don’t come around very often,” said Kennedy, who feels Malcolm might still be growing.
“But it’s not just his size, it’s also his mobility,” adds Kennedy. “He runs right with the guards, he’s so athletic for his 6-7 frame, and he can really shoot it. But the biggest asset he has is the way his dimensions change things on the defensive end. And it’s not just blocks, steals and rebounds. You have to contend with the ways in which he turns an easy lay-up into hard, contested one.”
Running mate and fellow rising senior Asher Hannemann, a 6-foot-2 scoring guard, gives Fernie a deadly one-two punch.
Hannemann came into the B.C.’s averaging 28 points, six rebounds four steals and four assists per game.
“He is that kid that seemingly every coach wishes they could coach,” says Kennedy of the self-starting standout. “He has so much awareness for the game, and he goes so hard that sometimes you have to get him to dial it back a bit.”
And although Fernie loses Class of 2020 seniors Jake Lampman (28 ppg) and Simon Bloemink (12 ppg, 10 rpg), there is still plenty of rising talent for the season ahead.
Connor Will, a 5-foot-11 rising senior guard, is the third of the team’s returning starters while rising senior guard Cam Wall and rising Grade 11 guard Diego Grijvala move from the rotation into the starting lineup.
This past season, Fernie was a regular visitor to tournaments in the southern end of Alberta, in fact the Falcons’ only loss prior to provincials came at the hands of 4A Chinook High, the largest public school in Lethbridge.
Fernie also defeated Lethbridge’s 4A Catholic Central, Kennedy’s alma mater.
“We got back home on (March 9) the Monday after the B.C. championships and all of the guys just wanted to get right back into the gym,” Kennedy said, noting nothing is ever as simple as it might seem in a town with just one regulation-size basketball gymnasium available.
Still, the rise of Falcons’ basketball hasn’t happened by mistake.
“We started a club program out here about three years ago,” Kennedy says of Fernie Elevate. “Now, instead of playing together three months of the year, it’s eight months. It’s been a huge development and on top of that, these kids are together from Grade one to Grade 12.
“They can pass to each other with their eyes closed.”
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