LANGLEY — A funny thing happened along the way to an inspiring season-ending string of 10 games for North Vancouver’s youthful St. Thomas Aquinas Fighting Saints.
They got better and better, even though they got a whole lot younger.
“We had a galvanizing moment before the playoffs started,” admits STA head coach Jim Kelly, whose team has been installed at No. 1 in the B.C. senior boys Double-A preseason Top 10 rankings.
“We started to put everything together, and then when the junior season ended for us, we got a kid who helped us make a huge run,” said the veteran skipper. “He’s 6-foot-7, he was mature, he was so cerebral about the game and it was hard to imagine that he was only in Grade 9.”
Of course the best is yet to come for rising Grade 10 forward Declan Cutler, whose season-long presence in 2020-21 will do nothing but make the team’s rising senior star duo of Rory Goodwin and Jansen Balmaceda even more effective and dangerous than they showed over a ground-breaking stretch-drive end to the 2019-20 campaign.
With Cutler just beginning to learn the ropes at senior varsity, St. Thomas Aquinas went 8-2 over its final 10 games of the season, with its only losses coming in the Sea-to-Sky championship final to Vancouver’s King George Dragons, and in the B.C. quarterfinals to Prince Rupert’s Charles Hays Rainmakers.
And of course if you followed the course of the B.C. boys Double-A championship bracket which played out earlier this month at the Langley Events Centre, you know that Charles Hays repeated as provincial champs following its win over King George in the 2020 title game.
That is certainly a ringing endorsement for a Fighting Saints team which had just one senior (Michael O’Flynn) in its heavy rotation this past season.
Yet as Kelly readily admits, there might not be a tier in 2020-21 as hotly contested at the top end than Double-A, where the likes of No. 2 Brentwood College, No. 3 Charles Hays, No. 4 Lambrick Park No. 5 Mulgrave, among other teams, all take turns staking a claim to the crown.
1 St. Thomas Aquinas Fighting Saints (North Vancouver)
2 Brentwood College (Mill Bay)
3 Charles Hays Rainmakers (Prince Rupert)
4 Lambrick Park Lions (Victoria)
5 Mulgrave Titans (West Vancouver)
6 King George Dragons (Vancouver)
7 Princess Margaret Mustangs (Penticton)
8 Abbotsford Christian Knights
9 Langley Christian Lightning
10 Clarence Fulton Maroons (Vernon)
Honourable mention — Gulf Islands Scorpions (Salt Spring Island), Pacific Academy Breakers (Surrey), Samuel Robertson Technical Titans (Maple Ridge), Summerland Rockets, Westsyde Whundas (Kamloops)
(Lyle Dhur, sportvictoria.com)
Still, there is plenty to like when dissecting a Fighting Saints’ group which will be led by its deep senior core.
Goodwin is the backbone of the team, and the rising senior, who checks in at 6-foot-3, is coming off a campaign in which he averaged 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game.
“Rory was great for us,” says Kelly. “He has no fear to going to the hole and that was a part of his game he really improved on. He can shoot the three, he can drive and go into traffic. He plays courageously, he does need to put on some more muscle, but he’s that kid who jumps, dunks and just loves the game.”
Balmaceda, at 5-foot-9, is the team’s engine at point guard… a guy Kelly calls “That classic small guy with a chip on his shoulder.
“He has the heart of a lion,” continues Kelly. “He’s a very good shooter, but he also just sort of finds a way. If his shot gets taken away from him, he isn’t afraid to take it inside and get to the rack. He’s a a gutsy kid.”
Then there’s Cutler, whose remaining three-year career at STA seems to have him potentially poised to touch heights that perhaps no one else in school history will have reached when all is said and done.
“He could be the best big guy we’ve ever had at STA,” says Kelly of the younger sibling of Aquinas’ Class of 2020 graduating, 6-foot SFU-bound senior girls standout Gemma Cutler. “He’s got such a great mind for the game, he’s still growing and he has a knack for blocking shots without fouling.”
The Saints have had some very talented players over the decades, including Sean Thistle, who went on to star in the AUS at Memorial University in St. John’s after being named MVP in leading STA past Ladysmith in the 2000 B.C. Double-A title game.
O’Flynn, who poured home 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in STA’s B.C. tourney-opening 90-84 win over Penticton’s Princess Margaret Mustangs, will be missed.
Yet with the likes of guard Henry Cromak, and forwards Ryan Black and Dexter Boase all returning, the pieces are in place for a solid run at the program’s first title in 20 years.
“We had a Grade 9 come in and take pressure off the older kids, and then we got on a roll,” says Kelly. “We started to win games that were tight, and we matured incredibly.”
A microcosm of the 2019-20 season just complete, in fact, might best be summed up by the fight these Fighting Saints showed against defending champion Charles Hays before succumbing in the provincial quarters.
In that game, STA fell behind 15-0 to open, yet were up by six at the half (48-42) and actually led by 12 in the third quarter before their ceiling gave way en route to a 91-79 loss.
“Hays proved who they were,” said Kelly. “They were an experienced team, so well coached, and it showed that they had been there before.
“They took it to us and when you lose a game like that, a lot of teams will just mail it in the rest of the way. But all of that showed me that my guys can do it, and that is why we are all so excited about next year. And I know that from Grade 11 to Grade 12 is the big maturing year.”
(We look at boys Triple-A and Quad-A rankings next week)
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