NORTH VANCOUVER — Absence makes a basketball coach’s heart grow fonder, and in the case of Rick Mark, you can almost hear that excited pulse the second his voice comes over the telephone wires.
“I thought I was getting too old for this, but after 15 years off, here I am again,” laughed Mark, 70, as the topic turned to not only his return to the head coach’s seat with the senior varsity girls program at North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary this season, but to the fact that for the first time since 2016, the Royals are headed back to the Big Dance.
Thursday’s 72-53 win over Vancouver’s John Oliver Jokers in the inaugural Sea-to-Sky Quad A championship game was the exclamation point to a week in which the Royals not only avenged two missed opportunities a season ago to qualify for provincials, but sent Mark to his first B.C. championship tourney since he helped the Carson Graham boys do the same under head coach Vern Porter at the turn of the century.
“They played their hearts out and it was crushing, but they came back with a purpose,” Mark said of his 2019-20 Royal, who last season lost a heartbreaker to crosstown Argyle in the Crehan Cup semifinals which would have sent them straight to the provincials, then later fell in decisive fashion in a last-ditched wildcard qualifier to Brookswood.
“That’s why this has been a magical moment for these girls,” added Mark, who through the 1970s and ‘80s guided boys teams from Killarney and later Spectrum to the Big Dance, before serving as the president of Basketball B.C. through the majority of the 1990s. “We’ll see what it means for the future of the program.”
Of course, under former head coach Scott Palmer, the Royals were not only a power on the North Shore, but a provincial-wide force, winning back-to-back top-tiered Triple A titles in 2009 and ’10 behind the dominating duo of Kris Young and Diana Lee.
Now, as the team begins preparations for its opening-round clash Feb. 26 in the first-ever B.C. Quad-A championships at the Langley Events Centre, Mark reflects back on a season filled with both adversities and silver-lining moments.
“Michelle hurt her knee in a freak accident in our fourth game of the season,” he says of senior guard Michelle Sue, who was shelved for much of the campaign before making an essential stretch-drive return to the roster.
“Last night (against John Oliver) was the first time she’s played 30 minutes in a game in over two months,” he said of Sue, who has played in just nine games this season after starting 24 a season ago. “She’s only been able to start and play again at full speed in the past two weeks, so this has been good timing for us because she’s a smart, aggressive defender who can score in many ways.”
Sue’s 14 points, six rebounds and three assists in the zone final represented her best stat line of her season.
There was also the blessing of discovering, at the start of the season, a game-ready senior point guard in the form of Francesca Roccuzzo.
“She just showed up out of nowhere,” Mark said of the 5-foot-6 point guard, an international exchange student from Turin, Italy, who was named the Sea-to-Sky Quad-A tournament MVP.
Roccuzzo has averaged 10.6 points, five assists and four steals per game.
As well, there has been the opportunity for Mark to coach his Grade 10 daughter Samantha Mark, a dynamic underclassmen who has averaged 29 ppg, in this her second senior varsity season.
Since the New Year, Sam Mark has been a first team all-star at the Heritage Woods, Burnaby South, Southridge invitationals, as well as the Sea to Sky championships.
Mark has averaged 17 points per game through 49 senior varsity games as a Grade 9 and now Grade 10 player, and with two full seasons remaining in her high school career, the 2020 provincials will mark her 50th senior varsity game.
The Royals are also versatile in the front court with a pair of posts in Grade 11 Kylie Passant and senior Aidan Chubb.
“(Aidan) is an emotional leader of the team and we are thrilled to have made the B.C.’s in her senior year,” coach Mark said of the 5-foot-10 Chubb who put up a 23-point, 12-rebound performance in a win over North Surrey earlier this season.
Meanwhile, the 5-foot-10 Passant, a triple-sport athlete with rugby and soccer on her resume, has managed 10 double-doubles this season.
“She’s fairly new to basketball, but she is catching up fast,” Mark added.
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