BURNABY — It’s been an entire off-season since the 11th-hour transformation of the Burnaby South Rebels happened right before our eyes.
You remember them, right?
The team which won a sudden-elimination game against Kitsilano in the last week of February just to make the The Dance as a No. 8 seed?
The team that seemingly stumbled upon the secrets of basketball’s Holy Grail just in time to re-invent themselves as something straight out a Marvel comic book?
Yes, those Rebels.
So with a preseason Quad A No. 1 ranking and an eagerly anticipated encore performance awaiting over the 2018-19 season, one which officially opens across the province on Monday, just how ready are they to perform as the designated team everybody wants to beat?
(B.C. senior girls rankings will follow this weekend)
“This whole experience of being a target is nothing new for this group,” says head coach Mike Bell of a senior-heavy team which has enjoyed astounding success throughout their entire high school careers.
“They won (the provincials) in Grade 8, in Grade 9 they lost in the final, in Grade 10 they won and in Grade 11 they won.”
History, of course, would not look at these Rebels in quite the same light had they not so stunningly re-written the most recent pages of their current script in progress, including its 80-72 win over Semiahmoo in the title game.
Yet because they did, and because they made darn sure over the off-season to not let their new persona slip away, the 2018-19 season presents an opportunity for absolute greatness in the annals of B.C. boys basketball history.
“…GET IT TO THE BIG MAN, AND PLAY OFF OF THAT”
As you might expect in charting the progress of a B.C. junior champ, its corresponding senior varsity team will so often see a spike in its own success over the one-to-two season window which follow as it absorbs an influx of rising blue-chip talent.
In the case of a senior varsity program winning a top-tiered B.C. title within two seasons of a junior title, however, it’s not as common as you might think.
In fact, it’s happened seven times in the 47 years since the junior tournament began in 1970, with Vancouver’s St. George’s School now on the clock following its junior team’s 2018 B.C. title-game win over Lord Tweedsmuir.
North Delta (1973 then ’75), Duchess Park (1978, then ’80), R.C. Palmer (1986, then 1987 & ’88 Richmond), Ladysmith (1993, then ’95), and then Richmond (1996, then ’98) took us through the end of the 20th century.
In the new millennium, however, it’s gotten a lot tougher.
Kitsilano (2000, then ’01 & ’02) started things off, but until Burnaby South (2017, then ’18) pulled the trick, it hadn’t happened in 16 seasons.
So what makes this Burnaby South team so unique?
Well, contrary to popular belief, solely guard-based teams run the inherent risk of becoming too one-dimensional in the face of teams who can present a post presence from which to vary their approach, either offensively or defensively.
And this is where the Rebels got lost for the greatest stretch of their 2017-18 campaign.
Their guard group was so talented and, perhaps most importantly, owned such a dominant piece of the team’s personality as it rose through the JV ranks, that veering away, and taking the chance that integrating its front-court size would in the end make them better, just got riskier and scarier the longer the season progressed.
Yet when push came to shove, they knew they had to make the change, and that meant getting its 6-foot-9 Grade 10 post Sasha Vujisic fit and fully involved in everything they did.
Once they did, it was amazing to see how, from February into March, things changed.
Thus, in my mind, this quote from veteran assistant David Smith, given to me on the floor of the LEC following the Rebels win over Semiahmoo was the most telling of the entire 2017-18 senior boys season: “…we weren’t fully formed. We had two different styles that we were battling. Well, not battling, but experimenting with. But when Sasha started to come into his own, it was very clear how we were going to be successful. It was going to be ‘get it to the big man and play off of that’. It’s how we beat (No. 1 seed) Oak Bay (in the quarterfinals).”
THESE PIECES ALL FIT
Losing a 6-foot-7 senior B.C. tournament MVP is normally too much for a defending champ to absorb.
And while South’s Jusuf Sehic, magnificent en route to earning those credentials last March, has moved onto to a collegiate career at Simon Fraser this season, the feeling in the Rebels’ camp is that the Twin Towers look will continue.
And that’s because Vujisic and 6-foot-8 senior Aidan Wilson are hoping to be able to create similar magic.
“We will go with the twin towers throughout the season, ‘said Bell, “but not all the time. We are really guard heavy, so it’s basically Aidan and Sasha and then the next (tallest) guys are like 6-foot-3. There isn’t much middle ground.”
To be completely fair, Vujisic did battle shin issues last season, and thus had do undergo some crash-course conditioning in order to give his team big minutes down the stretch.
In terms of maintaining their new identity, however, Bell expects his team will hit the court running when it opens its season Thursday in Port Moody at the Heritage Woods Kodiak Classic in a rematch of last season’s title tilt against Semiahmoo.
“He is in way better running shape this season,” Bell said.”Last year he had the shin issues, but right now he looks like a man on a mission.”
The back court?
Mentioning them last is in no way considering them least because their depth, skill, experience and versatility makes them an indispensable part of any championship conversation.
Jiordano Khan, at 6-foot-3, is the team’s most versatile player. Depending on what look Bell and Co. want to put on the floor, he can be manning (attacking or defending) any spot from one through five.
“The nice thing about Jio is that he does everything,” Bell remarks. “He can guard fours, and when we go small he can play at the five. Then, he can also go all the way to one.”
Baltej Sohal, a 6-foot-3 guard, and 5-foot-9 Kyle Kirmaci are two others who will play huge roles in team’s effort to repeat at champs.
Bell also mentioned that a number of seniors who did not play last season have returned to the fold. As well, the South junior team, ranked amongst the tops in the province all of last season, will provide even more depth.
“I think everyone just put more of an emphasis on giving more focus to the game,” Bell said of the strides he hoped were made over the offseason. “They all got into better shape. A guy like Baltej who had never really lifted decided this was the summer to start weightlifting. It was awesome to see all the work he put in.
“The kids all understand what last season’s championship meant, and now it’s a reference point for what we all need to do.”
1 Burnaby South Rebels
2 Holy Cross Crusaders (Surrey)
3 Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers (Surrey)
4 Terry Fox Ravens (Port Coquitlam)
5 Tamanawis Wildcats (Surrey)
6 St. George’s Saints (Vancouver)
7 Vancouver College Fighting Irish
8 Oak Bay Bays (Victoria)
9 Kelowna Owls
10 Belmont Bulldogs (Victoria)
HONOURABLE MENTION — W.J. Mouat Hawks (Abbotsford), Kitsilano Blue Demons (Vancouver), Semiahmoo Totems (Surrey), Handsworth Royals (North Vancouver), Heritage Woods Kodiaks (Port Moody)
(Howard Tsumura, VarsityLetters.ca)
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(Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2018. All Rights Reserved)
(Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics 2018. All Rights Reserved)