SURREY — It might have happened in the quarterfinal round at last season’s Telus B.C. Boys AAA basketball championships, but to Surrey’s Holy Cross Crusaders, their 99-86 overtime win over the Vancouver College Fighting Irish has carried all the momentum of a provincial final.
The transition forward into the new 2017-18 season has gone relatively smooth, as would be expected of a program returning the vast majority of its players from a team which finished third at the province’s highest tier a season ago.
Yet no plan is ever perfect, and as the Crusaders, provincial finalists in 2014, aim for their best finish in program history, head coach Anthony Pezzente admits some stylistic changes will be evident.
“We are smaller and much faster, we’ll play at a pace much faster than last year,” says Pezzente, whose team opens up at No. 1 in Varsity Letters’ preseason Big 10 B.C. AAAA rankings. “Our goal is to shoot between 25-to-30 threes a game and go from there.” (Click here for all four tiers of senior boys rankings)
It’s a move borne out of both strength and necessity.
With a cache of speedy guards able to both find each other within a plus-level tempo, and to demonstrate touch from distance, the scheme is ideal.
Seniors Jamel Osei-Anim, Marcus Garcia and Gabe Takeawoa, Grade 11 Michael Risi and Grade 10s Uyi Ologhola and Brent Padilla form a high-octane sextet whose height ranges from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-3.
And therein lies the necessity of their style.
In the aforementioned win last season over the Irish, 6-foot-5 Marcus Browne and 6-foot-6 Ian Park combined to supply 33 points and 22 rebounds.
Browne graduated and has already spent his rookie season as a receiver for the UBC Thunderbirds football team.
Park, however, was expected back but has elected not to return, instead graduating early from high school and enrolling early at Simon Fraser.
“In losing some of our size we have practiced with five guys rebounding, and that is whether you’re 5-5 or 6-4,” continues Pezzente. “Everyone is a rebounder. To in-grain the competitiveness, we don’t stop a drill until the defensive team has the rebound. That rebounder is now the point guard and they outlet.”
A history lesson shows us that while Holy Cross was overwhelmed in the provincials semifinals by eventual champion Walnut Grove, they bounced back nicely, beating Oak Bay to take third place overall.
And all of that was done without the services of its best player, guard Keegan Konn, who tore his ACL earlier in the season and was shelved. He is now in his redshirt freshman season with the SFU Clan.
It’s overcoming that kind of adversity which seems to be a built-in characteristic of the Crusaders’ program.
“After losing Keegan and through all the other injuries and struggles we had, we kept believing in each other,” remembers Pezzente. “Basketball is a confidence-based game and you have to use it. I want kids to see that, to carry that onto the court and learn that it’s something they can use every day in their lives. No matter what the score, you keep working hard.”
Of course, having talent helps.
And with the Crusaders, you can’t help but start with one of the team’s youngest players, Grade 10 guard/forward Uyi Ologhola.
Here’s what I wrote on VarsityLetters.ca after his performance against Vancouver College: “Uyi Ologhola might have managed one of the most impressive performances in B.C. high school boys basketball championship history on Thursday night. That is, unless you think there is not much special about a Grade 9 kid scoring 37 points to lead his team into the Final Four, in an overtime game no less, against the Vancouver College Fighting Irish.”
He has always been tabbed as a talent ahead of his time, but that performance made him the talk of the tournament.
Pezzente appreciates the package Ologhola brings to the group, and in terms of setting a higher bar, knows that carrots need to be chased with even more vigour this season.
“Uyi is such a nice kid,” Pezzente begins, going on to explain that at such a young age last season, Ologhola wasn’t sure how to react to being the subject of such attention.
Because of his caring personality and team-first traits, he seemed almost apologetic for being so prodigiously talented.
A second season at senior varsity, with even more responsibility, should see him continue to mature and improve.
“What needs to happen for him is that he needs to keep working to get better,” the coach continued. “Last year was last year and Uyi understands that, even though he’s still only in Grade 10.”
Padilla is one player who is joining the senior varsity for the first time.
At 6-foot-3 he is the team’s tallest player and he has honed his game in the off-season with Ologhola as a member of Drive Basketball’s Under-15 team.
Getting early seasoning at the senior varsity level has been a plus, Pezzente says, and he uses two players as a prime example.
“Micahel (Risi) and Uyi both played up last year, and that extra year of experience makes Mike look like a (grade) 12 and Uyi like an 11. If we had kept them down (at junior varsity) we might be in trouble this year.”
The Crusaders’ pedal-to-the-metal style gets its debut Tuesday when the team hosts crosstown rival Panorama Ridge in an 8 p.m. tilt.
Holy Cross opens at the Heritage Woods Kodiak Classic on Thursday against honourable-mention Handsworth.
And they will open as the pre-tourney favourite Dec. 7 at the Tsumura Basketball Invitational when they face another three-point shooting juggernaut in East Van’s Sir Charles Tupper Tigers.
That game is set for a 5:15 p.m. tipoff at the Langley Events Centre.
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