BURNABY MOUNTAIN — I can picture the late, great Lorne Davies smiling a lot these days about a kid named Irish.
When the founding father of Simon Fraser athletics planted the pioneering idea of his student-athletes competing against U.S.-based competition upon the school’s opening in 1965, he no doubt harboured a hope that one day SFU would play in the NCAA.
He got to see that dream come true before his passing in 2015, yet at that stage, five seasons into Simon Fraser’s tenure as a Div. 2 member, the men’s basketball team had yet to have a B.C.-born pure freshman talent step straight from the high school ranks and onto the court as a key member of the team’s main rotation.
All of that is just one of the many reasons this season that the team’s 6-foot-1, 175 pound guard Irish Coquia carries what has to be considered a very significant torch.
Heading into Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. non-conference home opener against the Hawaii Pacific Sharks (0-2), the host Red Leafs (1-4) will give the hometown crowd at the West Gym its first real look at the three-time B.C. high school championship MVP from Vancouver-St. Patrick’s.
Barely two months past his 18th birthday, Coquia has shown, at times, a veteran’s poise and flash, yet the most encouraging part of the narrative has been the way he has led any conversation about himself with the part of his game he feels needs the most work.
“I need to learn how to play defence,” begins Coquia. “For me, transitioning from high school to university, I now know important it is to guard the other team’s best guy.
“Coach Hanson has been on me about it and I feel like I am improving,” he adds of Red Leafs’ head coach Steve Hanson.
While Coquia has averaged a seemingly-modest 7.0 ppg through the team’s first five games, there was no mistaking the fact that the offensive side of his game is already pretty mature.
In his most productive game yet, Coquia came off the bench and in 28 minutes scored a team-high 17 points, including 4-for-8 from three-point range, as the Red Leafs battled down the stretch before losing 71-66 to Buffalo, NY’s Daemen Wildcats on Nov. 4 during one of three games the team played at the CCA Div. II Canadian Tip-Off Classic in Langley.
“When we played Daemen, he picked up a really outstanding point guard for 80 feet in the game, and he did really well,” Hanson said of Coquia matching up defensively against the Wildcats’ sophomore starting lead guard Justin Glover. “He has a strong lower body and it lets him hold his ground defensively. We tested the players in September, and he was like the second fastest guy in our six-lap test which was impressive to us. I didn’t think he’d be in that kind of shape. We’ve already played four teams that run some outstanding continuity offence, so he has run the gamut already of some pretty great offences. It’s really prepared him.”
Hanson, in fact, paid his freshman a pretty hefty compliment earlier this week when the conversation turned from his progress on defence to his ability to score the basketball.
“He understands what we are all about and he can see that everyone here is working their tails off on the defensive end,” Hanson began. “I think he’s paying attention to it because he knows how truly important it is, and that it’s only going to get him more minutes, and that’ll let his offence shine because there’s not much more to his offence that we’re going to teach him. He has a great feel for the game. He has that ‘it’ factor, which we expected.”
So while the defensive side of his game continues to mature under the SFU coaching staff and the veteran starting guard duo of David Penney and Elliot Dimaculangan, Coquia’s so-called ‘it’ factor has indeed begun to reveal itself on offence.
Heading into play Wednesday, Coquia was shooting a team-leading 42.1 per cent from three-point range (8-of-19), as well as finding a 71.4 per cent success rate from the free throw line.
As he’s watched from afar, Nap Santos, Coquia’s high school coach at St. Patrick’s, agrees with Hanson in that the more he works on his defence, the brighter the freshman’s future will be.
“He’ll have his ups and downs (on defence),” explained Santos, whose St. Pat’s teams won the past two B.C. Triple-A championship titles with Coquia being named tourney MVP. “It could take the whole season. In the next month he could figure it out or it could be the whole season. The important thing is that he just keeps going, always reminding himself that it’s the defence.”
To help facilitate that process, Hanson designated Penney, the standout senior floor general, as Coquia’s mentor this season.
The rookie can’t stop talking about how much he has already soaked up from the veteran.
“He is my role model, and he’s the one taking care of me,” Coquia says. “Shout out to him because he is the one teaching me everything on offence and defence. And shout out to Elliot, too. He’s big bro. He helps me make sure I know my spots.”
B.C. freshmen making instant impact have been rare in what is now SFU’s 14th season as an NCAA program.
Yet all of that is trending in a very positive direction.
Last season, guard Jimmy Zaborniak of Burnaby South made a splash towards the future with a solid pure freshman campaign (18.4 mpg, 28 per cent 3pt shooting, 4.0 ppg). Zaborniak will keep the guard rotation healthy when he returns next season after electing to take a redshirt campaign in 2023-24.
And back in 2014-15, guard JJ Pankratz of Abbotsford’s Yale Lions averaged 6.4 ppg in 15.7 mpg while shooting 31.6 per cent (18-of-57) from three-point range in his debut as a redshirt freshman.
Simon Fraser also has a pair of redshirt freshman from North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary — forward Matthys Van Bylandt and guard Tate Christiansen — who have been equally important to the team over the first few weeks of the regular season, and whose story is yet to be told. All tolled, it makes this the strongest first-year contingent of B.C. players the program has debuted to start a season over the course of its NCAA history.
Hanson isn’t about to stop pushing hard on the defensive end, yet it’s hard to ignore the plus-plus qualities Coquia brings on the offensive end.
“When he shoots the three ball, it comes with no hesitation and a lot of confidence,” said Hanson. “We see that in practice every day and we are pretty comfortable with him letting it fly when he is open.”
And all of that is something Santos has seen the past five-plus years.
“Offensively speaking, we knew it in Grade 8,” Santos says. “We would throw him in the gym with the seniors and all he had to do was sit in the corner and those Grade 12s would find him for threes. He was doing all of this stuff against kids four years older than him.”
And while he’s barely 18 years old, Irish Coquia is not lacking for confidence.
The only thing that he says he needed was trust of his new coach.
“Coach Hanson is pushing me because he believes in me and I love that about him,” Coquia said. “We had a big heart-to-heart and he said ‘I believe in you’ and that small word meant everything to me. So it’s ‘OK, I trust you, and you trust me’ and we’re going to do good the next few years.’”
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