VANCOUVER — Looking for answers as to just what kind of a cannon the Kitsilano Blue Demons have been shot out of lately?
Wondering how a team which so stoically took it on the chin game, after game, after game to start the 2018-19 B.C. senior boys Quad-A basketball season is now positioned as one of the favourites to win it all?
Even head coach Sylvester Noel has a hard time putting a finger on just one thing, yet as the traditional Vancouver city power has risen from its former unranked status just three weeks ago to two straight weeks and counting at No. 4 in the Varsity Letters Big 10 B.C. rankings, there is a lot to be said for honouring tradition.
“We had a really hard start to the season, but I’ve always kept Randy as my mentor,” begins Noel, now three seasons into succeeding the legendary former head coach Randy Coutts who guided the program to back-to-back top-tiered titles from 1996-97 as part of his 20-plus year stay at the school, leading up to his retirement after the 2015-16 season.
“I’ve known him for 17 years and I’ve followed his template of getting into a lot of tough tournaments and playing a very competitive schedule,” Noel added. “I consider him one of my assistant coaches. I phone him every so often, and he gives me advice.”
So despite a first half plagued with injuries, pesky flu bugs and players missing from the lineup for a variety of other reasons, the Blue Demons soldiered on.
By Christmas they were 7-7, but 0-5 against ranked Quad-A foes.
Then finally, at Terry Fox’s Legal Beagle invitational staged over the first full week of January, the real Blue Demons started to flash their promise.
At first it was ugly.
As star lead guard Luka Dolman began the slow process of easing himself back into rotation following an ACL tear in August, Kitsilano was at once capable of both scaling peaks and plummeting into valleys.
The best example came on Jan. 12 at the Beagle.
Kits built a 64-39 lead midway through the third quarter against Vancouver College, before finishing the game on the wrong end of 36-8 run to lose 75-72.
To be fair, Dolman was seeing spot duty that day, and dynamic fellow senior guard Peter Li was absent that weekend on a recruiting visit.
Gradually, however, it all came together.
“We stayed the course and didn’t get frustrated as the losses mounted,” said Noel. “Having coached at Kits for 17 years, I understand that the second half of the season is when you want to start peaking. Team defence was something that myself and the coaches (assistants Greg Fong and Paul Ekeocha) had to re-visit and stress in practice every day. Thankfully, they all bought in at the right time.”
Thankfully, as well, Dolman was able to work his way back into the line-up on a more regular basis, deepening the rotation and giving a core four-man senior guard group of himself, Li, Payton Lum and Owen Cutler a chance to be at their very best.
Add in the likes of 6-foot-7 big man Everest Jaggs and versatile forward Sten Petersen, both Grade 12s, and the Blues Demons define what a senior-laden team is all about.
How much better can they still get heading into next week’s Lower Mainland championships, in which one of No. 2 Burnaby South (24-3), No. 4 Kits (20-14), No. 6 Vancouver College (22-8) and No. 7 St. George’s (13-3) won’t make the B.C. tourney?
A lot of that will come down to Dolman, who had his ACL tear confirmed Aug. 20, but opted against surgery, choosing the straight rehab route instead, ultimately cutting his estimated recovery time in half as evidenced by his January return.
Curiously enough, the third in a line of team-leading Blue Demons named Luka (big man Luka Zaharijevic (ex-UBC Thunderbirds) and guard Luka Lizdek (first year, Ottawa Gee-Gees)), Dolman is not only a big presence on the court, but as Noel so aptly puts it, “…he has a very spirited sense of being.”
When asked how he has been progressing since ending his four-and-a-half-month injury sabbatical, Dolman replied: “In the early stages of my return, I’m not the player I was before. I’m not going to get you views. I’m not going to get you clicks. But I am going to get you wins, and in the long run that’s what matters most.”
Could a millennial put it any better?
“Luka attacks the rim, breaks down defences and gets rebounds,” says Noel. “All four of the guards can be a point guard, and so when we get pressed, we have four guys that can handle the ball.”
For his part, Noel appreciated the close quarters Dolman retained with the team throughout his injury rehabilitation.
“Even though he didn’t play for us in the first half, he was at every practice, and he gave his feedback like a coach would. He had a lot of input. He worked with the guards and so when he came back into the rotation, he always felt a part of the team.”
Now, in its four-guard looks, there is an overall ‘spirited sense of being’ among the quartet.
“There is no jealousy, they are all on one page,” adds Noel. “We’ve had two key words that break our team huddles this season and they are ‘family’ and ‘together.’ Hopefully those words will carry us far in the next round of playoffs.”
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