NORTH DELTA — The toughest and most unpredictable tournament to try and win in the entire canon of B.C. high school basketball tips off Saturday, its winding maze of qualifiers hunkering down for five games over four days within a field just one round smaller than the NCAA’s Big Dance.
Of course, March Madness of the U.S. collegiate variety last three weeks.
The 32-team Telus B.C. Junior Boys High School Basketball Championships will fold 80 games into four days at the Langley Events Centre.
And if it’s sprawling size and majestic seeding numbers — No. 32 Richmond Colts against the No. 1 Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers in an 8:30 a.m. game Saturday — aren’t enough to kindle thoughts of underdogs and unknowns, how about the fact that there are no tiers in B.C.’s JV hoops world?
It’s kind of like a modern-day version of say, the 1950’s all-comers format that made Indiana high school basketball such a unique entity.
So within the crockpot of this 32-team stew, we’ve dipped our ladle and picked one team, telling their story through both their recent successes and through the historical context they hold within the community of B.C. high school hoops.
Here then, is the story of the North Delta Huskies junior boys basketball team.
At the core of its DNA, Huskies hoops is, like so many other long-standing programs around the province, one of the most tradition-laden in the B.C. high school basketball community.
Similar strains of varying lengths can be seen at schools like MEI, Oak Bay, Prince Rupert-to-Charles Hays, and of course, No. 32-seeded Richmond.
They are neighbourhood programs, programs which have endured through the changing face of generations, programs which ebb and flow and, in the case of the Huskies, emerge as contenders because of a caretaker’s mentality that values tradition and pride.
On this particular generational tree, we start in the early 1970s and a man named Stan Stewardson, who would later go on to more coaching success at Simon Fraser University, where he recruited a guy named Jay Triano.
Stewardson was a pioneering figure. He was the first B.C. high school coach to make mandatory the donning of game-day shirts, ties and blazers.
He won a B.C. championship in 1971 at North Delta, and his sphere of influence included a kid named Bill Edwards, who led the team to B.C. top-tiered titles in 1975 and 1990 and also spent a stint as the head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds.
Yet Edwards never fully went away.
He has since reffed locally, and over his final season of senior varsity coaching, at nearby Sands Secondary a decade ago, welcomed a young and eager coach named Jesse Hundal into the fold.
This coaching tree holds particular significance this season, because Hundal and his current co-coach Gary Sandhu, a transplanted former Prince George Polars player, understood the tradition of their school.
This season, with a deep core of 10th graders including a stunning talent in 6-foot-3 Suraj Gahir, the pair reached out to Edwards, now 67, and asked him if he would be interested in aiding their quest to help the group reach its full potential.
Edwards agreed, and with recent grad Manvir Gahir joining their ranks, a four-man collective was established.
None of this is wholely unique. But it is in the way that today’s youth can gain an understanding that they are a part of a bigger picture, and that the name across of the front of their jerseys isn’t just some random moniker.
The way the Huskies have seen the big picture is what’s most important here.
It’s all about how wearing your jersey with understanding becomes a point of pride, and how in an instant, it can reach back generations and speak a language that has been lost through every modern form of communication.
“Honestly,” says Hundal, “Bill has made me 100 times better because of his attention to detail, and his ability to communicate. That is the most fundamental thing. The ability to communicate. He still focuses on the fundamentals but he has adapted to the new style. When I introduced him to the players, the kids were excited. His resume speaks for itself, but he will never talk about it.”
When I chatted with him earlier this week, Edwards was adamant that the piece be about the team, not him. have tried to honour that.
But it’s pretty tough not to write about what makes this re-birth of North Delta Huskies basketball special without referencing some of the big reasons why.
I hope he understands.
LEARNING TO WIN
North Delta heads into the B.C. tournament as a No. 11 seed.
Despite being ranked No. 1 in three of the four polls issued this season, the Huskies lost at just the wrong time in the Fraser Valley playoffs, a juncture at which they needed to win three straight games just to be branded the Valley’s No. 5 seed.
They did just that, yet they are still a team that has not fully learned how to win the big games.
“Our guys felt pressure,” co-coach Sandhu says of a loss to Langley’s R.E. Mountain Eagles. “They hadn’t been in that position this season. A lot of them felt like they needed to do it on their own. It’s not like we unraveled, there was a lot of bad luck, but maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Maybe it’s the loss we needed.”
There is no questioning the talent of a rotation, led by Gahir, that goes seven deep.
Arjun Atker, Jag Johal, Bhavraj Tharia, Vic Hayer, Paras Gill and Eric Sandhu make up the rest of the main core.
Yet Lord Tweedsmuir, a team that North Delta has not beaten in three seasons, remains an imposing presence over the rest of the field.
“Our skill level is pretty high,” says Hundal. “Practices are at 7 a.m. and they all understand that hard work equals success. They love repping North Delta. They care about the name that is on the front of their jersies.”
THE ROOTS OF A TREE
Stewardson, Edwards, Tyler Kushnir, Ted Murray, Mike McKay.
It’s not a complete list of North Delta Huskies head coaches. But they are the leaders of a group which has created and maintained the heritage of the program.
And, of course former Huskies players like Mike McNeill (former SFU head coach) and Stu Graham (B.C. girls AAA title at Elgin Park) have gone on to become foundations in the B.C. hoops community.
In Edwards’ case, it wasn’t simply a matter of accepting a role and showing up at practice.
Instead, he spent an entire off-season observing players in the local club system, and he huddled with McNeill and his wife, former SFU and Canadian women’s national team head coach Allison McNeill.
“Mike and Allison are family and I am always talking with them,” says Edwards. “The offensive game today is completely different than it was 20 years ago. We talked about what has changed and reflected that onto the high school game.”
Yet so much about what matters within a high school basketball program will never change.
And it’s those threads that can’t afford to be severed.
A young-and-talented group of kids, kind of like Edwards, McNeill and Graham were in the very same neighbourhoods back in the day, embark on their journey towards a championship on Saturday.
And when they get to the senior varsity next season, maybe they should think about the shirts, ties and blazers.
The North Delta Huskies are moving forward by embracing their past.
It’s a theme that every school should value because in the end, what makes high school sports so special and so worth saving, is its most unique duality.
You play for your teammates, but you also play for the place that each day, from September to June, offers you the chance to experience the most defining moments of your life.
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