LANGLEY — Sometimes, on those nights when the basketball gods deem it time, the things that allow a most beautiful game to achieve a heightened state of existence unfold before our eyes and remind us why we care so much.
Why, for almost four straight months, we populate dark gymnasiums, studying intently the moves and counter moves and ultimately theorizing with zen-like purpose, the reasons why our most special players are indeed, so special.
On Saturday night, in the 11th hour of the 2016-17 season, before a packed, rapt audience of 5,009 at the Langley Event Centre, one of those very moments picked the perfect time to reveal itself.
Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators and the Kelowna Owls were locked in a tight and taut B.C. Quad-A championship final.
It was midway through the second half when the team’s respective superstars — the Gators’ Ty Rowell and Mason Bourcier of the Owls — began hitting big shots all over the floor.
Deep threes, medium-range missiles, driving lay-ups. You name it.
“I can tell you exactly what I was thinking when that started,” smiled Walnut Grove head coach George Bergen afterwards. “The show is on.”
Indeed it was.
And when the dust had settled, and when Bourcier’s 29 points were placed next to Rowell’s 31, you said to yourself “Saw-off” and “dead heat.”
Indeed that was the case, but Walnut Grove, with its depth advantage and its height advantage, were deserving 78-65 winners.
Yes, the game felt a lot closer and yes, the No. 1-seeded Gators, with their fans creating a huge home court advantage, had made a huge statement by beating the No. 2-seeded Owls in all five of their meetings this season.
For the coaches and players who journeyed all season to reach the pinnacle of the game in our province, elation and heartbreak were split right down the middle.
But in terms of providing a theatre of great drama, the entertainment value and the atmosphere was proof that despite all the growing pains the high school game is experiencing with prep school defections-and-returns, transfers and the like, everything the game’s caretakers invest in its continued health is warranted in spades.
FROM JADON TO TY
Ty Rowell remembers coming to Langley Events Centre in Grade 7 and Grade 8, following the first truly great edition of the Gators, led by its star Jadon Cohee.
“I watched it all and I loved it all,” Rowell said Saturday after winning the title, of the heartbreaking 2012 season that ended with a last-second finals loss to Terry Fox, and the 2013 season when Walnut Grove beat White Rock Christian Academy and the fans stormed the court.
“I saw Jadon and that is what made me strive to want to win this as well,” said Rowell, who work ethic and sense of purpose remained the team’s pulse right through Saturday’s final.
On Saturday, just like 2013, the fans stormed Ken Winslade Court at the LEC. Cohee was even there, hugging the current Gators.
“What does it mean?” said Bergen, pointing a finger in response to a reporter’s question. “Jadon is right over there. He is a lifelong Gator, and that is what this moment is all about. It’s the culture and the legacy this all leaves.”
Over on the other side of the court, the Owls had gathered to receive their silver medals.
Said Paul Eberhardt, the president of BC boys high school basketball, who in 2011 coached Richmond’s R.C. Palmer Griffins to the title in the first year the event had moved to the LEC after spending the greatest part of the past generation at the PNE Agrodome: “When you’re on the other side, it’s tough. Really, you just want to leave. It’s a hard thing to go through.”
Mason Bourcier could relate.
Last season, he was a big part of the Owls’ perfect season against B.C. competition, a campaign which ended with the elation of the title. He knew how good the Gators felt, but he also knew exactly what Eberhardt was talking about.
In the end, a young man offered great perspective in his lowest moment.
“It’s hard to describe with words,” he said. “It’s a bittersweet ending, but if you look at how far I’ve come and my team has come since we were young, and I have played with some of these guys since Grade 7, they mean the world to mean even if we lose.”
WHY WE LOVE THIS GAME
Get to the nitty-gritty, and the 2016-17 Owls are not that far off their rivals from Langley.
In the heart and grit department, Owls like Spencer Braam, David Wieczorek, Justin Peleshytyk, Matt Williamson and Parker Johnstone are as good as they come, and they all bring different skills to the table.
As well, Kelowna post Owen Keyes (18 points, eight rebounds) handled a huge mantle of responsibility as the team’s go-to player in the paint.
However, the Gators not only had foils for every Owl, they brought an added dimension of size and wingspan, which when properly deployed, was able to turn tight games into victories.
On Saturday, one late tweak, according to Bergen, made a huge difference.
“I think both teams performed at an equal level,” he said. “But I think we got a little edge in the category of changing our defence.”
In the fourth quarter, the Gators went to a 1-3-1 zone defence, and with the wingspan of Jake Cowley, Andrew Goertzen and Brett Christensen leading the way, the Owls saw traffic in the paint come to a grinding halt.
“It neutralized Mason,” said Bergen, whose own bench players like Luke Adams and Alisdair Coyle also played big roles this week. “There was a bit of uncertainty, a bit of tentativeness. So that was a changing point.”
Enough, it turns out, that Walnut Grove, in a 13-point win, were able to finish the game on a plus-12 run (20-8) over the contest’s final 10 minutes.
Over the coming years, when I think back on the campaign just complete, I will not forget the Gators’ guard James Wood, who as a Grade 11 and the tournament’s eventual MVP, showed everyone how much it is possible to improve in one season with focussed work, or how Cowley came to fashion one of the most gutsy final games of a high school career I have ever seen while battling ankle injuries,
“They’re good,” Kelowna head coach Harry Parmar said of the Gators. “But really, in the end, it didn’t come down to much.”
He’s telling the truth.
In fact on Saturday, it came down to about six minutes of play, a window in which quarters, halves, games, tournaments, and ultimately seasons, are won or lost.
The night’s combatants will all move on.
Some will never play again. So will be forever changed and never be able leave.
But all will have the experience of it with them for the rest of their lives.
Saturday was special. So very special.
It was a night when everything good about the game chose to reveal itself, and it is in those moments when we realize why we keep coming back.
So with great assurance I say ‘See you all next March, same time, same place.
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