St. Thomas Aquinas guard Michael Kelly is Varsity Letter's 'Best player you've never heard of.' (Photo by permission of Tom Boppart)
Feature High School Boys Basketball

STA’s Michael Kelly: Best player you’ve never heard of leads Fighting Saints to BC’s

LANGLEY — Let’s start this story off with a question which first requires a preface.

Only three players over the last four summers have been members of Basketball B.C.’s Under-14, -15, -16 and -17 provincial boys teams.

One of them is forward Grant Shephard, the former Kelowna Owls star and reigning B.C. Quad-A tourmanent MVP who this season joined Florida’s famed Monteverde Prep.

Another is Steveston-London Sharks’ senior big man Fardaws Aimaq, who last season led his school to a berth in the B.C. Triple-A championship final game.

So who is the third?

How about a kid who has toiled in the anonymity of the Double A ranks his entire career at North Vancouver’s St. Thomas Aquinas?

Each year, I scour the province looking for the player to anoint ‘The Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of’ and in 2016-17, that player is Fighting Saints’ senior shooting guard Michael Kelly.

“He is one of the best shooters in the province, arguably the very best,” states Joe Enevoldson, who coached Kelly the past two summers on the B.C. Under-16 and -17 squads. “He is a smart, heady player. He has such a quick release. He has range a couple of steps past centre. He can just flat-out shoot it. But he’s also a great teammate.”

His next-level future could include a PacWest school locally, perhaps the CIS, or maybe even an NCAA Div. 3 situation.

The thing coaches need to know and should appreciate most about the 6-foot, 160-pounder is that he is smitten with the game to the degree that the culture he brings with him is just as vast as the 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists he has averaged per game this season with the Fighting Saints.

“I don’t care what level it is,” he says, “I just want to play.”

On Wednesday (1:45 p.m.), St. Thomas Aquinas takes a No. 12 seed into their clash with Victoria’s No. 5-seeded Lambrick Park Lions in the opening round of the Telus B.C boys Double-A championships at the Langley Events Centre.

For Kelly, it’s an especially meaningful time, one which he will celebrate not only with fellow senior teammates  like Matteo Botteselle and Chad Steverding, but also with his head coach, a guy who also happens to be his dad.

HEART-AND-SOUL MOMENTS

Jim Kelly first started coaching basketball teams at St. Thomas Aquinas back in 1988.

Even before Michael can remember, he was on the Fighting Saints bench, at first in a car seat or a stroller, and by the age of four, actually taking a seat, watching his dad coach whichever team at the school needed coaching.

Now, Kelly is down to his final week as a high school basketball player.

STA, in a battle to grab the Howe Sound zone’s only berth to the provincial tournament, needed to beat rival Seycove in back-to-back games just to gain those precious few days of March Madness at the LEC, and they did it.

And now, the brief window between zones and provincials, has for the 17-year-old, allowed time for reflection on what it has meant to share the passion of his life with his father.

“You don’t think about that kind of stuff when you’re right in the middle of it,” Kelly says. “But I have been thinking a lot about it lately, how we both share a love of the game together, how it’s all we talk about, and how we always watch it together on TV.

“You think about the early mornings in the gym, going one-on-one, me shooting and him rebounding for me. So to have these four final games in the provincial tournament together with your dad, it’s special.”

And it’s an experience which, even beyond the final scores and championships won, has given a tournament, set to turn 72 this week, it’s true heart and soul.

In fact the Kellys can actually look out at the opposing team on Wednesday, Victoria’s Lions, and understand exactly how special the moment also is for head coach Ed Somers, and his twin sons Austin and Calvin.

BLUE-CHIP UNDERDOG

Although he isn’t B.C.’s most talked-about player, Michael Kelly has worked to put himself in an elite environment, and instead of taking that part for granted, he has opened himself up to all of the intangibles that four summers of provincial rep basketball have had to offer.

Besides Aimaq and Shepherd, Kelly has traveled, played, dined, and roomed with the likes of Kelowna’s Mason Bourcier, Sam Bailey of Vancouver College, Jason Tantengco of Killarney, St. Thomas More’s Cameron Morris and so many other top names.

In the summer of 2015, as a member of the B.C. Under 16 team, Kelly came off the bench and hit five threes in a semifinal win over Alberta, then hit another five triples in the gold medal win over Manitoba.

“I think the biggest thing (the B.C. team experience) has given him, is that he has a level of confidence that he has played with the best,” says Enevoldson, also the head coach of men’s team at Douglas College.

Still, Kelly will admit that despite representing his province all the way through his high school career, that he is seen as something of an underdog type..

“It comes along with being smaller,” begins Kelly, who last season at provincials scored 44 points in his team’s seventh-place win over Abbotsford Christian. “I am not that 6-foot-3 shooting guard that everyone wants. And I think that at Double-A, people don’t give it as much credit as to how good the basketball really is. They overlook players. But this week they can see players like (G.W. Graham’s) Gabe (Mannes) and Yoel (Teclehaimanot of Vancouver’s King George), and I like to think to myself that we can make a difference even at higher levels.

“I am excited to prove people wrong and I think the provincials can be the perfect opportunity to show how good Double A basketball really is.”

And in the end, however it ends up finishing, he’ll share the moment with his coach, with his dad.

“I am sure it will be very emotional at the end,” Jim Kelly says of he and his wife’s only child. “I am going to try hard to keep my wits about me.

“We’ve got one kid, and he has been the joy of our lives. It’s hugely emotional. I just want him to enjoy the experience of it with his friends. When the tournament is over, we’ll have our own moment. We’re as tight as a drum that way.”

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