ABBOTSFORD — Put enough baby steps together, and it’s only just a matter of time before you begin to make a path out of the wilderness along a journey you can call your own.
If you’re talking about the Bears from Abbotsford’s St. John Brebeuf Regional Secondary, that’s about the best way to describe the steps they have taken to qualifying for the school’s first-ever berth at the B.C. Senior Girls AA Basketball Championships, set to tip off Wednesday at the Langley Events Centre.
“One of the great joys of coaching is when kids understand when they are doing something special,” begins Gianni Bittante, a basketball Pied Piper of sorts who came to SBJ in 2017 and doubles as not only the team’s co-head coach, but as the school’s principal as well.
“The reality is that Abbotsford is such a basketball hot-bed, but as a school we have struggled to compete,” adds Bittante, who upon his arrival helped establish a basketball academy as part of the school’s phys-ed program. “So we wanted to put our kids in a position where they could do so with consistency, first at the regional level and eventually at the provincial level.”
Those goals resonate with special clarity this week as the Bears, second-place finishers in the newly-created Fraser East zone, get in their final few practices before tipping off against Surrey’s Southridge Storm on Wednesday (6:30 p.m.) in the opening round of the B.C. championships.
It’s helped create that special atmosphere in the hallways of the school this week, that sense of togetherness which educators like Bittante have learned to treasure.
In his specific case, it originated from his days at Surrey’s Holy Cross Regional Secondary, where at the turn of the century, he co-coached a Crusaders’ team which included none other than his current co-coach Taylor Kitteringham (nee Stuart).
Together, they have helped to bring along a group of players, largely at the current Grade 11 level, who have experienced the program’s first true level of sustained success, led by the team’s standout 6-foot-1 forward Marijke Duralia.
Three years ago, that group, which also includes starters Rachel MacDougall, Lily Taw and Olivia Buckle, first qualified for the Grade 8 B.C.’s.
In 2017-18, as Grade 9’s, they won an opening-round game at provincials as a No. 17 seed before surrendering a lead in the final two minutes in a four-point, Sweet 16 loss to No. 1-seeded Walnut Grove, that season’s eventual B.C. champions.
“That was a sign to our kids that they were doing just fine,” adds Bittante, whose charges lost a back-door qualifier last season in a bid to return to the junior provincials.
This season, behind the play of Duralia, who has averaged 24 points per game, the Bears have taken that next step in their development, fulfilling their junior promise at the senior varsity level.
“Marijke (pronounced Mar-ay-ka Doo-rah-lee-ah) has worked hard on all of the different parts of her game,” says Bittante. “She is super-passionate about it. If you’re looking for her, you’ll find her in the gym. But she’s also super involved in school and in social justice issues.”
She is, in fact, one of a number of SJB players who will embark on a mission trip to Belize after the provincials.
Before then, however, both Bittante and Kitteringham have a chance to help their team author the biggest moments of their high school basketball careers.
For his part, Bittante has enjoyed coaching alongside one of his former players.
“She is brilliant and the girls love her,” says Bittante of Kitteringham. “She is able to critique in really constructive ways that are never personal and the kids respond. She is tough as nails. She played that way and she coaches that way, and we both recognize that in the big picture we want to help raise good, strong women. Basketball just happens to be the method, and she recognizes that.”
Which brings us around to the fact that the B.C. basketball world of which these Bears belong is indeed a small, tight-knit community.
Bittante co-coached Kitteringham at Holy Cross with John Prescott, who now coaches the girls team at North Vancouver’s St. Thomas Aquinas. Prescott’s Fighting Saints just happen to inhabit the same side of the B.C. draw as the Bears.
And Kitteringham played her university basketball at Trinity Western where here head coach was Danielle Gardner, who these days is the head coach of No. 1-ranked Langley Christian. Gardner’s Lightning sit on the opposite half of the same provincial draw.
It’s the aforementioned baby steps which have gotten the St. John Brebeuf Bears to this place.
So much so that when you ask Bittante for a highlight thus far in the team’s 2019-20 season, he picks a moment that did not end with a victory.
“We played MEI in the final of our own Big Bear Classic tournament,” he says of a Feb. 1 clash against its decorated and storied crosstown rivals.
“It went right down to the wire, and they made a shot with 11 seconds left to win the game, but it was sort of a bellwether moment for us, because to even be in there, going nose-to-nose against a perennial power was so exciting, and our kids were able to recognize that.”
With that kind of perspective, it seems a certainty that whatever fate awaits these Bears at their first-ever B.C. senior AA tournament, they will leave it having grown stronger because of the opportunity.
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