VANCOUVER — Before he can can even begin to express the joy these days that comes from being a John Oliver Joker, Pat Lee offers an apology to the curious reporter at the other end of his cel phone connection.
“I’m sorry,” the Jokes’ longtime senior girls varsity head basketball coach begins. “It’s the alums. They are all sending their congratulations. My texts are just exploding.”
It’s to be expected.
When the host Jokers beat its crosstown city rivals, the Lord Byng Grey Ghosts, by a 52-48 score in last Wednesday’s semifinals of the inaugural Sea-to-Sky Quad A zone championship tournament, a team perennially on the outside looking in, had finally crashed the party.
It had qualified for its first B.C. senior girls provincial championship tournament since the 1992-93 season.
And while that may have been some 27 years ago, it seems somehow fitting that Lee, a 1988 Prince of Wales grad, just happened to be at J.O. that season, doing his teaching practicum while attending UBC.
Over a quarter of a century later, with what seems like an alumni base that just never let go of its roots, the Jokers are hinting they could be as enthusiastic a traveling party as the 2020 B.C. girls tournament will see when it tips off four days of competition at the junior, 2A, 3A and 4A levels beginning Feb. 26.
“For me personally, it’s just neat to see the positive energy that we’ve gotten this season,” says Lee, 49. “And it’s not just come from the school itself, but from our community. We have alums posting pictures of themselves wearing their old J.O. jackets. They are proud to be Jokers, and too often, that is something that has been covered up.”
There’s been a lot to celebrate on the court.
Lee said that in the off-season, the decision was made to play up at Quad-A despite the fact the Grade 11-12 population base at the school was at the time hovering closer to the Triple A level.
And thus on a team filled with up-and-coming talent within its underclassmen ranks, the Jokers set about building the chemistry and the trust that they could put it all together when the season’s biggest moments were placed in front of them.
Grade 11 guards Kaila Fong and Rachel Labrador have been the heart-and-soul component so desperately needed with key leadership departing via graduation.
Grade 10 Phina Tu and Grade 9 Queenie Salazar have been able to mount a steady upward curve of improvement throughout the season. And when Tu was forced to miss six weeks over the second half of the campaign due to injury, Salazar showed herself to be something of a revelation after stepping into the starting lineup.
The senior presence of Amrit Chohan and Hannah Whitty has also been vital for a young team which comes into the provincials with an 18-10 overall record, including 6-1 in the VSSSA Tier 1 league.
“Not just our sports teams but our school in general has suffered from an underdog image, and that does filter down to the kids and their belief in themsleves,” says Lee, coming off hip surgery in December and paying symbolic homage to the tenacity of his girls by coaching with the aid of a cane.
“But they have believed in themselves, and they have won because of their tenacity,” he added of a trait on display just before Christmas when the Jokers beat both Royal Bay and Belmont to advance to the championships of the Greater Victoria Invitational, where it fell to eventual champion Harry Ainlay of Edmonton in the final.
All of that brings us to the best and most important part of this basketball story.
For the last decade plus, John Oliver girls basketball has been very particular in the way it has both viewed and involved its entire group of student-athletes from Grade 8-12.
“For over 10 years we have been doing the program approach,” begins Lee. “It doesn’t matter what grade a player is in, all of the coaches work with all of the players. It looks crazy sometimes when we hold practices together and it’s not uncommon to see 40 kids doing the same drills. We do it so that when the younger kids come up, they’re not learning something new. They’re refining.”
Of course, both expectation and execution rise with age, but the bottom line is a program united from top to bottom in the most tangible of ways.
“We don’t focus on the traditional coaching cycle of going down to Grade 8 and coming up through to Grade 12,” Lee adds, “and it’s taken us a while to see the fruits of our labour to get to this level. But… we have stressed for a long time that something like this needs to be less coach-dependent and more player dependent.”
Empowering players at all levels.
Creating a fertile environment for older players to develop leadership skills by mentoring the younger ones.
It’s not only positive in a basketball-specific way, but in ways that enhance school-wide culture as well.
It’s what separates high school sports from everything else out there.
And of course, that leads us to another facet of the Jokers’ program, one which speaks emphatically to joys the just getting involved.
“Last year we had 12 managers and I dare say, that might have been the largest of its kind in the province,” laughs Lee. “This year, we only have seven.”
Bottom line: Look within the so-called details of the senior girls basketball team and you see a place where kids just want to get involved.
“Before I forget, I’ve got to tell you this,” Lee says towards the end of our conversation. “On Thursday night, after the finals of our tournament, we had a member of our 1993 team come down out of the stands and speak to our girls,” said Lee of Harp Dhillon.
Turns out Dhillon’s daughter Avahni Sandhu is herself a J.O. student, and a part of the organizing committee which staged the first-ever Sea-to-Sky Quad-A girls championship tournament.
The players, the parents, the alums, the managers, the coaches… even the kids who step up so their school can host the kinds of moments they were all able to share in last week.
“We’ve been perpetual underdogs,” reinforces Lee. “That’s why it has been so refreshing to see our entire school… past, present and future, being able to enjoy this.”
Twenty-seven years after he showed up at the school as a student-teacher, Pat Lee has never been more confident in the power of high school sports to inspire a community.
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