LANGLEY — Heading into tonight’s B.C. Triple A championship final, it’s fair to say that the North Delta Huskies have a J.D. Jackson-like presence in their line-up in the form of long-and-explosive senior guard Suraj Gahir.
Yet if their foes in the title clash, the Vernon Panthers, don’t have a facsimile of Jackson, the greatest player to ever don their own school’s colours, they have a young-and-rising collective who play with the same joy and the same relentless motor as the mop-topped mid-80s star who not only led them to their last B.C. senior varsity title-game appearance, but went on to become one of the greatest UBC Thunderbirds of all time.
Following its 89-65 win Friday over Richmond’s A.R. MacNeill Ravens, Vernon punched tickets to its first championship final since 1986 where the Jackson-led Panthers fell 77-71 at the PNE Agrodome to the Maple Ridge Ramblers.
“There is no question that these guys are a special group,” Vernon head coach Malcolm Reid said after his near-exclusive Grade 11 team showed a veteran savvy and the ability to play to its strengths to beat a Ravens team which finally showed its vulnerabilities after two prior inspiring victories.
“(Assistant coach) Sean (Smith) and I were talking about it yesterday,” continued Reid. “If we can achieve this, if we can win another game, we’ll have accomplished something very special for Vernon Secondary. But it’s not like these guys haven’t already done some special things. All they’re doing is trying to build on past successes.”
More on that in a second.
First, while the rest of the field’s top seeds fell by the wayside, the No. 2 Panthers have just kept chugging along.
All of that despite the fact that 6-foot-4 senior forward Thomas Hyett is the lone senior alongside nine largely Grade 11s on Vernon’s 10-man roster.
On Friday, after the Panthers’ used a 13-point run to build a 27-16 lead over the Ravens, it was the Richmond team which rallied, coming out of a time-out to string together their own 10-0 streak to make it 33-29.
The most obvious response from a team as young as Vernon would be to lose confidence, yet their body language never changed.
Their response was to increase their level of patience and their huge advantage of physicality.
They never looked back the rest of the night.
“I would say there is a football factor there for sure,” said Reid, the Vancouver College grad who hails from one of B.C.’s first families of football and who has five players on his 10-man squad who double on the gridiron for Vernon’s Subway Bowl winning B.C. championship teams.
“But also it goes back to these guys having played road hockey together since they were little kids,” he continues. “They know how to play together and they are not afraid of the tense moments. It doesn’t throw them off their game.”
The Panthers will try to keep that same mindset as they clash with the North Delta Huskies in tonight’s 6 p.m. championship game.
In their only previous meeting, back on Feb. 2 at the Robert Bateman Timberwolves Classic, Vernon beat a North Delta team which was just beginning to deal with a rash of injuries by a 72-66 count.
On Friday, that Grade 11 core of Panthers looked like a seasoned group of seniors.
Kevin Morgan scored a game-high 28 points, Isaiah Ondrik added 22 more and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, and Liam Reid 12 points on four treys. The team’s lone Grade 12, big man Hyett, scored 19 points.
Gutsy and under-sized Usman Tung of the Ravens scored 16 points in the loss.
Coach Reid knew that to under-estimatethe No. 6 seed MacNeill was to perish.
“The way MacNeill came out and worked hard, we knew they were scrappy,” said Reid. “Their constant pressure and constant scrappiness… they don’t go away and they proved that over the course of the tournament. They have been down and they have come back.
“We talked about how they wouldn’t go away… that we had to be patient, that we had to get back on defence, that we couldn’t turn the ball over. All the little things.”
And that was the key.
Vernon may be young, but they are a patient and confident team that knows how to use its physicality.
So when the Panthers and Huskies take to the floor tonight, you won’t see a greater contrast of styles.
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