LANGLEY — Last March was a crazy, thrill-a-second ride for Vancouver’s St. Patrick’s Celtics en route to the school’s first-ever B.C. senior boys Triple-A basketball championship title at the Langley Events Centre.
As the Celtics make their return to the LEC on Wednesday, this time to chase the program’s first-ever Tsumura Basketball Invitational Super 16 title, it’s starting to look like this season is beginning right where last season’s left off.
As the province’s best shared an early ‘hello’ in the Tri-Cities last week at the Heritage Woods Kodiak Classic, the preseason Triple-A No. 1 Celtics were looking a lot like the best overall team in the province, having cut a four-game swath through the blue-chip field by beating a Quad-A quartet of the honourable-mention Handsworth Royals of North Vancouver (92-64) in the opening round, the No. 9 Enver Creek Cougars of Surrey (70-64) in the quarterfinals, the No. 2 Vancouver College Fighting Irish (85-84) in the semifinals, and the No. 1-ranked Semiahmoo Thunderbirds (89-75) of Surrey in the tourney finale.
Reigning B.C. Triple-A MVP Irish Coquia was his stellar self and earned tournament MVP honours, and the 6-foot-1 senior guard has been reunited with fellow back-court senior Kaden Carrion, who in the provincial quarterfinals last season against Surrey’s Princess Margaret Lions suffered a broken leg.
“Kaden is back,” said St. Pat’s head coach Nap Santos, whose charges open their draw at TBI on Wednesday with a 6:45 p.m. Super 16 clash against Victoria’s Claremont Spartans on the LEC’s Centre Court. “I was telling people that I thought he was at about 90 per cent but after this tournament, he was at 100 per cent.”
Yet when asked to identify the over-arching theme of his team’s impressive four-game run at the Kodiak, Santos didn’t hesitate.
“It was our defence… I thought the kids played phenomenal,” Santos began, explaining the roles he gave a trio of players in the title game against Semiahmoo and its acknowledged Grade 11 stars: Point guard Torian Lee and pivot forward Cole Bekkering.
That trio included a pair of relatively unknown guards in Liam Jaymalin and Jerome Alojado, and stocky, under-sized forward Joey Panghulan.
“Every three minutes, Jerome and Liam would sub off for each other and face Torian, who is such a fantastic player,” said Santos. “I thought they did a great job.”
Alojado, a Grade 11, is truly a rising talent in terms of his ability to defend, and Jaymalin has completed a long, arduous journey from injury to play a huge role.
The latter was key in helping St. Pat’s top Sir Winston Churchill to win the B.C. junior boys championship title in the days before COVID hit in 2020.
Jaymalin later underwent reconstructive knee surgery and he missed the entirety of the Celts’ 2021-22 run to the senior Triple-A crown last March.
Santos also gave a big defensive role to Panghulan, the 6-foot-1 senior forward, and that was to do his best in trying to slow the talented Thunderbirds’ big man Bekkering.
“Joey is so strong and I thought he really did his job of not letting Cole get through the paint and score,” said Santos, who also started 6-foot-3 forward Jovin Sunner in the Kodiak Classic final.
That same defensive mindset, when schemed into full-court pressure, really turned the tables for the Celtics in a challenging quarterfinal win over Enver Creek.
Surrey’s Cougars did a great job of slowing the pace and built a 15-point lead in the second half.
“We went to a full-court press, man-to-man and I just told Jerome to put crazy pressure on their guard,” Santos continued of Alojado. “No one knows about this kid. Sometimes he looks like he’s sleeping out there, but he has all of this length and speed. He had one steal where he came out of nowhere and it just sparked the entire team.”
St. Pat’s had a lead in the double-digit range in the late going in its semifinal against Vancouver College, but an Irish team playing without top inside threat Rocco Maric on a weekend in which its football team was playing for a B.C. Subway Bowl AAA title, came back with late barrage to finish within one.
Yet as the tip-off to TBI nears, the spotlight can’t help but fall on the senior guard Coquia.
The B.C. junior MVP in 2020 and the B.C. Triple A MVP in 2022, he has brought a winning aura to his team throughout the COVID era that has been impossible to miss.
“I think he is going to tell you that he didn’t have a great tournament (at Heritage Woods), but he must have averaged 30 points,” said Santos. “His defence was phenomenal over his last two games, and I think his creativity is second to none.”
Action on Day 1 of TBI 2022 begins at 9 a.m. with the final games of the 16-game Day 1 slate tipping off at 8:15 p.m.
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