Provincial tourney proves major selling point for high school hoops

The LEC tournament is a prominent pro for a high school hoops world that’s dealing with a shortage of coaches, the club game starting to clash and prep academies attracting top players

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High school boys basketball in this province has its flaws. It also has its championship day.

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The four provincial finals will be contested in the arena of the Langley Events Centre on Saturday, starting with Single A and its 12:30 p.m. tip-off and running all the way through to the 7:45 p.m. Quad A title tilt.

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The stands are expected to be packed throughout. Tournament officials said last year that the crowd got to 6,000 at one point and it frankly felt and sounded like more than that. It was raucous and boisterous and so much so that you might want to bring a pencil and small notepad if you attend Saturday so you can communicate with your next door neighbour when action gets amped up.

The boys tournament has that championship day atmosphere. It has a history that dates back to 1946, too, and those are major selling points. They are the prominent pros to duel with cons that include a shortage of coaches, the club basketball season beginning to overlap with high school and prep academies from outside the province recruiting players away.

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Boys basketball folk like to contend that championship Saturday is the best amateur sports event in the country annually. It’s impossible to know for certain if they’re right, but based on watching provincial banners being handed out in early March the past few seasons it sure would be a treat to travel around and try to figure it out.

“This is the first year for any of our guys playing in the arena. They told me that they had done it in club, but it’s not the same,” said Burnaby South Rebels coach Mike Bell, who has guided Burnaby South teams to three of the past five Quad A titles. “It’s not the same environment. It’s not the same atmosphere. The fans bring it. The province supports this tournament and everyone does a great job here.

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“You can’t match this. You get to those final nights when the lights go down and this place is full and every kid wants to be a part of that. There’s 5,000 people in this place. You’re not getting that in any club situation. Not anywhere.”

West Vancouver Highlanders coach Paul Eberhardt added: “This is our strongest promotion for high school hoops. You’ll never get anything close to this in club. But we have to keep it. We have to guard this with our lives. There’s a lot of tradition here. If we lose that tradition, we lose the game.”

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The coaching shortage has been going on for at least a decade. All high school sports are dealing with it. Non-teacher coaches have become commonplace, coaching turnover has become routine.

High school coaches lamenting club teams running programming during the high school season has also become a regular occurrence the past two or three seasons especially. Semiahmoo Totems coach Les Brown, for one, says that “clubs are taking over.”   

Club basketball has been exploding in recent years. The website basketball604.com lists 101 clubs in the Lower Mainland alone, and has 33 of those having started since 2018.

Basketball B.C. executive director Shawn Dheensaw points out that clubs don’t have to be registered with the provincial body to operate and therefore aren’t automatically under their rules and regulations. Basketball B.C. is trying to bring more and more clubs under their umbrella, though, offering up access to liability and sport accident insurance coverage, discounted entry to Basketball B.C. team events and other incentives for a per player fee and the agreement to minimum coaching education requirements for club staff. That includes Safe Sport and Commit to Kids.

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Basketball B.C. lists 47 registered clubs from around the province on its website currently. Basketball B.C. manager of youth programs and events Connor Ranspot said Thursday that the registered club list is growing and they’re looking to “add a whole bunch,” in the spring, which is when several clubs still start up in earnest.

“It’s frustrating when there’s an issue and a parent comes to us and we have to explain that the particular club is not a member and we can’t help them,” Dheensaw said. 

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Players leaving for prep academies is the newest situation in all of this. 

The Surrey-based Totems captured the Quad A crown last year in resounding fashion, winning their four games by an average of 39 points. Grade 11 point guard Torian Lee was named tournament most valuable player while Grade 11 forward Cole Bekkering was picked to the first all-star team.

Lee left Semiahmoo for Ontario’s Orangeville Prep, while Bekkering departed for Calgary’s Edge Prep. Other notable Grade 11s from last year listed on out-of-province prep schools include St. George’s Saints guard Issac Brown, who is on the Edge roster alongside Bekkering, and Vancouver College Fighting Irish centre Roko Maric, who’s at Calgary’s CTA West.

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There’s been enough players leaving for prep schools elsewhere that Pasha Bains of the Drive Basketball club said back in September that he was part of a group planning on opening one in Richmond next fall, reasoning that “we are doing our B.C. kids a disservice … we want to keep kids at home.”

There’s been no recent updates on the matter.

Semiahmoo would have been the runaway favourite to win the Quad A tournament this year if Lee and Bekkering had stayed. The Totems still made the tournament, coming in as the No. 6 seeds. They made Thursday’s quarterfinals, where they lost to No. 3 West Vancouver 70-64.

“It’s really scary. I’m worried about our high school basketball,” Brown said in regards to players leaving for prep schools. “The 78 years of this event is tremendous. It’s the greatest event in Canada.

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“Our game is so great. When you’re here on the Saturday night and the place is jam packed — who doesn’t want to experience that? It would be nice if kids could see that and embrace it a bit more.”

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High school sports programs are coach driven, and Eberhardt believes the coaching shortage is the most pressing issue and that it’s time to roll out mentoring programs. He believes there are ex-players from the university or even high school ranks who would be keen but “they need proper training.” 

He lays it at the feet of B.C. School Sport, which took over full governance of high school sports in April 2021.

“B.C. School Sports’ No. 1 job right now, and I’ve said it ever since they started, should be getting coaches for every sport,” Eberhardt said. “We need more coaches if we’re going to keep high school sports thriving.” 

BCSS executive Jordan Abney says it’s something that they’re working towards, trying to come up with “more tangible ways,” to help recruit and retain coaches. There is already a resource guide for athletic directors that offers up suggestions, Abney says. There’s also an online coaching course at School Sport Canada. 

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In the end, Bell contends that all this player movement may merely be a sign of the times, and he has a point. It feels like we’re seeing even more movement in pro sports during free agency periods, and the NCAA has opened up its transfer rules and brought in NIL (Name Image Likeness) deals.

He contends he’s not scared about the future of the high school game.

“You coach the kids you have. You be there and you be a positive light for the kids who want to be there,” said Bell. “There’s no hard feelings for someone who wants to try to better themselves somewhere else. Ultimately you have to produce a product that makes people want to stay.

“It’s good for kids to have their opportunities. I can’t get upset with kids trying to benefit themselves and get themselves where they want to get to.”

The high school girls tournament had one of best-ever Saturdays last week, with four close games and loud crowds at the LEC’s centre court. They’re planning on moving championship day to the arena next year.

@SteveEwen

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reference: theprovince.com

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