Last February, the Kelowna Owls ended the school’s 33-year title drought by winning the Interior Savings Western Canada Basketball Tournament.
As B.C.’s top-ranked team this season, it comes as little surprise that Harry Parmar’s Owls are expected to repeat the feat in 2016.
Thanks to last year’s triumph, there may be less pressure on his teammates this week, but KSS senior Parker Simson said it doesn’t change the Owls’ expectations.
“There’s less pressure in one way, because we broke the streak last year and that’s not something that weighs on us,” said Simson. “At the same time, everyone is after us because we’re number one, and there’s some really good teams coming, so we still put pressure on ourselves to win.
“We don’t really think of it so much as Westerns,” he added. “We just think of it as another big tournament we want to win, and it’s just part of our path to provincials.”
The 43rd edition of the storied tournament tips off Thursday at KSS, with Sir Winston Churchill taking on Prince George at 1:45 p.m.
The host Owls will play their opener Thursday at 7:30 p.m. against the Handsworth Royals.
Winnipeg’s John Taylor, Edmonton’s Harry Ainlay, Walnut Grove Gators and Kitsilano Blue Demons round out this year’s roster of teams.
If Owls’ senior Matt Lafontaine is granted his wish, KSS and B.C.’s second-ranked team, the Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs, will square off in Saturday night’s championship game.
The Owls, who have yet to lose to a Canadian opponent this season, had one of their toughest games against Churchill earlier this season, before rallying back for the win.
“I really want to to see Churchill in the finals, especially in our gym, we’ve played never played them here,” Lafontaine said. “They had us down early the last time we played, and we came back to win.
“I want to go out and prove again that we can because I think they’ll be our big competition at provincials.”
As the marquee event of the season for KSS—aside from provincials—Lafontaine expects the Owls to play with plenty of purpose and intensity over the next three days.
Still, Lafontaine plans to enjoy every minute of what will be a unique experience for his KSS teammates.
“It’s always fun,” said Lafontaine. “Last year was my first and it surprised me how different it is from all the other games you play. When everyone is on your side, you feel you can’t do anything wrong, you have so much energy.
“It’s nice to have the hometown fans with you and you want to put on a show for them.”
The championship final of the Interior Savings Western Canada Basketball Tournament is set for Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Tournament passes are $10 for students and $20 for adults, or $50 for court side club seats.
Here’s a look at the opening day match ups and what to expect from the eight competing teams:
Game 1: Thursday February 4, 1:45 pm
Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs vs. Prince George Polars
The first game of this year’s tournament pits a Vancouver powerhouse, the Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs, against an upset-minded Prince George Polars team coming to Westerns for the first time.
Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs
Style of Play: Coach Rick Lopez says the Bulldogs like to play an up-tempo full-court style of basketball. They take great pride in their defense and are always u for a challenge.
Strengths: The team relies on the leadership of its core of four grade 12 players that have been on the senior squad since their grade 10 year.
The Bulldogs are led by a strong trio of Grade 12 seniors ready to take on the challenge of playing at Westerns. Forward Harry Lui (25 ppg.,10 rpg.) has proven himself one of the top 3-point shooters in BC. His ability to score the ball both inside and outside of the paint make him very difficult to defend. Backing up the inside/outside threat of Lui is guard Karn Virk (21 ppg., 9 rpg.). Virk’s ability to penetrate and breakdown opposing teams has him as one of the best players in the province. Along with having a solid outside shot, Virk sets the tempo for the entire Bulldog team. Rounding out this trio is defensive stopper Isaiah Ugoalah (15 ppg., 7 rpg.). Game in and game out, Ugoalah defends the opposition’s best players – no easy task. Add to that solid offensive ability and Ugoalah is a very dangerous player each and every night.
Prince George Polars
Style of Play: The Polars, coached by Scott Walton possess a high octane offence that could pose problems for a Sir Winston Churchill Bull dog team that has seen little of the Central BC squad.
Strengths: Prince George leads from the point guard position. It is the ability of those point guards to distribute the ball that makes the Polars dangerous.
Prince George gets the majority of its scoring punch from senior super-guard Tyrell Laing (36 ppg., 6 rpg.). Tyrell is a provincial team player and is exciting to watch. He can shoot with range and can also control the game on the defensive end. Last year and this year combined, he’s scored 50 or more points on 4 different occasions. Adding to the mix is grade 12 guard T.J. Gill (17 ppg., 5 rpg.). TJ is the Polars’ most versatile player in that he can play four positions well. He is a great threat from the outside and can get to the hoop with a variety of moves.
Game 2: Thursday February 4, 3:30 pm
John Taylor Pipers vs. Walnut Grove Gators
Number one in Manitoba versus number four in British Columbia. Need we say more? Do not leave your seat. This game is sure to please everyone, except the losers.
John Taylor Pipers
Style of Play: According to coach Spiros Kavados, the Pipers play an up tempo aggressive style of basketball. They believe in fast and decisive ball movement and making plays for each other.
Strengths: Overall, the Pipers have quite a bit of depth and can play an inside/outside style of game. They are tall and athletic at almost every spot on the floor. Defensively, they use their length to play either man-to-man or zone.
The John Taylor Pipers are led by a high scoring trio of players anxious to make their mark at Westerns this year. Heading up the charge offensively is guard Risto Zimbakov (26 ppg., 5 rpg.), followed by 6’7″ James Wagner (24 ppg., 12 rpg.) and Zack Giesbrecht (19 ppg., 7 rpg.). They should give the Gators all they can handle.
Walnut Grove Gators
Style of Play: Coach George Bergen brings another talented group to Westerns this year. The Gators are quick in transition and enjoy playing an up-tempo style of game.
Strengths: The Gators rebound well at both ends of the court, play great team offense and defense and are a very cohesive unit.
Walnut Grove is led by a pair of Grade 11’s. This bodes well for next year, but these players are good enough now to cause most teams lots of trouble. Leading the way offensively is point guard Ty Rowell (24 ppg., 6 apg.). Rowell scored 32 points versus a talented Tamanawis team earlier this season, so he talent is real. In the paint, the Gators have 6’8″ centre Jake Cowley (21 ppg., 11 rpg.). With his size and scoring ability, Cowley is a force on both ends of the court.
Game 3: Thursday, February 4, 5:15 pm
Harry Ainlay Titans vs. Kitsilano Blue Demons
Do not go anywhere. Game 3 sees the #1 ranked Titans take on the #8 ranked Blue Demons squad for a coveted semifinal berth at Westerns.
Harry Ainlay Titans
Style of Play: The Titans style relies on pushing the pace, both offensively and defensively. Yet, they are talented and versatile enough to slow things down when need be, and operate in the half-court.
Strengths: Coach George Hoyt brings an experienced, deep and fundamentally strong Titan team to Westerns this year. They have a major shot at winning it all.
The Harry Ainlay Titans are led by one of the elite high school basketball players in all of Canada, 6’6″ Grade 12 guard/forward Aher Uguak (22 ppg., 10 rpg.). Uguak is a tremendous force on the court and for a big player possesses excellent all-round basketball skills. In the dressing room and out, Uguak is also a great leader. He has committed to play for Division 1 University of New Mexico Lobos in the 2016-17 season. Making sure Uguak get this ball is talented point guard Marvin Washington (15 ppg., 7 apg.). Though only 5’9″, Washington is a strong and athletic three-year starter and one of the top players in Western Canada.
Kitsilano Blue Demons
Style of Play: Coach Randy Coutts once again brings his perennial provincial powerhouse team to the Interior for their last major test before the Lower Mainland playoff season begins. The Blue Demons will play fast with lots of pressure on the ball and attacking off the dribble. They are comfortable working in the half-court, but will also look to fast break if the opportunity presents itself.
Strengths: Quick guards and good rebounding. Play transition basketball with lots of pressure in the front and back courts.
The Blue Demons are led by Grade 11 point guard Luka Lizdek (16 ppg., 7 apg., 6 rpg.). Lizdek is one of those rare combinations of athleticism and fundamental skill. He is also an excellent passer and outstanding defender. He takes pride in his play on both offense and defense. Kitsilano is rounded out by seniors Aleic Bayne (14 ppg., 7 rpg.) and Howard Wang (16 ppg., 8 rpg.).
Game 4: Thursday February 4, 7:30 pm
Handsworth Royals vs. Kelowna Owls
The 2016 Interior Savings Western Basketball Tournament finishes day one with a tilt between the hometown Kelowna Owls and the Handsworth Royals of North Vancouver. The Owls come in as the undisputed #1 ranked team in BC and have yet to lose a game to a Canadian team. That said, the Royals are a proud team with a strong history of producing top players (Los Angeles Laker Robert Sacre) and have traditionally done very well at Westerns.
Style of Play: Handsworth plays a fundamental style game. They are tenacious on the defensive end and rarely miss the opportunity to capitalize on their opponents mistakes. The players like to run the floor when they steal the ball or collect a defensive rebound. In the half court, Handsworth focuses on running a few plays very well. The team scores well in their offense and rarely needs one guy to step up and do it by himself. Anyone can be their hottest player on any given night.
Strengths: Handsworth’s team approach to the game is what really makes them successful. Whether it is on the defensive end playing as a five man unit or moving the ball from side to side, inside out on offense, they are always working as a team and trust each other on the court.
Coach Randy Storey’s Royals led by Grade 12 shooting guard Bryce McLean (25 ppg., 6 rpg.). An incredible athlete, McLean has a natural ability to get himself to the rim. His strength and athleticism allow him to meet almost any big man at the rim and finish the play. McLean is a natural scorer who is a threat from behind the arc or above the rim. Distributing the ball for the Royals on offence is senior point guard Michael Gajdics (18 ppg., 7 apg.). A true leader on the court, Gajdics is looked at by his teammates to be the floor general and vocal leader. He leads by example with his hard-nosed style defense, usually shutting down the other team’s top scorer. On the inside, Handsworth relies on grade 11 centre Amir Hajisafar (10 ppg., 15 rpg., 6 bpg.) Hajisafar is a big bodied, coordinated center who can beat you with his back to the basket, squared up or from long range. He changes the game on the defensive end by his incredible anticipation and shot blocking ability.
Style of Play: Up tempo, offence from defense
Strengths: Balanced scoring, experience
Owls coach Harry Parmar usually likes to keep his cards close to his chest regarding his team, but this year you would have to be living under a rock not to know what kind of talent he possesses. Last year after breaking a 33-y
ear Westerns drought and finishing third in BC provincials, the Owls come into Westerns experienced and hungry for more. This team is good, very good, perhaps even great.
Kelowna does not have two or three outstanding players, they have seven or eight that on any given night could score 35 points. Or those seven or eight players could all score 18 points and the Owls win by 60. Dominant 6’9″ forward Grant Shepherd will play with U17 Canada National team this summer. Stellar guards Parker Simson, Matt Lafontaine, Davide Ciancio, Colin Mcgrath, and Nav Sandhu can all shoot from range, attack the rim and would be first options on any other team in BC. Grade 11 guard Mason Bourcier is becoming more and more comfortable with running the team. This is the best Owls squad ever assembled.