Burnaby South wears No. 1 target to start new season

It’s been a long time coming.
The Burnaby South Rebels haven’t spent the past eight months basking in last season’s achievement, but you know others have thought about it.
Those teams now have the Rebels in their sights, looking to knock them off the B.C. pedestal. As is the way after you are crowned champions.
The Rebels began a new senior boys basketball season on Thursday at the Heritage Woods Kodiak Klassic tournament in Port Moody, against the same team they downed 80-72 in the AAAA final in Langley.
No doubt the pre-game speech for Semiahmoo will draw on last March’s result.
For Burnaby South, the past months of prep work and practices, time in the weight room and attending meetings are going to reveal if last year’s champions are ready for the next step.
“We have some high expectations and some pressure put on us being the defending champions and ranked No. 1 going into the new season,” remarked South coach Mike Bell. “Kids have worked hard in the off-
season trying to get up to that standard, and we’ll see where Thursday takes us.”
That game, played past the NOW’s deadline, packs its own storyline, thanks to last March’s showdown. However, it is just the first stage of a barrage of games where the Rebels are going to be Public Enemy No. 1 as the defending champions. Everyone will want to try to knock them down a peg.
It’s the residue of being No. 1 – you wear a target on your back.
“It’s every team that we’re going up against,” says guard Hanz Paloma. “It’s the motivation they have to wipe us off the No. 1 spot, so for us it’s just going to be another game to do our job, to hopefully win. We’re confident in ourselves that we will stay at the top.”
That’s the challenge. But when your lineup loses the likes of standout guard Vince Sunga and provincial MVP Jusuf Sehic, the six-foot-seven forward now a freshman at Simon Fraser University, there are players, both new and returning, adapting to different roles.
Bell has full faith in the leaders, who’ve gone through the trenches with him, to pick up the torch.
“The seniors have made a big push, they know what it takes now and they’re ready to go,” he said. “We have guys, (guards) Baltej Sohal, Kyle Kirmaci and (Jiordano) Khan returning as Grade 12s in bigger roles, and you’ve got Aidan (Wilson), who played more of a bench role last year but we expect to play big minutes for us.”
Wilson, at six-foot-eight, will be asked to provide South with a two-prong tower offence alongside six-foot-10 Grade 11 returnee Sasha Vujisic.
“Definitely there’s more responsibility (as a Grade 12), but I’m looking forward to having a leadership role and showing the new guys what it takes to play at this level and be successful,” said Wilson.
Vujisic, who developed into a dominating threat as a rakish six-foot-nine centre beside Sehic last season, envisions a summer of hard work and the new reality as defending champions to be great benefits to start the year.
“Nothing has changed personally. (Bell) said that we’re going to have to work twice as hard if we want to win again, and that’s definitely true,” said Vujisic. “The first time for everyone was a surprise, but now we’re the target. If we want to stay up there we have to work twice as hard as everyone else.”
Kirmaci is eager to face the slings and arrows of opposing teams. They endured a year where they went from being ranked No. 1 in Week 2 of the season to nearly falling out of the hunt after losing the Burnaby-New West league final to Byrne Creek. The turning point, on paper at least, to their championship run was an inspirational must-win effort against Kitsilano in a B.C. qualifier, sending them onwards with momentum.
“During the beginning last year, we didn’t have that much success because we didn’t really play for each other but played mainly for ourselves. With the chemistry we developed towards the end of the season we found success, and I think we can use that this year,” said Kirmaci.
Bell sees last year’s growth as an evolution through hard knocks. The program, which missed the provincials the previous two seasons despite some heady expectations, is thriving after a junior title in 2017 and senior crown a year later. But the buzz of last March’s glory is eight months old.
“That feeling is already gone. I’m really excited for this season, in fact I’m dying for the season to get going, just to get a new era going,” said Bell. “To have that last year’s feeling behind you and moving on forward and having the team look forward to this year’s goals and this year.”
The team continues at Heritage Woods this weekend, with the final slated for 6:15 p.m. on Saturday.
Next week, they are participants in the Howard Tsumura Invitational in Langley, squaring off against Centennial Dec. 6.

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