A month into a new season, and it’s a veritable bouquet of roses for St. Thomas More Knights’ coach Aaron Mitchell.
With the senior boys program coming back from a stretch of seasons where it had no real league action and played mostly a loose schedule of exhibition matches, this year the team is embracing a new basketball order.
When B.C. School Sports decided to reshuffle the leagues and reduce the scope of the Fraser Valley, it created an opportunity for the 3-A STM squad, which now sits in a Valley league alongside the likes of Pitt Meadows, Archbishop Carney, Thomas Haney and Garibaldi.
No more playing a vagabond schedule -- beginning with games Jan. 20 and 22, when they host league rivals Garibaldi and Samuel Robertson Tech, the Knights will be on the clock and have standings to check.
“It’s kind of fun, having a league to compete in,” remarked Mitchell. “The last five or six years we haven’t really had a league, not even the Independent (division). With the new Valley league, we have games that are important, games we plan for on a regular basis.
“We know we need to be playing our best by late January if we’re to have a chance for one of two (Fraser North zone) berths to provincials.”
With a 4-3 record after competing in both the G.W. Graham and Gary Taylor tournaments, the Knights are eager to wear the host’s hat this week as it opens its doors for the annual STM Chancellor Tournament, which tips off tomorrow (Wednesday) at the Burnaby school.
STM launches the proceedings against city rival Burnaby Mountain Lions with a noon game before a packed gym. Prior to that, No. 10-ranked Magee will face Fleetwood Park at 8:30 a.m., and honourable mention Brookswood takes on Carson Graham at 10:15 a.m., all in the Knights facility.
The 16-team tourney pits a number of ranked 3-A schools, including No. 1 G.W. Graham (5:15 p.m. against Steveston-London) and No. 2 Duchess Park (8:45 p.m. against Maple Ridge), along with the likes of perennial competitors Byrne Creek (3:30 p.m. vs. Rick Hansen) and Sir Charles Tupper.
It’s the nature of the tourney, where Mitchell welcomes many familiar programs who have a history of offering up strong competition, that continues to attract such varied opponents from across the province.
“Everybody approaches it differently, and every one is at a different point,” noted Mitchell. “We haven’t played a lot of games, but during the Christmas break we had eight-to-nine very good practices, and brought in some alumni to play. It was a chance for this group to see how things ramp up quickly.”
Although lacking much in the way of height, the Knights have athleticism on its side thanks to the presence of eight members from the varsity football team, including starting guard Gabe Nacario, six-foot-one forwards Marc Abboud, Kaishaun Carter and Bryson Vanloo, and injured Nick Osho.
Forwards Chayze Deza and Sean Oreta and guard Dante Digirolamo have been important on-court leaders who will be counted on for more down the stretch.
“I’d like to see us play hard. Everyone has to come to compete, see their roles and improve in them,” noted the coach. “The goal is always to progress, get better and learn as we grow. … In the games where we have been competitive, our bench has been a big part of it.”
STM’s record already has its share of strong tests. After a second-day loss to Pitt Meadows at the G.W. Graham tourney, the Knights finished off with twin wins, including a dramatic 58-51 victory over Westsyde to finish fifth overall.
On the Island a week later, they opened with a 59-54 overtime win over 2-A ranked Lambrick Park, before dropping a pair to St. Peter the Apostle (75-60 in the semifinal) and previously ranked Dover Bay (62-54).
“Right now we're not worried about our record," Mitchell said. "It's been mostly about improving each time out. The big thing in the Lambrick (win) was we kind of had a 10, 15-point lead the whole game and let them back in. After they rallied we still had something left for overtime. … In the loss to Dover we could have easily folded, but the guys kept battling hard.”
With the B.C. Catholic championships coming next week, the Chancellor games will be a great way to gauge just what areas need to be tightened up. As far as chemistry goes, the gap between Grades 11 and 12s, football and non-football players, have been dissolving through practice and bonding exercises.
"I really enjoy this group, they bring good energy to the gym," said Mitchell. "They're enthusiastic, they listen and the Grade 11s are not afraid to push the seniors."
The Chancellor tourney continues Thursday and Friday, with games starting 8:30 a.m. both days. The semifinals are slated for 7 and 8:45 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday, the tourney pits the final 12 teams, with the championship game going at 6 p.m. All games are in the STM gym.