The Churchill Bulldogs junior boys basketball team is 26-1 heading into the B.C. championships this week at Vancouver College.
It’s a remarkable run for the No. 1 seed but even with such an impressive record, you can’t marvel at this season without thinking of the next. Four Bulldog starters are in Grade 9: Harry Liu, Izaiah Ugoalah, Karn Virk and Lambert Pujayon. For most of the season before he was injured, Grade 10 talent Gary Minhas rounded out the starting five.
Coach Simon Dykstra hesitated to bring up — and then start — all four amid the older roster.
“I think what happened was the Grade 10s accepted them. They didn’t want to defer to the Grade 9s but in the end they respected the amount of basketball they have played. Their IQ is very, very high.”
Several Bulldog ballers got their start in Grade 4 and 5 at South Burnaby Metro Club. Most moved on to Drive, a rapidly expanding basketball club run by Pasha Bains that trains through the summer and frequently travels to U.S. tournaments.
Ugoalah and Pujayon are now also part of Basketball B.C. and developing in the national program.
Despite their pedigree, the Grade 9 athletes still had to prove themselves to the older Churchill players.
“We’ve known that they’ve always been really skilled,” said Carlo Latonio, a Grade 10 student. “We had to show them that we wouldn’t take anyone lightly no matter their age. We just had to keep to our game and make sure they played at our standard and could keep up at our pace.”
He added, “And we can learn from them, too.”
At the start of the season, the players took a while to connect as a team, said Ugoalah. “The Grade 9s and Grade 10s were kind of apart in our cliques,” he said.
A road trip to Edmonton and a string of wins eased a closer team connection. “We’ve built a bond.”
As Churchill’s junior boys coach, Dykstra works closely with the senior coaches, including program leader Rick Lopez, to build a comprehensive and competitive basketball system. Like high schools around the Lower Mainland, the Bulldogs are benefiting from a surge in club basketball, said Dykstra.
The junior players in both grades are “like sponges” who push themselves to work hard and get better. The concentration of talent and desire among the Grade 9s is exceptional.
“I’ve never, ever seen anything like it in Vancouver,” Dykstra said.
As a new teacher in the late ’90s, he coached at Kitsilano and followed a junior team through to the senior level. They won the junior provincial championships and as seniors in 2001 and 2002 won consecutive B.C. titles.
Dykstra likens the young Churchill players to a Levon Kendall, a Kitsilano standout from that team who went on to play for the Canadian national team.
An ambitious athlete, Kendall asked Dykstra for weight room workouts, extra time in the gym and more pointers. The young Bulldogs have even him beat.
“These guys are way head as far as wanting — wanting more out of the game, out of themselves,” said Dykstra. “I would probably credit Pasha Bains’ organization for just making them never ever want to stop improving. He’s done a great job for them just as wanting to continue to learn.”
In preparation for the junior championship, which runs March 6 to 9 at Vancouver College, Dykstra is coaching the Bulldogs to take the tournament one opponent at a time.
But the players, they say they’ve got the end game in sight.
“We’re going to win,” said Simon Marriot.
Added David Huang, “We’ve been working so hard, our only one goal is to reach the top of the mountain.”
Said Minhas, “We’ve been working really hard and practising and we have high expectations of ourselves. We think we can win.”
And Virk: “Yeah, we’re going to win. We’ve been working hard non-stop. We can depend on each other.”