After an early season loss at the start of their second year, the sophomores on the Langara Falcons men’s basketball team made a decision. It was a commitment, a promise to each other. Call it a pact.
Three years later, the six are still Falcons, now in their final season of post-secondary eligibility and this weekend at the Canadian college championships in Hamilton, their pledge is close to being realized — for a second time.
“We didn’t have the success we wanted at first, but as time went by we started coming together like a family,” said starting forward Garrett Ling-Lee. “We started to figure out that we wanted to play again with each other. After that we all committed to each other that we were going to come back for another year and win.”
Win they did. In 2013, Langara finished third in the country. Last year they were the best men’s college team in Canada, winning gold at the CCAA championships at Quest University in Squamish.
“I was really glad we decided to take another crack at it,” said Ling-Lee, a six-five graduate of Vancouver College.
Right now Langara is defending its national title at the Mohawk David Braley Athletic and Recreation Centre. The Falcons are seeded fifth after coming second to arch-rival Vancouver Island University in the PacWest final.
After this weekend, Langara will retire those six sophomores as some of the very few — if only — five-year Falcons in the program’s history.
Having one player fulfill his eligibility at a single college is rare, said athletic director Jake McCallum. Having a full starting roster is unprecedented.
“This is a very special group,” McCallum said Wednesday from Hamilton. “I don’t think this will be a new trend at the college level. I doubt we will have this many [five-year] players in one year again.
“Looking back, you just don’t know when you get a young team whether they’re going to stick around. But I do know one of the other reasons they’ve stuck around is that they genuinely like each other. The team cohesion is there, and that is something that will trump talent if you have a really cohesive unit that wants to work together. They will do anything for each other. When your teammate works that hard, you’ll do the same.”
Particularly for Langara, the college is a “transfer institution,” as McCallum explained, and students enrol for a diploma or to upgrade their credits and transfer to university. The college offers two degree programs, one in business administration and another in recreation management, which is the academic focus of a number of the five-year players.
“In my 10 years at Capilano, I only had two five-year players and three four-year players when there was only four years of eligibility,” said Falcons head coach Paul Eberhardt. “It is very rare at Langara.”
Often when a player leaves for another school, it’s to study and not play basketball, although scouts certainly look out for up-and-comers. The Langara six have turned down university offers, however, to play as a Falcon.
“That’s one of things that you fight,” said McCallam. “You really want to win as a coach but you also want to push these kids on if they’re good enough to play at the next level. You want to help them but you’re not sad if you see them come back for their third year.”
“A couple of us got offers from universities and we were just so close off the court as we are on it, we decided to stay. We wanted to reach our goal of winning a national championship,” said Jitinder Lohcham, a six-eight big man and graduate of David Thompson secondary.
“A couple schools contacted me — UNBC, UBC [Okanagan], [University of the Fraser Valley], Calgary. But I just could leave what I had here with these guys.”
The recruiting class included Lohcham, Cloverdale’s Glenn Ruby, Daniel Hobden from Cowichan secondary, Elliot Mason from Burnett secondary in Richmond and, also from Richmond, Palmer graduate Matt Madewan. Ling-Lee played is rookie year at Capilano, meaning he’s not a strict five-year Falcon. The class also included Devin McMurty who transferred to UNBC and this February was recognized with the Canada West student-athlete community service award.
“It was a really good recruiting class,” said McCallum. “Paul has done great work with them. As you can see over the last few years, the current success of the program here, it speaks to the benefit of having third-, fourth- and fifth-year players. Along with that comes experience and with experience comes confidence, and that confidence becomes contagious.”
Also powerful is the deep bond between players.
“I couldn’t ask for more,” said Ling-Lee. “It’s been one hell of a ride.”
The No. 5 Falcons play their first CCAA championship game today against the No. 4 Humber Hawks. The championship final is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. PST on March 21.