If you want to lose to a good team, tell them they’re beatable because they’re no longer the team they were last season.
This is how it's been for the Windermere Warriors, a AAA team at a school in Renfrew-Collingwood that burst on to the scene last year with point guard Ravi Basra, who has more talent per pound than almost anyone. When Basra graduated (and now starts for the Langara Falcons), the Warriors were written off. They answered their doubters convincingly: in the city league this year, they went 11-0 and were the No. 1 seed at the city championship last week.
“You give some kids from East Van some extra motivation by telling them that because their older cousin is gone, they can’t succeed,” said three-year coach Cole Birnie, noting the Warriors returning starters Milidrag Stupar and cousins Mohit Owan and Ajay Owan. (Prince Owan rounds out the trio of relatives.)
“It’s a team effort. We share the ball. When we were winning our games through that stretch, we had five guys in double digits, spreading the floor and making shots and getting after it,” said the volunteer community coach.
Ranked outside the province’s AAA top-10 but recognized as an Honourable Mention all season, Windermere defeated King George 82-64 in early February, handing the Dragons their only league loss of the season. In a rematch in the city title match, King George prevailed.
In that city championship on Feb. 12 as the minutes ticked away and the atmosphere heated up, Birnie was the more quiet of the bench bossess. When a referee mistakenly handed the ball to a King George substitute waiting by the scorers' table instead of the Windermere player on the sideline looking to make an inbound pass, Birnie got right to the point without making a scene. "Wait, that's a sub," he said. "Thank you." No drama, all cool.
The Warriors finished fifth at the AAAA Lower Mainland tournament last season to advance to the provincial championship. This year they are the No. 1 Vancouver seed at the AAA level.
“That is experience well-gained,” said Birnie. “You don’t just write guys off. Players develop.”
They wouldn’t have gotten very far without their coach, who missed city championship games last year during the birth of his first daughter and who plays men’s basketball against opponents like King Goerge coach Darko Kulic.
“What he’s done is amazing,” Kulic said of Birnie. “Last year they lost one of the best players in the province and everybody said they wouldn’t be as good as they were. Just the way Cole is, he never let up.”
Birnie joined the Warriors as a junior team coach three years ago when the core was in Grade 10. He remembers his own formative years in Abbotsford with the W.J. Mouat Hawks.
“That age group is the first competitive year, whereas in Grades 9 and 8, it’s about having fun and getting engaged and keeping kids participating,” said Birnie. “At the senior level, it’s competition in the purest form because the majority of them won’t be going on to play anymore. It’s as competitive as it gets.
“The junior year [Grade 10] is the prep year for the next two at the senior level. It’s also the year when their bodies are hitting that maturity point so they can physically adapt and grow and get more athletic if you put them through the right training program.”
Windermere’s junior program was hanging by a thread and may have folded three years back if no one stepped forward. Birnie heard about the need through friends in the Vancouver Police Department who played exhibition games with high schools.
“It is very influential year for basketball,” he said. “I felt compelled to get out and do my thing.”