When the GW Graham senior boys basketball team gathered for their first official practice last fall, head coach Jake Mouritzen didn’t say much about winning a provincial championship.
Coaches don’t like to go big picture with their messaging.
Instead, he laid out a challenge for his troops, telling them to ‘Get one per cent better every day.’
Grade 12 guard Cairo Almarez remembers those early days, looking at his teammates and wondering.
Did they have what it takes to do what no GW Graham basketball team had ever done before?
“Coach talked about the day-to-day thing, but all of the players, we talked about the one goal,” Almaraz said.
Mouritzen had built the Grizzlies into a basketball powerhouse and had taken some very talented teams to provincials. But even with past stars like Geevon Janday and Gabe Mannes, Ryan Trottier and Jon Steele – they’d fallen short of the ultimate goal.
Almarez looked up at the walls of the GW Graham gymnasium and knew there were no provincial b-ball championship banners.
What did this current group have that would make them any different?
Would they be another ‘really good’ Grizzlies team that could hang with the top dogs, but never be the best?
Almarez said the team’s ‘We believe’ moment came early in the season, at their home tournament in mid-December.
The Grizz faced the Vernon Panthers in the final, grinding out a 67-64 win.
“Before that game we were thinking, ‘Can we beat these guys? They’re really good and we’ll have to do this, this and that to beat them,’” Almarez recalled. “But after we won that game it was like, ‘We can beat anybody.’
From that moment on, Almarez said the team played with swagger.
The Twin Towers, Matthias and Zach Klim, dominated in the paint.
No foe could win the rebounding battle with GWG’s near-seven footers doing their thing.
Jude Hall drove the ball fearlessly down the wings while Almarez and Clay Kurtz bombed away with mid-range jumpers and three point shots.
The Grizzlies had depth and versatility for days behind their starting five.
They could win playing any style and spent the entire season as one of the top-ranked teams in B.C.
Mouritzen purposely scheduled a Murderer’s Row of foes, taking his team to as many elite tournaments as he could find.
The coach believed facing top competition in January was the best way to prepare for the pressure cooker of provincials.
His crew learned tough lessons along the way.
At the Chancellor Tournament in early January they faced the Duchess Park Condors and lost 108-88.
“We played awful defence and we got smacked,” Kurtz said with a grimace. “I think that took a little bit of our swagger away.
“We were ranked No. 1 in the province after we beat Vernon, but shortly after that loss to Duchess Park we were down to No. 5.”
Coaches will privately admit that such things can be beneficial. A team needs to be humbled, and humbled they were.
The Grizzlies refocused in late January and steamrolled competition in the Fraser Valley East league. They went 8-0 with an eye-popping +202 points differential, and 10 days after the regular season ended, they topped Abbotsford’s MEI Eagles for the Eastern Valley Athletic Association Championship.
Two key regular season moments, the win over Vernon and the loss to Duchess Park, proved hugely important when GWG rolled into the Langley Events Centre for provincials.
After making quick work of the Ladysmith 49ers in last Thursday’s opener, and swatting aside the Magee Lions in a quarter-final, the Grizzlies found Vernon waiting for them.
This was a foe they knew they could beat, if they played their best.
“We felt like if we could get past the Panthers, we’d be on a high and just keep going against Duchess Park,” Kurtz said.
GWG beat Vernon by one point, 50-49.
The Grizzlies went into the final against Duchess Park feeling confident, but the Condors punched them in the face early, bringing back memories of that January defeat.
Duchess Park hit shots.
GW Graham didn’t.
The Grizzlies were turning the ball over and not playing great defence against the one-two punch of Jackson Kuc and Caleb Lyons.
Duchess Park led by five points in the final minute of the first quarter.
Then something clicked.
GWG got the score to 18-16 as the first quarter ended, then produced an epic second quarter where they out-scored the Condors 18-9.
“We just started finding our groove and doing what we usually do, which is pushing the ball up-court,” Kurtz said. “Once we got in the half-court offence, it was get the ball to the Klims and let them go to work.”
At halftime, Mouritzen praised his team’s defence and urged them to stick to the game-plan.
The Grizzlies came out of the break and out-scored Duchess Park 24-15 in the third quarter.
Leading 58-42 as the fourth quarter began, more eyes started looking up to the scoreboard, watching the seconds tick away.
Kurtz, the MVP of the final (and the entire tournament) with 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals, said he knew it was over when Duchess Park started fouling Grizzlies in the final minute.
“It finally started to sink in that we might have it,” he said.
Almarez figured it was in the bag a bit sooner.
“I started thinking about it when we had a 20 point lead (early in the fourth quarter),” he said. “My body went into shock, almost, when I started thinking, ‘We could actually do this.’
“And then, like Clay said, when it was 15 seconds left it was like, ‘Woah.’”
GWG ended up winning 79-67, sparking an epic celebration. The moments after the final whistle are moments both teenagers will remember together.
Because it took 14 years for a GWG team to experience this moment.
Because Mouritzen’s been there the entire time, trying so hard to get his team to the top of the mountain.
These celebrations are always memorable, but there was an extra level of emotion with this one.
“Seeing your friends and family, you’re overcome with emotion and you feel like everyone on that court is family,” Kurtz said. “That’s what it’s all about, and you can’t really describe the feeling.
“It’s just crazy.”
Most of the players enjoyed watching Mouritzen celebrate more than anything.
“He gets up at like, 5 a.m. every day just to open up the gym for little Grade 7s who are just trying to get better,” Almarez. “He sets schedules and gets us to games and tournaments and it takes a lot of his time.
“He works so hard and does so much for this program, but he also loves what he’s doing and it finally paid off.”
In the final game of his high school basketball career, Almarez couldn’t have scripted a better way to say goodbye.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”