North Delta Secondary’s triumph at the 2019 provincial basketball championships “was not supposed to happen,” according to coach Gary Sandhu.
“All the cards were stacked against us: the draw, the injuries. Even during the games, guys were going down. These guys were playing on mostly adrenaline.”
Challenges were a dime a dozen this season, starting with forward Vikramjit Hayer’s knee injury in a pre-season game, followed by controversial calls in a game against Clayton Heights and star player Suraj Gahir’s twisted ankle at a tournament just before the provincials.
But after a 29-year dry spell, the Huskies are once again the top team in British Columbia’s 3A high school basketball division.
However, head coach Jesse Hundal told the Reporter, there is an important distinction between this championship and past successes: it’s the first since NDSS stopped being a senior secondary, making this the first team of players who have been at the school since Grade 8 to win a provincial championship.
“So it’s pretty historic,” Hundal said. “Before, North Delta was a senior high school so you would get [students from] Sands Secondary, Delview and Burnsview funnel in.”
Sandhu chimed in, saying, “this banner is the first for the new North Delta.” The school expanded to include the lower grades for the 2003-04 school year, becoming essentially a new school.
“All that history that belongs to this school is still with us, but it started again because the demographics have changed and the school structure changed,” Sandhu said.
The Huskies finished with an all-season record of 32-5, including some key wins like the one against Kelowna Secondary, one of the 4A division’s top teams. But the season also had some interesting back and forths between NDSS and their championship rivals, Byrne Creek, Sir Charles Tupper and the Vernon Panthers, who the Huskies beat to take the provincial title.
The Panthers edged out a 72-66 victory against the Huskies at the Robert Batement tournament in late January, but it was North Delta’s loss two games prior to Clayton Heights Secondary at the Chancellor Basketball Tournament that threatened to derail the school’s post-season ambitions. Sandhu recalled controversial line violation calls on two occasions by the referees when Gahir took free throws, as well as a foul call against Gahir after what the guard called a clean block.
The Huskies would lose that game 74-88, despite having led Clayton Heights by 25 at one point.
“That single loss really threw us off because we were trying to figure out what happened,” Sandhu remembered.
“We can’t tell [our players] it was the refs because then they’re going to feed into our energy, so we had to deal with that. And that changed the outcome of what was about to go down in the Fraser Valleys.”
After winning against Terrace’s Caledonia Kermodes and losing to the Vernon Panthers in the Robert Bateman tournament, the Huskies went 5-0 in their regular season games. They started the Fraser Valley 3A tournament second seed, which Sandhu said comes with tougher games.
In North Delta’s first game of the tournament, Gahir went for a lay-up and came down on an opponent’s foot, twisting his ankle and partially tearing a ligament. He would go on to finish playing that tournament and the provincial championships despite the injury, earning the title of most valuable player at the latter.
Gahir said it is the love for the game and seeing the hustle of his teammates — with whom he has played since he started at NDSS — that made him play through the injury against the wishes of his coaches, who thought he should stay on the bench and heal up the provincials.
“Every game we would tape it and put a brace on it,” Gahir recalled.
“Everyone is like a family now. From Grade 8 to now, how much we’ve bonded, it’s unbelievable. Just seeing people in the locker room, how dedicated they are, how hard they were working. I see Arun [Atker], Vik [Hayer], Bhavraj [Thiara] and all these guys working so hard, I don’t have the right to not work hard [too].”
In the coming weeks, Gahir will work with a therapist to heal the ankle, so that he is ready to play at the collegiate level. He doesn’t know yet which school he’ll be attending, but he did expressed an interest in playing the United States.
Besides his team’s performance, Hundal credited the parents for their ongoing support throughout the season, not only by cheering the players on from the bleachers, but also for getting involved in their kids’ athletic goals.
“They spent the time and money for physio therapy, the massage treatments,” Hundal said. “The parents are very, very important in terms of the values they have taught these young boys, and in terms of just supporting them.”
Hundal said the coaches run the basketball program at North Delta Secondary closer how they do it at the collegiate level, with guest coaches, nutritional education, mental preparation, as well as strength and conditioning work and summer training sessions, noting that it’s not purely talent that will get a team trophies.
“All of us go us to sleep at three in the morning, watching game film. Then I wake up at six in the morning, watching game film,” he said, adding the players and coaches will hold meetings before and after games to assess their performance.
“The parents, the coaching staff, these guys, the guest coaches, and the alumni have all played a critical part in their success.”
What also helped the team during the season is an open door policy on any issues that may come up, said Hundal, who sees himself as an advocate of a more aggressive approach to basketball.
“But at the end of the day, last say is me, and I would go, ‘Should we press?’ and [the players] would say ‘No, no. We’re fine with what we got’,” Hundal explained.
“If they’re okay with it, we’re okay with it. We decided, as a coaching staff, for the final game at the provincials that we would let these guys set up what they wanted to play defensively and offensively. Because they’ve earned that trust.”
The provincial championship final against Vernon was another nail-biter after the Huskies defeated Duchess Park the day before in the last two seconds of the semifinal game with a two-pointer by Gahir. The final started out slowly for both teams, with a commentator saying it was one of the lowest-scoring first halves in the last three decades.
After trading three-pointers at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters, the Panthers tightened up their defence both in their half and on the attack. They boxed out the Huskies several times, grabbing numerous offensive rebounds to get back into the game, while North Delta went almost half of the last quarter without scoring.
As it was in the semis, it was the final minute that had everyone on the edge of their seats, including a large throng of North Delta supporters who were banging on drums and metal trash can lids in support of their team. Vernon led by four with 1:13 left on the clock, but Huskies guard Arun Atker’s three cut that lead dramatically before Gahir sealed the 46-44 win with a lay-up and a free throw.
“When that blue banner goes up in our gym, then for me it’s going be like, ‘Wow, we’ve done something special,’ and it’s a testament to [the players] and coaching staff,” Hundal said, adding the players will receive their championship rings after spring break.