By CLAUDE SCILLEY
You can talk about this Kingston Impact basketball team on a number of levels—its success this season; its stunning rise in the provincial pecking order—but if you’re coach Brett Walsh, one thing says everything anybody needs to know about it.
“Not once this season,” Walsh says, with not a small amount of pride, “has a guy come up to me and asked to see the score sheet. Not once.
“They don’t care about that,” he continued. “They care about whether we won or we lost. So they’re competitive in that sense, but they root for each other.”
As the Impact prepares to host the Ontario Basketball major midget championship tournament this weekend at Queen’s University, Walsh reflected on a season the Impact began with an eight-game winning streak and ended with his team ranked 13th in the province, a rise of 33 spots from just a year ago.
“We have a lot of guys who were really good players on their high school teams,” he said, “but they’re all nice kids. We don’t have guys who are cocky, self-involved guys, guys who are off doing their own thing.
“Everyone is happy about each other’s successes. They just want to win. That’s what they care about. They don’t really care about their stat lines.”
Which is remarkable enough for teenage boys who are finding their legs in a game that trades on the flair of individuals and dotes on its statistics. What makes it perhaps even more noteworthy is this a group of 12 Grade 9 and 10 boys who come from seven different high schools.
“They’re all the best players on their high school team, so it’s kind of nice to see them put their egos aside, to find their roles and learn to work together,” Walsh said.
“We don’t have one guy that gets all the points every game. We probably had eight or nine of them be a leading scorer at some point this season (and) our depth has been amazing. Every guy has gotten into almost every game, which is rare for this age group, especially at the level we’re playing at. There are guys who play more, obviously, but everybody gets their chance, and there’s the odd game where a guy just really shows up that day, and we can count on that guy to perform for us in the last couple of minutes of a game.”
Last year, the team languished in the middle of the provincial pack, comfortably in Division 6 for the championship tournament, putting it among teams ranked 41st to 48th. Four players on this year’s team were part of that group, and Walsh said Sam Pierson, Isaac Sanderson, Wasif Zulkernine and Reegan Comeau were the collective catalyst for the will to do better this time, even though not a one of them had ever been on a team that ended a year ranked as high as Division 4. “They’re learning how to play at this level,” Walsh said.
Few things are more rewarding than winning, and when the Impact began the season by winning its first eight games, an epiphany took place, Walsh believes. “They really enjoyed that feeling of being successful,” he said.
“In their experience as club players, they hadn’t had that winning culture and they really bought into that. They started making these team plays that maybe they wouldn’t have made before. They started to realize that’s what it takes to be successful, and then they started realizing that’s more fun than individual performance. They seem to find more value in that.
“It wasn’t anything that I did as a coach, it was moreso the nature of the kids. They come from good high school coaching backgrounds, they’ve seen what happens when they don’t have a good, supportive team behind them and they aren’t winning. Now they can see they’ve got a group that can do that, they’re excited to be that team guy instead of an individual.”
The only credit Walsh will take for the team’s performance is his choice to seek the best competition he could find for his tournament schedule.
“The basketball in Kingston is pretty good,” he said, “but the kids don’t have the high level experience when they come out of Grade 7 and Grade 8 to play at the top of Ontario yet, so they have to, once they come into their bodies, once they start playing more in high school, as they become key guys on their high school team, they get more touches, they learn to love the game more, and all of a sudden they’re right there with the best teams in the province
“Athletically and size-wise, we’re right there. It’s just a matter of experience and doing all the little things right. We’re figuring this out as we play all these top teams.”
Still, the season was not without its bumps. There came a loss by 50 points to the top-ranked team in the province, a 20-point defeat to another Division 1 team. It was the nature of the players, Walsh said, that allowed them not to despair, but to recognize such setbacks as moments from which they could learn.
“They kind of clued in at that point that, ‘Hey, if we want to be one of these top teams, we have to start doing all those little things that coach is talking about; we can’t just float through like maybe we have in the past in the club setting.’
“There was a new mentality that they had to develop. We’re not there yet; it’s a process that will take a couple of years before they get there, but these guys have good heads on their shoulders and they want to learn and they want to compete. By the time they finish high school, they’ll be competing with the best teams in the province. Right now we’re a notch below those guys, but these guys are getting there.”
The final ranking, and thus in which division a team competes at the end of the year, is determined by a formula based on performance at tournaments during what passes for the regular season in youth basketball in Ontario. At 13, Kingston was ranked higher than a team from the city has ever been ranked in this age group but five spots below where it had to be to reach the top bracket.
Walsh said the team’s goal at the start of the year was to reach Division 1, and having come so close to doing so was agonizing, but it shouldn’t diminish what the team has been able to accomplish.
“It’s a good start,” he said. “I always say to them you have to respect the process; you can’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I want to be the best team in Ontario.’ You have to respect the process and do the things that it takes to get there. You can’t just jump from Division 6 to Division 1 in one year just by saying, ‘Yep, that’s what we want.’ You have to learn how to get there.
"It’s been a good process for them to learn how to do those little things that it takes to win at that level.”
The Impact, 14-6 to date, lost four of those defeats to teams that wound up in Division 1. Kingston will begin round-robin play in one of two four-team pools Friday at 6 p.m. against Fire Basketball, a Toronto-based team that ended the year ranked No. 9 in the province and is, therefore, the No. 1 seed in the Division 2 tournament
Saturday Kingston will play Stoney Creek at 10:30 a.m. and Guelph at 4:30 p.m. All the games will be played in the Bartlett Gym.
Kingston split a pair of games with Stoney Creek this year, with a 10-point difference in each contest.
Medal-round games will be played Sunday, at 90-minute intervals beginning at 9 a.m. leading to the championship game at 1:30. Position will be decided based on the record in preliminary play, with the two first-place teams playing for the gold medal, the two second-place teams for the bronze, the two third-place teams playing for fifth place and the remaining two teams meeting to determine seventh place.