By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Aadan Kempe won his first basketball game Thursday.
And he wasn’t just there, basking among teammates after the game, celebrating success vicariously, from the sideline.
“He was the motor today, that’s for sure,” Sydenham Golden Eagles coach Brett Walsh said, after his team opened the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association senior boys basketball season with a 56-42 win over the Bayridge Blazers.
“He was our best player.”
Kempe, a Grade 12 student who attended Granite Ridge before his family moved to Sydenham this year, scored 15 points, including all five of the Golden Eagles’ points in the first quarter. Beyond that, though, was the way he was getting them.
“He was working so hard,” Walsh said. “He was getting rebounds; he was driving to the rim; he was hitting the floor; he took a charge at the start of the game—all those hustle plays that we always talk about.
“The rest of the team wasn’t really hustling at the start, but the other guys started to see what he was doing and they started to feed off that.”
That first lifetime victory—after about 40 high school basketball games, Walsh figures—might not have happened but for a chance encounter in the Sydenham High School hallway, where Walsh spotted Kempe and recognized him.
“I was supply teaching in Sydenham one day,” Walsh said. “I’d seen him play for Granite Ridge, and I thought, ‘Oh cool,’ because I was looking for guys, and I asked if he was going to play basketball.
“He said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t play basketball, I’m going to play hockey.’ I said, ‘No, no. Test it out, come see what you think.’”
Walsh wasn’t expecting a diamond, and he knew that even if there was one to be discovered in Kempe, it would require some polishing.
“He’s still making the biggest mistakes out there,” Walsh smiled, recalling one from Thursday’s game. “He’s got the ball in the open court and travels, and he’s got this big smile on his face after, but he learns from his mistakes.
“He’s 100 times better today than he was a week ago; 10 times better than he was yesterday, 10 times better than the day before that. He’s one of those guys who’s going to get a lot better.”
Bayridge also unveiled a player who, Blazers coach Geoff Stewart believes, one day will be a force with whom people will have to reckon. Jerry Wang, a Grade 11 international student from China, debuted with an 11-point performance, one that included a three-point basket and 2-for-2 shooting from the free-throw line.
“Jerry Wang is going to be a significant piece for us by the end of the season,” Stewart said. “He put 11 up and for a kid whose English isn’t so good right now (that’s not bad).
“We’re learning how to communicate. He’s going to be a piece for us but it’s going to take a while because everything has to be visual right now.”
In Thursday’s game, one typical of season-opening contests, the teams often chose bad three-point shots over structured offence for the first 16 minutes, putting up enough bricks to build a new high school. Bayridge scored the first five points of the game, led by as much as eight points early in the second quarter, and took a two-point lead, 21-19, into the halftime break.
The game became interesting in the third quarter, as the lead changed hands four times early in the period, and there were three ties. Back-to-back three-pointers by Matt Brash gave Bayridge a six-point lead near the end of the quarter, but Sydenham answered with threes from Isaac Sanderson and Eric Lusk at the end to send the teams into the fourth quarter tied 35-35.
It was 42-40 for the visiting Eagles when Bayridge stumbled. Sydenham closed the game with a 14-2 run.
“We made some tweaks to what we were running on our offence—positioning, where we put guys,” Walsh said. “We started to take care of the basketball a little better. Our shot selection improved a lot; we stopped taking the first shot we saw and started working it around until we got a better one. We started winning the loose ball battles.
“That’s an effort thing. That’s something you expect to be constant all game but we’re learning how to do that, learning what it takes to finish plays off.”
Bayridge, meanwhile, got away from what it was doing well at the beginning of the game.
“We communicated well at the start,” Stewart said. “Defensively, we were talking to each other really well, and as much as anything that’s what fell apart in the fourth.
“Our three keys to the game were defensive transition, communication and moving the ball well. I don’t think we moved the ball particularly well, but in the first three quarters our defensive transition was good and our communication was good. We got tired and when you get tired you lose the ability to concentrate, and when you lose the ability to concentrate you lose the ability to communicate, and if you lose the ability to communicate you’re going to lose games.”
Between the two teams, there was just one returning starter in the lineup Thursday—Bayridge’s Brash.
“I don’t pretend that we’re going to play at the level we played last year, at least not without some significant learning taking place,” said Stewart, whose team finished third a year ago. “All things considered, I thought we played three quarters of pretty good basketball. We hit some shots to get us ahead in the game, but you can’t rely on 25-foot, three-point shots off a screen-and-pop situation to win basketball games for you.
“We have to find some other pieces. It’s going to take us a while.”
Some of the junior graduates on the team are coming from a background of winning three games in the last two years. “They’re not a team that’s used to winning,” Stewart said. “In some respects, they’re not a team that’s used to competing. A lot of those 19 games (they lost) were games that were over before they even started.
“You know me. I’m not going to stop coaching hard, and I’m not going to stop trying to find ways to compete, so I think we’ll be better in February than we are right now. My hope is that we have some meaningful basketball to play in February.”
Similarly, Sydenham has just three players back from the team that won the KASSAA championship and OFSAA double-A consolation title a year ago, none of them starters. “We’re still very much a work in progress,” Walsh said.
“We have a lot of guys who are brand new to basketball, who haven’t played before at all, and a couple of guys coming up from junior, so it’s a lot of guys who are being put in roles they’ve never been put in before.
“We get a lot better every day at practice but we’re still very new in the competition stage.”
Lusk led all scorers with 19 points for Sydenham, 17 of them in the second half, 11 of them in the third quarter. Isaac Sanderson scored 11 points, including a pair of threes.
Brash, with four three-pointers, led Bayridge with 18 points.
The 35-second shot clock came into play just once, when Sydenham forced a shot from outside to beat it late in the game. It came on a play where the ball had gone out of bounds, and the Eagles had just seven seconds left to shoot after the ball was put back in play.
In Thursday’s other games, the Kingston Blues defeated the Napanee Golden Hawks 58-43 at Napanee and the Frontenac Falcons defeated the Granite Ridge Gryphons 59-17.
At Sharbot Lake, Brennan Laidman led Frontenac with 24 points, while Robbie Crawford scored nine for Granite Ridge.