HOOPS junkies across the Lower Mainland get an early Christmas present every year with the Telus Basketball Classic and this season there's a distinct North Shore flavour to the Dec. 1-8 tournament.
Five senior girls teams from the Shore will suit up in the annual event that pits many of the best teams in the province against each other in a massive tournament that also features a number of scholarship opportunities as well as unique First Nations, Night Hoops, Youth with Developmental Challenges and elementary divisions as well as a cheer and dance competition.
"It's the biggest tournament in the province," said Anthony Beyrouti, whose St. Thomas Aquinas senior girls team is participating for the first time. "It's huge. It's a big deal."
Joining STA in the 16-team girls tournament will be North Shore schools Handsworth, Argyle, Collingwood and West Van. Beyrouti said he can't recall another time when there were five North Shore teams taking part in the girls tournament in any of the past 12 editions of the Classic.
"North shore hoops have been pretty strong the last couple of years," he said. "We've seen some very good teams, including a couple of provincial champions coming out of Handsworth, so you get the top tournament in the province and they want the best teams and we bring that."
Beyrouti, himself an admitted hoops junkie who is a former Argyle coach and has also worked in the provincial team program as well as with the North Shore's 3D Basketball Academy, gave the North Shore News a quick breakdown of what to watch for in each of the first-round matchups involving North Shore teams:
? Centennial at Argyle, Dec. 5, 2: 30 p.m.: Argyle is the only North Shore school hosting any tournament games and this mid-afternoon matchup should come with a pumped-up Pipers home crowd. Argyle, ranked No. 9 for AAA in the provincial preseason coaches' poll, will be the favourite against the unranked Centaurs.
The Pipers are led by a powerful inside-outside combination, said Beyrouti. "You've got one of the best point guards in the province at their school in Claire Elliott and then one of the best post players in the province in Robyn Aulin-Haynes."
? West Van vs. Fleetwood Park, Dec. 5, 4: 15 p.m. at Argyle: West Van will stay on the North Shore for their first game, completing the doubleheader at Argyle. They're led by head coach Shaun McGuinness, a longtime North Shore staple on the sidelines who has coached a lot of kids, including his own talented children Erica and Andrew who both went on to play CIS ball.
"He's brought this group through from the younger age levels," said Beyrouti. "They'll be pretty good." The unranked Highlanders, however, will be in tough against eight-ranked Fleetwood, a team that also has a North Shore connection in head coach Dan Nayebzadeh who spent several seasons leading the Sutherland Sabres.
? Collingwood at Riverside, Dec. 5, 3: 30 p.m.: The Cavaliers, unranked at the AA level, will be in tough against Riverside, ranked No. 6 for AAA, playing on their home court. Collingwood is coached by former Simon Fraser player Morgan Mclaughlin.
"She's trying to build a program at Collingwood, she's been doing a decent job so far. But that's a tall test right there," said Beyrouti.
? STA vs. Britannia, Dec. 5, 5 p.m. at Riverside secondary: The Fighting Saints are led by their guards. Vanessa Botteselle spent the summer as the starting point guard for the U16 provincial team, leading them to a first-place showing at the Western Canadian Basketball Championships. Joining her in the backcourt are talented Grade 11 twins Kate and Claire Mockler.
"They used to be dancers and now they focus on basketball," said Beyrouti. "They also compete in the academics - one of them has a 94 per cent average and the other one's a 95."
The coach sees big things ahead for his Saints, No. 9 in the preseason AA ranks. They'll be in tough, however, against No. 2-ranked Britannia. "It'll be a good challenge," said Beyrouti.
? Handsworth vs. Rick Hansen, Dec. 5, 3: 30 p.m., at York House secondary: The powerhouse Royals appear to be the North Shore's team to beat once again. They're led by the backcourt duo of Abby Dixon, starting point guard on the provincial U17 team, and Elisa Homer.
"They've got two senior guards who are very, very good," said Beyrouti. "Great leadership qualities in both of them, ability to shoot the ball, they both take care of the ball. They're just good, quality players."
The fifth-ranked Royals will be favoured against the unranked Hurricanes.
While the girls tournament is crawling with North Shore teams, there's only one on the senior boys side and it's a bit of a surprise. St. Thomas Aquinas will make their first appearance in the tournament when they travel to Kitsilano secondary to take on that school Dec. 5 at 1: 45 p.m.
"Our guys have kind of been in like a rebuilding mode for about nine years and this year we've actually put together a competitive squad," said Beyrouti. The Saints are led by former high-level referee Joe Markland who traded one whistle for another to take on head coaching duties.
"They've done a tremendous job of putting together a good, strong talented group that can compete at the top of the AA level and can compete with any of the North Shore AAA teams," said Beyrouti.
Other North Shore teams taking part in the tournament include 3D in the elementary boys and girls divisions and the North Shore Wolves in the First Nations division.
For more info, schedules and results visit canadaonefoundation. com.