Smithers Gryphons senior girls basketball team finish their season with a 14th place at the provincial championships in Langley. Coach Chris Van der Mark moves on to a new position in Williams Lake.

Gryphons girls graduate as coach moves on

Bulkley Valley SD54 van der Mark on his time as coach and education administrator.

It was not exactly the desired result but the final standings of the Smithers Secondary Gryphons at the AA BC Secondary School Girls basketball championships were nothing to feel bad about.

The Chris van der Mark coached squad put up a great performance against teams from far larger communities and ended up with a 14th place overall finish.

Smithers went into its second game on a positive note and were leading the game most of the way against GP Vanier. They led the entire way and according to van der Mark had a large lead going from the first half into the third quarter.

“We kind of tightened up and unravelled a bit and struggled to score and lost by four. 49-44,” he said.

“In some ways it’s easier to get hammered than it is to lose a tight one. That would have given us a look into the top 10 and that was our goal. We lost that one and then played our third game which we won 58-30. That set up our fourth game which happened to be a real tough one.

“In our fourth game, we played for 13th or 14th place against Little Flower Academy. It was probably our best game and we dropped it 69-54,” he said.

Next year the championship tournaments on the girls side will look different as they will go to a four tier system, the same as the boys now have.

With the current system, schools like Smithers are at a disadvantage since they have fewer athletes to draw from.

“That will take between seven and nine teams out of double A and put them in triple A. We will stay on AA. It will help us out because we will be playing some smaller teams,” he said.

The season was also a difficult one due to injuries.

“If you look at our season, we were pretty banged up so it was pretty hard to practice, let alone play,” he said. “Over all we were pretty happy with our play. We ended up where we should have ended up. With a bit of luck the team might have ended up higher.”

At the end of the day, he feels that it’s been a very good five years with this lineup. Nine of the girls will be graduating and there will be a lot of changes to the roster next year.

van der Mark feels that there is a good group of Grade 9s and 10s coming up to move into the positions vacated by the grads.

Hopefully, three or more of the girls will land somewhere to play at the post secondary level. A few of them have been having conversations with college reps.

“It will be nice to see a few of them play at the college level in the future,” he said.

He doesn’t feel that more championship levels will make it any easier for girls to move on to the post secondary level. One thing that is important is for the girls to get the exposure such as they get when they go on a regular basis to the provincial competitions where they might get seen and scouted by people from post secondary level institutions. They are also around some of the blue-chip prospects who are being scouted and going south of the border or to the top teams in Canada. These athletes have been around a lot high level performances but its still a big leap going to the next level.

“It is certainly a lot of fun seeing a number of them getting some interest based on performances over the year,” said van der Mark.

“It’s just too bad that we did not get a chance to show at out peak when we were at the final event. I’m pretty proud of them. I’ve never had nine Grade 12s that have stuck it all the way through. They’ve done a great job. We did the math on it and in regional competition, they’ve been 56-1. The record when going south to the provincial level competitions is not nearly as good. And that’s why we go down there.

“It’s important to go see that level and the budget realities make it difficult at times. I’ve been very lucky with parents who have been committed and some businesses in town that have helped us out. We’ve had a lot of support along the journey,” he said.

Coach moves on

van der Mark will be moving to a new position in Williams Lake next fall and the team will have new coaching and leadership.

As an educator, he feels that participation in sport is an important part of their education.

“I think it’s critical. There are so may things that happen in sport that are beneficial. Team sport in particular. You’re only as successful as the rest of the people around you. The number of decisions and the number of things that they have to navigate including the emotions is hard to nail down — the amazing breadth of what we call learning outcomes that kids are exposed to in sport that they would not be exposed to if they simply did the 9-3 schedule. There is so much learning that happens outside the walls, I think its absolutely critical. There are so many life lessons. There are also the life lessons that you have to navigate if you are the star athlete and you have to work with people who are not as gifted as you are.

“There us so much learning that goes on in that environment. That is why I’m so passionate about it.

“People gave me the opportunity as a young person to experience it and that is why I continued because it helps maximize the potential of these young people,” he said.

Now that he is moving on to Williams Lake, he is unsure about how he will be able continue his experience with coaching until he has had a chance to settle down in the new community and the new job.

I think I am going to be significantly busy with what I was hired to do. I can’t even speculate what I’ll be able to do at this point. But I’ve said it for a long time, especially the 11 years I’ve been here, the best part of my day was the time I got to be on the court with those kids every day,” he said. “Kids almost never frustrate me. Adults can.”

He said some people will say that kids have changed over the years, but he feels that they haven’t.

“Adults are different in terms of what they expect. They see things in terms of what impact it might have on them versus what they have to give. On the other hand, kids are pretty good about meeting whatever it is that we put out there. Kids will generally meet what we require,” he said.

On the other hand, it is getting harder to find adults who are willing to make the commitments that are necessary. It has always been important for adults to spend the time on kids but it is much more difficult now to find adults who are willing to understand that it is just as important now as it always has been.

“It does not happen miraculously on its own. There has to be someone there who is willing to spend that time and effort on that all-important task,” he said.

“I would have a lot shorter day if I didn’t spent the last few hours with these kids every day, but I’m always more energized after a couple of hours with them,” he said.

“The kids fill your bucket. The kids make it fun. The kids make it rewarding. I recognized it when I was young but I appreciate it more and more as I get older.”

In moving to Williams Lake, the biggest challenge initially will be getting to know the people on his team.

“As you get to know people, it will be getting to know the strengths and challenges that are present in the group,” he said.

At this point he feels that he does not have a frame of reference with which he can compare to two communities and it will be just his wife and himself moving. They feel that they have their heads around the move.

“I think that change is good. Sometimes we get too comfortable and we stick with one thing. You don’t learn by doing the same thing over and over again. Regardless of what work you are in there is always something that can be done to freshen it up,” he said.

He feels that his greatest success here was the work with the steady improvement that was experienced with Indigenous groups.

“It was a real weakness when we got here and I think we brought it out to the front and centre. Another success was the kind of support and education that we brought in for adults. That has shown to be pretty successful and that will become more and more important as we start to lose many experienced, outstanding educators and staff. You don’t replace years of experience and wisdom overnight.

“The number one thing we look for is student success and I think we have done pretty well at that. We’ve also been successful at making learning important for our workforce. It’s far more diverse now that what we were able to offer before. There is more choice and flexibility for students to be engaged in something that they find of interest to them.

“We are not alone in that but we could have just waited it out and taken the past mentality but the only people who don’t like that flexibility for the kids is adults. But the choices that the adults may want might not be the best ones. We’ve tried to open up a few more pathways for kids. At the end of the day education is a big part of their day and it should be a good part,” he said.

van der Mark is confident that there are others who will be willing to step into his rather larger shoes. It might take some time for those shoes to be filled but there is no doubt that they will be full.

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