When Fairfax Lions head coach Harvey Kitani reflects on his Los Angeles program’s 2011 trip to the Snowball Classic at Abbotsford Senior Secondary, basketball isn’t necessarily the first thing that springs to mind.
“Our first night there, we went up Grouse Mountain,” Kitani recalled. “For many of our kids, that was the first time they’d ever seen snow.
“It was our first time ever going to Canada, and the total experience was something invaluable to our students. In that short time, we built a rapport with the Abbotsford school . . . and we thought it would be neat to have a chance to go back.”
Kitani’s Lions, who managed to win the 2011 Snowball title between field trips to take in some Canadian culture, will reprise their role as headliners when the 53rd annual edition of the local tourney tips off next week (Jan. 9-12).
Fairfax is a big-time program – the Lions play in California’s most competitive tier (1A) and have won two state titles in the past decade (2004 and 2007). The team is sponsored by Nike, and players wear a customized edition of LeBron James’s latest signature shoe in their school colours.
“They play an exciting brand of basketball, and it was exciting that a pretty high-profile L.A. team wanted to come back,” said Prentice Lenz, head coach of the host Abby Senior Panthers.
“It was such a neat group of kids that came out two years ago, in terms of conduct and those sorts of things . . . (Abby Senior staff) had nothing but good things to say about their coach and players.”
In 2011, Fairfax’s squad featured a pair of future NCAA Div. 1 recruits in Brendyn Taylor (USC) and Landon Drew (Cal State Northridge).
This year’s team features two blue-chip seniors in 6’6″ power forward Chaunce Hill and 6’5″ small forward Reggie Theus Jr.
Hill, an explosive leaper whom Kitani calls “one of the most gifted athletes in the country,” has signed with Cal State Fullerton. Theus Jr., whose father is a former NBA all-star, is a talented outside shooter who hasn’t decided on a post-secondary destination yet.
Hill and Theus Jr. are among a group of just four seniors on the roster, though, and the Lions have experienced a few growing pains while compiling an 8-6 record in the early portion of their schedule.
“We’re trying to find our identity,” Kitani noted. “We’ve lost some close games, and we need to learn how to finish.
“We just need to be more consistent, but we’re getting better, so that’s a good thing. And we’re hoping we can get better on this trip as well.”
This is the sixth consecutive year that Snowball organizers have brought in a top American team, with previous entries coming from Alabama, Wisconsin, New York and Rhode Island. U.S. squads have won the title three of the last five years – Alabama’s Williamson Lions in 2008, Fairfax in 2011 and the St. Andrew’s Saints of Rhode Island in 2012. Abbotsford’s Yale Lions won in 2009 and 2010 behind back-to-back MVP performances by Marek Klassen.
While the American teams draw capacity crowds every year to The Pit, Abby Senior’s historic old gym, Lenz is hopeful a deeper-than-usual crop of Abbotsford talent will bring even more fans this time around.
Yale (No. 2 in the B.C. AAA rankings) and the W.J. Mouat Hawks (honourable mention) are among the top teams in the province, and the MEI Eagles and host Abby Senior Panthers have shown early signs that they have the chops to contend for a provincial tournament berth.
“Yale and Mouat are exceptional, and MEI and us are in that middle-pack mix where we’re in the majority of the games we play,” Lenz analyzed. “These are Abbotsford teams that can challenge the best teams in the province, and even on a given night, maybe even the U.S. team like Yale did a couple years ago. I think it’s pretty exciting.”
The 12-team Snowball field also includes the No. 6-ranked Kelowna Owls and the No. 7 St. George’s Saints, along with Manitoba’s No. 2-ranked AAAA team, the Oak Park Raiders of Winnipeg.
• The tournament tips off Wednesday, Jan. 9 as Abby Senior faces G.W. Graham of Chilliwack at 12:45 p.m., and the event gets going in earnest on Thursday. A full tourney draw is attached below.
• Abbotsford News sports editor Dan Kinvig will be live-blogging from the Snowball on Thursday, Jan. 10 at abbynews.com.