Quinton Hunter will lead the defending Tri-Star Division champion Neelin Spartans into this year’s BSSI tournament. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)
When Neelin teacher and basketball coach Don Thomson and former Brandon Sun reporter David Larkins got together to brainstorm the idea of the Wheat City hosting a major season-opening high school basketball tournament, they hoped it would become an annual event that everyone wanted to play in.
The Brandon Sun Spartan Invitational is now in its 10th year and the 32-team event, which will feature 80 games played in six gymnasiums from today through Saturday, has become a major draw, with teams from all over Manitoba as well as northern Ontario and Alberta coming to the Wheat City. For a lot of teams, it’s a chance to test themselves against top-quality competition early in the season, one of the big reasons why Thomson believes the tournament continues to be so popular.
"The best part is you get five games in two and a half days and you have to play everybody," he said. "It’s a great opportunity (for coaches) to sit back, go, ‘This is what I have this year and this is what I have to do to be successful.’
"There’s a lot more sitting back by coaches rather than worrying about winning the BSSI. The thing is how can we evaluate and move forward into our basketball season from it."
The BSSI has become so popular among Winnipeg schools that at least two of the final four teams at the provincial AAAA varsity boys’ championship have played in the tournament every year.
This year, the top-tier Victoria Inn Division has 16 teams from Manitoba, including the defending provincial and BSSI champion Garden City Fighting Gophers, who beat the Oak Park Raiders 99-84 in last year’s BSSI Tier 1 final.
All the Westman squads, including the host Neelin Spartans as well as the Crocus Plainsmen and Vincent Massey Vikings, will be in the Tri-Star Screen Printing (Tier 2) Division. The Spartans won the division last year, but they only return four players. Quinton Hunter, Mason Hodgson and Brock Hiltner will lead the squad, but repeating as champions is not the primary goal for Thomson, whose team has practised only two weeks and played its first tournament in Regina last weekend.
"We want to compete," he said. "Our goal each and every day is we want to become competitive. We’re slowly doing that. We’re two weeks into the basketball season with volleyball ending so late for us. Our goal is to learn how to compete and once we learn how to compete we’ll worry about what to do next. Learning to compete day after day is so huge."
The BSSI will be the first event of the season for the Vikings, who have been practising since late November. Vincent Massey, which finished second in the Brandon league last season, has not played any games yet as head coach Brett Nohr didn’t want his players to get any bad habits early.
The Vikings have a mix of height and experience with five players who are at least 6-foot-4 and six of the 12 players in their Grade 12 seasons.
Nohr wants his team to focus on competing as hard as they can rather than worry about making mistakes at this point. His players are chomping at the bit to play their first games, and their coach is excited for the season to begin at the BSSI.
"For the past eight years, since I’ve been involved in it, it’s something I’ve looked forward to simply because it’s a chance to get five games under our belts, it’s a chance to get everybody on the floor and to basically see what we’re really weak at," Nohr said. "We don’t really know what our strengths and weaknesses are yet, but it will be easy to see what our weaknesses are after the five games."
Meanwhile, the Crocus Plainsmen are a young group without any players in Grade 12. The squad features eight Grade 10s — the Plainsmen don’t have a junior varsity team this season — and head coach Bart Walker is treating the season and the BSSI tournament as a good learning experience for his team.
"We’re going into the season to have fun and learn," he said. "That’s what we’re looking at this season. It’s a building year and growing year for us, and we want to learn lots and have fun doing it."
The tournament tips off today when the Spartans take on the Glenboro Panthers at Neelin at 2:10 p.m. The Tri-Star Division final is set for Saturday at Neelin at 5:10 p.m., followed by the Victoria Inn Division final at 7 p.m.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 12, 2013