BASKETBALL: Proud Lions of Surrey’s Khalsa School shoot for B.C. title

Fledgling team makes a big leap in only its second year of play

Khalsa Lions senior boys basketball team in the gym of the Surrey school

Khalsa Lions senior boys basketball team in the gym of the Surrey school

SURREY — It hasn’t taken long for the Khalsa Lions to show their pride on the basketball court.

The senior boys team at Surrey’s Khalsa Secondary School has played together for just two seasons. Yet here they are, in the provincial finals, as the lone Surrey entry against 15 other single-A squads from around British Columbia.

On Wednesday (March 8), the four-day tourney begins at Langley Events Centre, marking the first time Khalsa has been in the boys provincial championships at any level.

Khalsa finished third in the recent 1A Fraser Valley finals, beating Gabrielle Roy, Unity Christian and Regent Christian along the way.

“I can’t put into words how excited these boys are,” said Doug Wong, who took over as head coach of the team in the spring of 2016.

“I’ve pushed them hard and they’ve met every challenge I’ve given them, and I’m proud of them,” Wong added. “We’re kind of like that school nobody knew about.”

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Sikhism is at the heart of the school’s education program, and now Wong has also helped introduce a winning basketball culture at Khalsa, located in the Bridgeview area.

Last Sunday, players and coaches gathered there for a vegetarian lunch – for religious reasons – as they watched an online broadcast of the provincial tourney draw, which has the Lions facing Duncan Christian in Wednesday’s opening round (6:45 p.m. tip-off at LEC’s Fieldhouse).

CLICK HERE to view the 1A schedule and scores, or here.

CLICK HERE to view the Khalsa Lions’ roster.

For a photo in the school gym, players proudly held the banner they won as champs of the recent Greater Vancouver Independent Schools Athletic Association (GVISAA) tournament.

For years, Khalsa has been among the best “feeder” basketball programs for other, larger schools in Surrey, according to athletic director Michelle Kelly.

“Khalsa School used to go to Grade 10 only (until 2014, when the secondary wing was built),” Kelly, who has worked at the school for 19 years, told the Now. “As a result, many parents chose to transfer their children (in Grade 8), to make the transition to a new school easier. In 2002, we started a Kindergarten-to-Grade 7 basketball program, after school, for the students. This has helped our students immensely.”

Months before the start of the 2016-17 season, Kelly recruited Wong – “begged” him, in her words – to coach the team.

In a school this small, with less than 300 students, there are no team tryouts. “You get what you get,” Wong said with a laugh.

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From the start, the coach recognized the team had potential, as long as the players were willing to put in the work needed to succeed.

“Learning to work together as a team, and put the game ahead of our individual strengths, was something we had to overcome in the beginning,” Wong explained.

When he first met the players, Wong encouraged them to write down two things they hoped to achieve this season, both as individuals and as a team.

“Every single one of them said they wanted to win the GVISAA (title) and make it to the provincials,” Wong recalled. “I’m not going to lie because I said to myself, ‘Wow, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,’ because we were really raw. But I told them that with a lot of hard work, dedication and accountability, they could get there.

“Now,” he added, “we’re playing a team game, which I call ‘Khalsa Basketball,’ which is playing good defence and working really hard. Now we actually have a style of basketball.”

Through some peaks and valleys of a 20-win, 11-loss season, Wong has enjoyed the help and backing of Kelly and also his assistant coaches, Marc Cleto and Keenan Wong, who is the head coach’s son.

“I’ve coached a lot of teams (including the 4A-division boys of Fraser Heights this season, with Cleto) and this has been the biggest challenge but also the most rewarding experience,” Wong said.

On occasion, as a show of unity, Wong has worn a turban while coaching, despite not being Sikh. Early on, he also convinced school officials that the players should wear shirt, tie and dress pants on game days, rather than the traditional school uniform.

On the court, the Lions wear camo-style jerseys with dark gray and black colours. Key team leaders are point guard Jaskirat Sandhu, shooting guard Harkerat Bhangu, centre Anmol Johal and forward Amrit Mangat.

As a team, the young Lions are mostly in Grade 11, with a couple of Grade 12 players. This should mean a bright future for Khalsa.

“The kids are excited, and so is the school,” Wong said. “This run is good for the community, the culture here. I told the kids, ‘Look, respect isn’t given, it’s earned, and if you listen to my voice, what I say, and stick to the process, by the end of the year, I promise you, when we walk out of gyms, they’re going to know who we are.’ We’ve turned some heads, and regardless of what happens here (at provincials), it’s gravy. We’re going to compete and not just show up and be satisfied.”

tom.zillich@thenownewspaper.com