If someone other than the Garden City Fighting Gophers wins the provincial varsity boys basketball championship this season, it’s not going to be easy.
As the Gophers defend their provincial crown — their third in six years — they appear to be up to their old tricks, winning a third-straight Wesmen Classic and reaching the final of the highly competitive BRIT tournament in Saskatoon.
That final loss to a team from Calgary is the only blemish so far for a team that has six returning players from last year, including four of the top seven in their rotation.
Aside from their obvious talent, coach Phil Penner believes the Gophers will be well served by their growing portfolio of big-game experience.
"They do a first-class job (at the BRIT)," Penner said. "Every game the gym is packed, with bleachers on both sides. You not only get a chance to see some real good teams, but you also get a really pressure-packed environment. The more you play games in big atmospheres, it helps you in the playoffs and provincials."
Malik Coleman, a Grade 12 forward who Penner calls the team’s "glue," thinks the team is benefiting from getting every opponent’s best effort.
"Everyone wants to beat us," said the Maples resident. "There’s a lot of good teams out there. We need to keep our focus, and know that teams will be coming at us.
"Come playoff time that’s going to help for sure. The playoffs are all grinding games… no blowouts. To play all year against great competition helps us prepare for the final games."
Coleman said this year’s Gophers are more of an outside shooting team than the one that won last year’s provincials. With star post player Tynan Reyes drawing multiple defenders in the paint, the outside players find plenty of open shots.
"We get good shots from Tynan," Coleman said. "If we’re not shooting well, it’s not because they aren’t good looks. It’s because we’re not mentally prepared."
Penner has enjoyed the advantage of bringing back so many of his key contributors from a year ago. He said they’ve all become better players in the last 12 months.
"It’s amazing what a difference a year makes," Penner said. "Not just with their physical skills, but I find it’s the mental part of the game. They understand things better, and they’re calmer."
That newfound calmness could be the key in a close game in front of a raucous crowd come March. Winning any provincial title is difficult. Winning back-to-back is even tougher.
"First you have to stay healthy," said Penner, who believes more than a handful of teams have a legitimate chance to win the title. "Then sometimes you’ve got to get a break or two. In a one-game series, you can have an off shooting night and things don’t go your way. It’s certainly not easy."