By Martin Cleary
As athletic director at St. Matthew High School, Darwin Toreja was charged with the responsibility of finding head coaches for the boys’ junior and boys’ senior basketball teams for the 2021-22 season.
Toreja has often filled a number of coaching vacancies himself during his 22-year career as a teacher/coach and was willing to do so again. When teacher Justin Bourgeois stepped forward to serve as one of the volunteer coaches, Toreja gave him first choice as to which Tigers’ team he would like to coach for the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association season. Bourgeois picked the senior squad.
That worked out well for Toreja as he knew many of the junior players through his son’s connection to the team and the competitive club basketball community. He also knew the team was loaded with talent, could envision a great junior season and saw this group could have plenty of potential as future seniors.
Toreja’s reading of the junior players and their all-around skills was correct.
St. Matthew used its constant full-court press plus two other defensive presses and its ability to score a plethora of points, while surrendering relatively few, to dominate the 34-team junior Tier 1 league and win the championship with a ridiculous playoff run.
The junior Tigers powered their way through the COVID-19-pandemic-shortened regular season of six games with an undefeated record. The 16-player roster, which thrived on its non-stop movement, scored 453 points and allowed only 209 for a respective game average of 75.5 points for and 34.8 points against to win the Far East Division title.
In their divisional cross-over playoffs, the Tigers faced four top schools, which had a combined 19-2 win-loss record. While the Tigers allowed more points to a higher level of competition, they also upped their own scoring. The Tigers averaged 88.8 points a game and held their opposition to 48.5 points a game.
The Tigers had an impressive playoff run, defeating Gloucester 94-36 in the first round, Glebe 86-48 in the quarterfinals, St. Joseph 91-55 in the semifinals and host St. Mother Teresa 84-55 in the final.
“We had a bit of a scare in the final,” said Toreja, who occasionally would have his team practise with the senior St. Matthew team. “The ball wasn’t falling and we were down by 11 or 12 points at the end of the first quarter. That had never happened before. We got our shots, but the ball didn’t fall.
“But when the ball started to fall, we put the pressure back on and that was our strength and we rotated the guys in and out.”
The St. Matthew season was divided into two sections, which was caused by the pandemic. Instead of playing a normal 10-game regular season, the Tigers played six games in 20 days from Nov. 25 to Dec. 14. The playoffs were just as hectic two months later with four games in 15 days from Feb. 17 to March 3.
As a result of the pandemic and an inability to travel to out-of-town tournaments or play any at-home tournaments, the junior basketball league was restricted to only regular-season and playoff games and nothing more.
Basketball is a key element in the lives of a dozen Tigers players as six play competitive ball for the Ottawa Elite (Carter Bown, Adriel Byumainine, Dylan Kayijuka, Ineza Rulezi, Ryan Touhey and Justin Tounkara), five represent the AAA Gloucester-Cumberland Wolverines (Nick Kosavic, Carson Lemanis, AJ Ndayubaha, Gabriel Toreja and Christos Zigoumis) and one competes for Capital X Basketball Club (Elijah Isaac).
The roster is completed by Jim Olomoi and Grade 9 student/athletes Michael Ejike, Matei Lazarovici and Chrislead Ogedengbe, who made the team knowing they would see little or no floor time but would be important players for next season’s team.
The hardest part about coaching the team for Toreja was deciding how to use his players and giving them satisfactory floor time. But employing a hard-pressing defence and fast-paced offence, the players were familiar with constant movement either on the floor or being moved in or out of the game.
“We’re a very fast team,” said Toreja, who adds more than half of his players have the talent to be starters. “They played a full-court press all the time. We’re really deep and have no deficiencies.”
The majority of the junior players will graduate to senior next year and Toreja can see this team having the potential to represent the NCSSAA at the OFSAA provincial high school championships in 2023.
“We’re building. Next year is our big push. We have a real good chance at OFSAA,” he enthused.
Toreja’s main concern is seeing those players stay with the St. Matthew basketball program and play at the senior level for the next two years.
“The trick for us is not to lose players to (Canadian or American) prep schools. That’s the big intangible. We’ll try to keep them at our school. If they can stay with us, it would be good,” he added.
“There’s always talk and rumours about players showing interest. Whether it’s concrete, I’m not sure. We hope to keep the core together. There’s a lot of potential for an OFSAA push, if they stay on.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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