Red-hot Pipers re­pel Raiders

John Tay­lor squad is big, fast and close-knit

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - SPORTS - By Melissa Martin

CALL it hu­mil­ity or call it a cau­tious su­per­sti­tion, but John Tay­lor Pipers bas­ket­ball coach Spiros Kavadas doesn’t want to pump the hype this early in the sea­son.

So when some lo­cal bas­ket­ball buzz has this year’s Pipers as the team to beat, well, count on a coach to point back at the process.

“We hope so,” Kavadas said. “We like to be in the mix ev­ery year. Peo­ple can call us favourites if they want, but we have to go out there and ex­e­cute and per­form. It’s to­tally up to the kids. If they want it badly enough, and they do things the right way, then they’ll be OK.”

There’s a lot work­ing in their favour. This Pipers team is fast. They’re tall. They boast three provin­cial team mem­bers, and they can move the ball. That was crys­tal clear Mon­day af­ter­noon, when they trounced the tal­ented Oak Park Raiders 91-64 to win the first Wes­men Clas­sic high school semi­fi­nal at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg’s Duck­worth Cen­tre.

Quite a show, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing it was just their sec­ond game this sea­son, af­ter a quirk of the sched­ule handed them a late start. The Pipers played well in the semi­fi­nal, Kavadas nod­ded, but he wasn’t ex­pect­ing any­thing less from this close-knit and sea­soned squad.

“They’ve been play­ing to­gether since grade school,” the coach said. “They know the looks. They know where to find each other. They know who’s hot. They do that on their own. Re­al­is­ti­cally speak­ing, we really do as lit­tle coach­ing as pos­si­ble, and just let the guys play and have fun, and do what they love to do.”

It cer­tainly helps that among those John Tay­lor play­ers who love the game, there are plenty who are darn good at it too. Chief among their weapons could be for­ward and co­cap­tain James Wag­ner, a 6-7 se­nior who popped in 19 points against Oak Park be­fore be­ing rested. He’s been on a rocket arc since Grade 10.

That year, Wag­ner said, he and some of his friends opted to stay back on John Tay­lor’s ju­nior var­sity team, think­ing it was a pretty good group. Some­thing clicked; that squad would go on to win the prov­ince’s top JV cham­pi­onship. And Wag­ner? He came away with a stronger sense of how to lead a team.

“I just learned to be more ag­gres­sive,” Wag­ner said. “Be­fore, I wasn’t al­ways the best player on the team. Then I started to be­come bet­ter, and got more shots. As I’ve got­ten older, coach is al­ways push­ing me to have more of a lead­er­ship role, and that’s really helped evolve my game.”

For the Pipers, Wag­ner is some­thing of a Re­nais­sance man. “He’s a new-age kind of bas­ket­ball player,” Kavadas said. “He can drib­ble, shoot, pass. He’s the way bas­ket­ball is go­ing, a new gen­er­a­tion-style player where you’re not just a spe­cial­ized guy. He’s not a tra­di­tional high school player.”

That skill set is in de­mand. Wag­ner could be one of the most sought-af­ter univer­sity re­cruits of the sea­son; af­ter Mon­day’s match, one of the vis­it­ing CIS coaches was wait­ing to greet him. Mean­while, U of M Bisons head coach Kirby Schepp be­lieves Wag­ner is a top tal­ent who could one day crack Canada’s na­tional team.

On the Pipers, Wag­ner is sur­rounded by a cast of tal­ented char­ac­ters. There’s guard Riki Zim­bakov, 6-4 and in only Grade 11, who led Mon­day’s scor­ing with 22 points. Both Kavadas and Wag­ner point to guard Josh Gan- dier, an­other provin­cial team player who The they praise as a lock­down de­fender. And Grade 12 guard Zack Gies­brecht, who scored 16 points and was named player of the game Mon­day, runs the of­fence with zest.

Most of all: This group, which fea­tures many of the play­ers from the 2014 ju­nior var­sity squad that won the Man­i­toba cham­pi­onship, is close. Maybe they have to be, to keep up the work­load needed — John Tay­lor is a smaller school, Kavadas noted, and so they keep train­ing go­ing al­most year round.

No sweat, Wag­ner said — when it comes to work, this band of broth­ers holds each other to ac­count.

“We’ve played to­gether for so long,” he said. “All of us are com­pet­i­tive guys, and we push each other. It helps us out to get bet­ter. Ev­ery­body’s out there push­ing them­selves, telling each other to get into the gym.”

Now, the Pipers will sit back and wait, to find out who they must face Wed­nes­day night in the 49th an­nual Wes­men Clas­sic high school fi­nal. It will be ei­ther Gar­den City or Kil­do­nan East, which­ever team wins to­day’s 4 p.m. semi­fi­nal. John Tay­lor has won the tour­na­ment once, in 1988.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN WOODS / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

The Oak Park Raiders’ Shakur Har­ris (5) de­fends against John Tay­lor’s James Wag­ner in Wes­men Clas­sic ac­tion Mon­day.

Ignatius 12 P.M.: Bran­don vs. MacEwan 2 P.M.: NAIT vs. Leth­bridge 4 P.M.: Gar­den Cit y vs. Kil­do­nan East (High school semi­fi­nal)

Win­nipeg vs. Man­i­toba (Uni­ver­sit y semi­fi­nal) 8 P.M.: Lake­head vs. Aca­dia (Uni­ver­sit y semi­fi­nal)

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