Red-hot Pipers repel Raiders
John Taylor squad is big, fast and close-knit
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.
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)