The free throw line is the sole place of solitude in the sport of basketball. Not one player stands between you and the hoop. Focus is key as players are instructed by their coaches to visualize the ball going in the hoop and to maintain their shooting form, just as they have practiced thousands of times.
It’s a nerve-racking task and one that is an art form for those who are proficient at it. Some like silence, others like to hear the hometown crowd. But for three days at the end of January at St. John Brebeuf Regional Secondary School (SJB) in Abbotsford, it can be difficult to hear yourself think.
Hockey sticks replace drumsticks as students bang on a row of garbage cans lined in front of the bleachers. Those not able to bang a garbage can substitute sticks for pots and pans. The makeshift props crash together and send echoes throughout the gym, only to be drowned out by the resounding response of a crowd that more closely resembles a sea of red than rows of students attending a basketball game.
Cheeks and chins are smeared with red and white face paint. Some fans are shirtless, only to have the red outline of a jersey painted onto their back and chest. Six young men stand in a row for a photo-op. From left to right their chests read, “BEARS!”
Newcomers call it fanfare, opponents call it distracting, players from SJB’s senior boys and girls basketball teams call it a homecourt advantage.
“We tell the players, ‘This is going to be one of the most memorable experiences of your basketball career. There aren’t many times that you’ll be able to play in a packed gym like this,’ said SJB athletic director Matthew Sweeney.
It is school spirit personified and is evidence of the tightknit community that SJB promotes to the prospective and former students and players that walk its halls.
A small school located on the west side of Abbotsford, the Big Bear Classic is named after the school’s sports teams, the Bears. The annual tournament is nearing the quarter-century mark and has matured to the point that generations of SJB alumni are now seeing their own kids attend the school or have returned to the school to work in various capacities.
Sweeney himself played in the Big Bear Classic more than 10 years ago and recognizes how the tournament has grown to bring alumni back to the school for a celebratory three-day period of basketball, while also allowing for potential future students to be immersed in the school spirit that pulses through the SJB community.
The tournament begins this Thursday, Jan. 30. The opening day of the tournament will have games played during the day and is a great opportunity for students from feeder schools to get a taste of the ties that bind the SJB community. Elementary school students from the likes of St. James & St. Anne’s Elementary (Abbotsford), St. Mary’s School (Chilliwack), St. Catherine’s Elementary School (Langley) and Cloverdale Catholic School have all been known to attend to catch a glimpse of the energetic atmosphere at SJB.
The Big Bear Classic isn’t the only fun to look forward to as the tournament is positioned right in the thick of SJB’s “Spirit Week”. Over the course of five days, pep rallies and other school events add to the environment within the school.
“One of the benefits of being a small school is our grad classes are really close and across grades there’s a real sense of community, so even when students leave our school, they still have those connections with us,” Sweeney said.
“We get to showcase that when you come to St. John Brebeuf, you get to be a part of this – be part of a community that cheers on our athletes and be part of something special.”
Of course, in addition to the alumni festivities is the opportunity to watch great basketball. Notable schools in attendance this season on the boy’s side are Archbishop Carney Regional Secondary School and Abbotsford Traditional Secondary School, who won the 2019 title 84-72 over SJB.
While the SJB Bears senior boys team has a shot at redemption this year, the girls team will be looking to defend their title after beating the St. Patrick Regional Secondary School Celtics last year. A notable returnee from SJB’s championship winning team last year is Marijke Duralia. Marijke was a standout in front of the hometown crowd and earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.
It was the first time the SJB senior girls team had won the tournament. When the final buzzer sounded, Marijke’s teammates raced onto the court and the gym erupted with cheers.
“The atmosphere was absolutely crazy. It was very exciting to play and win in a full gym,” Duralia said. “It was very special for our school.”
Duralia is no stranger to competing under pressure. Known as a rising star on the British Columbia basketball scene, Duralia won a national title as a member of Team B.C.’s under-15 girls team in Fredericton, N.B. B.C. defeated Team Ontario in the finals 65-56 and Duralia was awarded with Second Team All-Star honours for her efforts. This past summer, Duralia and Team B.C.’s under-17 girls team finished third, and Duralia attended two tryout camps for Team Canada’s under-17 national team.
It was a whirlwind year for Duralia, who despite her successes to date, has her sights set on both the present and the future.
“It is crazy to think I can go from Abbotsford to the provincial team, to trying out for the national team all in one year. It’s all about these steps toward my goal of achieving a scholarship for university, hopefully,” Duralia said.
“This week my mindset is don’t underestimate any team that we have in our tournament. We’re going to take it one game at a time, win one game at a time, and then focus on the next opponent.”