A profile on Jake Mouritzen, head coach of G.W. Graham’s senior boys basketball team and a builder in the Fraser Valley basketball community.
A navy cloak of darkness covers the eastern edge of the Lower Mainland. It is that uncertain hour when night turns to morning. The day has yet to begin for many as most of the city is still asleep. As the clock ticks past 5 a.m., one Chilliwack basketball coach tiptoes his way around the main floor of his house, quietly preparing for the day ahead.
In less than an hour’s time a cast of teenagers anxious to get their shots up before first period will be waiting for their coach.
Jake Mouritzen lives just a short drive from G.W. Graham. As he pulls out of his driveway, he leaves behind a house full of memorabilia from more than a decade of victories, losses and everything in between. Take a trip downstairs into the basement and you can chart the history of two of the Fraser Valley’s best basketball coaches. Both Jake and his wife Sarah are coaches of G.W. Graham’s senior boys and girls teams, respectively.
And then there are the close calls – the runner-up medals and accolades that serve as commemorative reminders of successful seasons that ended too soon. A basement is a fitting place for such a collection. Easy to access, yet far enough away that one is not constantly faced with its contents and the memories of defeat. Each award stands as a motivating token that reminds Mouritzen of how far G.W. Graham and Chilliwack’s basketball communities have come and how much further he still wants to take them.
Phrases like ‘not quite,’ ‘not our year,’ ‘maybe next time,’ and ‘fell just short’ had grown all but too familiar for him. For years these phrases appeared in headlines in sports sections across the province.
Jake was a winner. A Fraser Valley AA champion. An Eastern Valley Athletic Association champion. The G.W. Graham Grizzlies had become an annual provincial contender. But not a provincial champion.
It is the dawn of basketball season and a thin November fog gently drifts across the mountain faces that enclose Chilliwack’s hills and valleys. As Mouritzen makes his way to G.W Graham, he does so with a mission and a goal in mind: to a win British Columbia provincial championship.
At 5:30 a.m. the lights of an empty gym at G.W. Graham blink to life. Mouritzen has opened the door for a group of Grizzlies who are hungry for practice. They have tasted victory and they have endured loss. Today and each day for the next four months they will repeat a morning routine of stretches, drills and scrimmages in the pursuit of reversing a fortune they and their coach know too well.
The Klim twins, six-foot-ten Matthias and six-foot-nine Zach, are developing their post-game. Guards Clay Kurtz and Cairo Almarez are working on their shots while swingman Jude Hall develops his handle and drive. The team knows the value of training. In a game where every point counts, so does every minute of practice.
But for Jake, a provincial championship is just that. A title. Commemorative in nature, but far less enduring than the characteristics he hopes to instill in each player that walks through his gym each morning. He knows these players will walk out those same doors a final time before likely graduating to a life beyond basketball.
“It’s really easy when you’ve got a lot of people that are counting on you and more importantly are motivated to be there,” Mouritzen said about the early morning practices. “I want them to take what they learned with us and do great things in life. It’s about work ethic, believing in family, treating each other with respect and love. I’ve seen guys already go and do that.”
The habits born today will serve as the foundation that will define tomorrow. Four months from now, Mouritzen and his Grizzlies would find out exactly what their habits had set the stage for.
A coach’s pedigree
Creating opportunities for youth is central to Mouritzen’s mandate. As a former student-athlete himself, he knows how beneficial a life enriched by athletics and the camaraderie afforded by sport can be.
Mouritzen was born into a hard-working family in Guelph, Ont. His family moved out west when his father got a job in B.C. in 1979. The Mouritzen’s nestled into Yarrow where Jake’s father and mother still live today.
Mouritzen credits his parents for the work ethic that has come to be synonymous with G.W. Graham’s basketball program.
At 67 years old, his father continues his work as an agronomist assessing the health of crops and soil while his mother does not fail to remind Jake and his wife Sarah that they work too hard. In addition to coaching, Jake is also G.W. Graham’s athletic director and helps advise a number of Chilliwack’s recreation and sporting initiatives, while his wife Sarah is also a financial advisor.
Mouritzen attended Sardis Secondary School where he excelled at basketball and soccer. He then went on to pursue a degree in education at the University of Victoria. He didn’t play his first couple of seasons but had the fortune of learning from one of the great coaches in Canadian soccer history, Bruce Wilson.
A three-time U SPORTS Coach of the Year, Wilson schooled his players on the importance of preparation and skill development. The two pillars stuck with Mouritzen as he got his chance to play after sitting his first two seasons. Over his tenure at Victoria, Mouritzen had the opportunity to be part of a championship culture and also to experience both victory and defeat. The Victoria Vikes defeated the Western Mustangs to claim the national championship in 1996, only to see a reverse of fortune in 1999 as Western defeated Alberta on Victoria’s home field to claim the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) title.
Mouritzen graduated from Victoria as an All-Canadian academic student-athlete. However, it was his work off of the pitch that pointed him toward building a career in coaching. In between varsity athletics and academics, Mouritzen had taken up coaching at Shoreline Community Middle School. The school and its athletic programs had little resources to spare, but thanks to a “great group of kids,” the team was able to exceed expectations and left a lasting impression on Mouritzen.
“That was my first introduction to coaching basketball. I took a team that had never won a game and we went and played and I got them into some tournaments. We had a really awesome year and it was the first lightbulb on where I was like, ‘Wow, I can really make a difference by coaching,’” Mouritzen said.
Roughly six years later Jake would be asked once again to take over a program that had not won a game. Only this time it would be for a school that had never played a game or had a class at all.
From the ground up
The year was 2006 and a new school in Chilliwack was getting ready to open its doors and was on the lookout for individuals who could help sculpt and build the school’s arrival in the community.
The school, G.W. Graham Secondary, was originally meant to be an arts focused school, Mouritzen said. But that did not stop the young coach from carving out a role for himself. Mouritzen had been working at Sardis Secondary for the past few years and was a part of the coaching staff for both the school’s basketball and soccer programs.
The school was clear in its intention to build a foundation for the arts to flourish, but Mouritzen was able to convince administration that the new school had an opportunity to help write a new chapter in Chilliwack’s sports history. G.W. Graham could become a more generalized school with a course offering and resources for students who wanted to be versed in the arts or sports.
The Graham Grizzlies were born in 2006. Mouritzen’s dreams were just beginning to take shape.
“I was literally hired when the gym was a hole in the ground. We didn’t have school colours, we didn’t have a mascot,” Mouritzen said. “I wanted to create as many elite level opportunities for kids in as many sports as we could and I didn’t feel like I had those growing up, so that was our goal.”
Building a contender is not an overnight process. Mouritzen knew that there would be struggles and losses. A lot of them. In order to improve over the years, Mouritzen knew that G.W. Graham could not just rely on talent for a competitive edge. It had to build a culture.
Ask those in and around the Fraser Valley and Chilliwack’s basketball communities what the ethos at the heart of Mouritzen’s Grizzlies is and ‘family’ and ‘culture’ are the answers you will frequently get.
“The word I would start off with is culture. I’ve told people that they’re a top school no matter what tier you’re looking at – top five when it comes to having an athletic culture at their school. One of their biggest sports is basketball and the moment you step into that school you’re going to be welcomed as a player,” Kyle Graves said. Graves is a Chilliwack native who has both played and coached at Sardis Secondary and the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) and now is the founder and owner of Chilliwack Basketball Club.
The notion of being welcoming is crucial for Mouritzen, especially considering that G.W. Graham’s inception coincided with the rise of club basketball. Club basketball offers registration-based and private basketball programming facilitated by basketball practitioners with an intent to offer structured training, practice and playing opportunities outside of the typical high school season of November through March.
Mouritzen saw an opportunity to bridge his players’ development with the progression of his club program, TransCanada Basketball. Boys and girls from the Grizzlies would compete for their school during the winter, and in the spring and summer would supplement their development through club training and competition offered by TransCanada Basketball.
“TransCanada is the first program that was introduced in my tenure that lasted and it was quality and the membership of that program just got more and more kids playing the sport every year. So right away, you’re growing the sport from the grassroots level and then these kids are going on to play at Mt. Slesse and Vedder Middle School and then they’re going to Graham. He’s coaching kids that have been with him one way or another for seven or eight years,” said Eric Welsh, a reporter at the Chilliwack Progress who has covered the Chilliwack sports scene throughout Mouritzen’s tenure.
The two-way street between TransCanada and G.W. Graham has seen many players rise through the ranks of Chilliwack basketball. Brothers Gabe and Lucas Mannes have both gone on to play university basketball. On the girls side, Kaitlyn McDonald and Deanna Tuchscherer are both G.W. Graham grads that have taken their talents to the UFV Cascades.
The now self-replenishing lineage of basketball talent that populates the Grizzlies’ teams has been a long time coming. Mouritzen would not have believed it if you had you told him in 2006 that one day he’d be regaling the tales of such humble beginnings 14 years later to a group of juniors and senior players minutes before a shot at a provincial championship.
“From day one it was about building a culture that focused around family and we’ve gotten to a point where we’re well known for that, but the first idea is that it would be caring and inclusive,” Mouritzen said.
And build it he has.
Fast forward to Saturday, March 7, 2020 and Mouritzen is surrounded by perhaps the most well-rounded team that he has had a chance to coach at G.W. Graham. The Grizzlies are fresh off an emotional 50-49 win over 2019 provincial runner-up Vernon the night prior. Minutes before tip-off of the championship game, Mouritzen wanted to remind his group of how far the team and G.W. Graham as a school had come.
It started with the Grizzlies’ inaugural season.
“We didn’t win a game. Not a game in basketball, not a game in soccer,” Mouritzen remembered with a laugh. “We lost every single game we played in every single sport. So, it was hard. Nobody wanted to come to Graham because nobody knew what it was going to be about.”
Then there was the 2011 provincial championship in Kamloops. Mouritzen took a confident group of Grizzlies to Kamloops. They had earned their first-ever birth at the senior boy’s basketball provincials in 2010 and were not short on confidence as Mannes (Lucas) and Fran Armengual led the charge up the Coquihalla to Kamloops. Buoyed by youthful zeal and a bit of swagger, the Grizzlies were unable to inch past St. Thomas More Collegiate of Burnaby, falling to the Knights 72-46.
It was an important learning experience for Mouritzen and his players. It was the team’s second consecutive provincial appearance and Mannes and company had entered the tournament with plenty of confidence.
Mouritzen himself thought the team had a great chance. He recalled having 13 Grade 12s on the team – a rare surplus of age and leadership that any coach would hope to have on their roster. Mannes had been quoted by the Chilliwack Progress prior to the tournament as saying, “We think we’re the team to beat in AA.” Some say the pressure of expectations got to them.
Mouritzen would tell you they game planned too heavily for one player and stayed in zone defence for too long. The Grizzlies were sent back to the drawing board.
“There was a lot of crying, and I’ve been in a lot of changerooms with crying, but they wanted it so bad,” said Mouritzen, who estimated that he and the team’s coaching staff spent three and a half hours consoling his players after the loss. “Those boys wouldn’t leave the changeroom. Eventually I had to get all their mums, not dads, mums because they just wanted to hug their mums and sit in there.”
Despite the loss, Mouritzen credits the 2011 class for putting “Graham on the map.”
It was a loss that forced Mouritzen to pause and reflect. He knew exactly how his players felt. He had lost a heartbreaking national championship bid as a player in the late 1990s with Victoria. Just over a decade later, he felt the sting of defeat once more. This time as a coach. Over the course of a teary-eyed drive back to Chilliwack through B.C.’s interior, Mouritzen realized that he and his program needed to do more.
The correlation between TransCanada and G.W. Graham would grow stronger over the next nine years. Along the way Mouritzen and the Grizzlies would win more regional titles, earn more trips to provincials – all the while laying the groundwork for a Grizzlies family that would have a chance at solidifying its ascension a near decade later.
“Besides my loss at the national championships in soccer it was the toughest loss I’ve ever had,” Mouritzen said. “Every one of those losses though, especially that one, was an opportunity for me to understand that we have to work harder because obviously we’re not doing enough.”
‘This place is going to explode’
The senior boys high school basketball season is just a few weeks old and Mouritzen has already lost his voice. Christmas is less than three weeks away and the G.W. Graham Grizzlies are at the Tsumura Basketball Invitational, which takes place annually at the Langley Events Centre.
The tournament is hosted by Howard Tsumura, a former sports journalist for the Vancouver Province. These days, Tsumura is the man behind Varsity Letters and is B.C.’s leading journalist when it comes to all things high school sports, especially basketball.
It is not easy to categorize Mouritzen as a coach. Calling him demonstrative would be too easy. Yes, a hoarse voice just in time for the holidays might be the telltale sign of a coach who wants to win, but it’s more than that, noted Tsumura.
“If anything that Jake does, anything that defines him—this year in his case—there was a spirit within him that when you talked to him, you just had this feeling that he knew he had the guys to do it, he just wanted the full buy in and an opportunity for that to come together all at the right time.”
The scratchy post-game day voice is Mouritzen’s calling card in Chilliwack, agreed Graves. This past season Mouritzen filled in for a game as coach of G.W. Graham’s Grade 10 team against Graves’ Sardis Falcons. This was not Mouritzen’s direct team, but they were part of his Grizzlies family. That meant he would take the game as seriously as every other game.
The Grizzlies were down by two points when a G.W. Graham player was fouled with 0.3 seconds left. The G.W. Graham stepped to the line and calmly hit all three free throws to seal the comeback win for the Grizzlies. Mouritzen did not hide his reaction.
“It wasn’t anything he did coaching wise in that exact moment, but the excitement he had for his player to be able to shine in that moment was cool to see,” Graves said.
Mouritzen does not just make time for those involved with basketball. Many in Chilliwack have found themselves short on time after sitting down with Mouritzen for what was intended to be a brief chat or a cup of coffee. If not careful, a 15-minute meeting can turn into an hourlong conversation, said Welsh, who as the local reporter is aware of the unseen hours the Mouritzen and the Grizzlies have put into their program.
Regardless of the extra hours, “He’ll go the extra mile for anybody who needs help,” Welsh said. “It feels so natural talking to Jake about whatever subject is on his or my mind. That’s just the way it is with kids in his program. They respect the work that he puts into it and they respect the way that he treats them on and off the court.”
But according to Tsumura, Mouritzen’s memory and empathetic approach toward treating his players are what set him apart.
Every game has meaning. Every moment has merit. Every play is a step toward reaching the top. Ask Mouritzen to chronologize the awards, the wins and the losses and he can tell you where, when and by how much in a matter of seconds.
Each game has left an indelible mark etched in the mind of a coach who wants his players to experience the provincial pinnacle of high school basketball together.
It is Mouritzen’s precision of memory that conjured both a look of restraint and passion that was on full display at the final game of the 2020 B.C. Boys AAA High School Basketball Championship.
The Grizzlies were taking on Prince George’s Duchess Park Condors, a team that just two months prior had thumped the Grizzlies 108-88 at the St. Thomas More Chancellor Invitational.
No one at the Langley Events Centre was more aware of the stakes than Mouritzen. He knew how far his team had come, he knew what his players had sacrificed and he knew the scene.
His good friend Vlad was sitting in row one. Throughout the game he had been glancing back at Vlad for advice. With 33 seconds left in the game and his team up by 10, that glance had turned into a look searching for reassurance. Vlad nodded.
Sarah was sitting in the far corner. She nodded too. This moment was real. The cheers of the crowd that had reverberated throughout the building the previous three quarters had turned into the anticipatory hum that only a hometown crowd ready to celebrate could make. It felt like all of G.W. Graham was in attendance.
For more than 39 minutes of the game Jake had patrolled the sidelines; moving and gesturing with the ebbs and flows of the game.
“Physically, his body moves based on what’s happening on the court. So, if it’s a miss – a kind of lurch. If it’s a great shot that goes in – a fist pump with an aggressive look on his face,” said Paul Yates, founder of Vancouver Sports Pictures.
But in the final 30 seconds, Mouritzen’s movements grew still and he allowed reality to sink in. The final buzzer rung. Grizzlies: 79. Condors: 67. The G.W. Graham Grizzlies were AAA provincial champions.
What ensued next was a mixture of fanfare that Yates likened to that of a “stampede.” Centre court became a sea of blue as fans clad in navy spilled onto the hardwood and mobbed the Grizzlies roster. Players collapsed left and right as friends, family and supporters mobbed the Grizzlies. Bodies disappeared from view and Yates knew that he did not have a chance to capture the players amid the swamp of bodies, at least not immediately.
“It was like one of those things where it’s just like, ‘This place is going to explode.’ And it did. It just went nuts,” said Yates, who had made his way behind the sideline when he caught sight of Mouritzen.
The veteran coach walked toward his family, hugged his kids first and then stared at Sarah in disbelief.
No words needed to be said. The two shared a smile and absorbed the moment. The Grizzlies family had earned its first title.
Nearly a month later, Mouritzen still struggles to explain the experience. He answered questions about the game by phone while his wife Sarah chimed in every now and then to clarify a date or detail. Their collection of titles now has one notable addition, with more to come.
Sarah’s senior girls team lost two consecutive AA provincial finals against South Kamloops Secondary in 2018 and 2019 and are building toward contending again. Jake believes his senior boys team can repeat as champions.
The Mouritzen’s can live with the times they come up short on the court. Each defeat has only brought them and their players closer. Win or lose, Jake hopes the lessons learned from basketball extend beyond sport for his Grizzlies family and family at home.
“I always tell kids that we’re tricking them with sports to teach them life skills because we want them to do great things in the world and I honestly believe that’s what we’re doing at Graham. One day your basketball career will be over, but you’ll be able to take those skills and do other great things,” Mouritzen said.
“My little boy is only 10 years old and all he wants to do is put on a Graham jersey. We got a pretty special life.”