Unless you’ve been under the proverbial basketball rock the last few years, the name Eastern Commerce will be unknown to you. But, if you have been following Canadian high school basketball, you’ll know that the Eastern Commerce Saints Senior Boys basketball team made history by becoming the first team to win four consecutive senior boys basketball provincial gold medals at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association (OFSAA). Head coach Roy Rana, has been at the helm for five years, and he is the architect of this squad that is the closest thing to a basketball dynasty since the Kobe/Shaq duo before the Lakers broke up.
Eastern went into this year’s OFSAA championship tournament as the second ranked team out of 16 squads. They easily went 3-0 in the preliminary games and then defeated Scarborough, Ontario’s West Hill Warriors 67-61 in the semi-finals. Then it was on to the final to take on the number one ranked Mother Teresa Titans. Some 2,500 screaming fans witnessed the Saints dribble their names into the record books by winning their 4th straight provincial title. With a score of 51-42 over the Titans, the school recorded its 7th OFSAA basketball gold medal.
Rana believed in his team despite the odds against a 4-peat. “We weren’t dominant. But when crunch time came we stepped up. The kids started to focus and used their championship experience.” Although the head coach knows the team has done something special, he is already looking forward to next year, “I don’t think we understand what we accomplished.” He goes on to say “The machine never stops rolling and there’s no time to bask, we must plan forward and are very proud and humbled by it.”
Now winning one provincial championship is tough enough… two even harder…three is darn near impossible. But, to win four gold medals in a row you must have commitment and discipline, as well as some great kids with big time basketball talent. All-Canadian guards Tyrone Mattison and Ronnie Williams poured in 11 points and 10 points respectively for the winners.
But don’t think that Eastern ballerz are just good on the court, because since the 1999-2000 season, 21 of the 22 senior team members have graduated with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. As well, 18 of the 22 graduates have gone on to play post secondary school hoops in either the CCAA, CIS or NCAA. Names like Tristan Blackwood, Jermaine Anderson and Kingsley Costain are some of the recent Eastern stars who have gone on to NCAA Division one programs.
At Eastern, the players are used to winning…losing is really never an option, and the coach credits the kids’ ability to step up and seize the moment as a reason they were able to win their 4th title. “When the games get tough, when the pressure builds and the stage gets larger, they always perform, they are WINNERS!”
Williams and Mattison are the official leaders of a squad that had only three players over 6-5, with most being around the 6-0 range. Obviously the team is size-challenged, but they play BIG. They have also bought into the philosophy of playing tough pressure defence and that’s what has set them apart from all the other elite teams in Canada.
The team is also extremely athletic and seeks to create opportunities for each other. Their unselfishness makes them a tough team to stop. Williams, a 6-0 guard, garnered several tournament MVP awards during the season, but even he doesn’t quite grasp yet what the team has done this year. “It’s kinda sinking in now. We made history and it feels really good. Maybe we don’t realize how big it is right now, maybe ten years from now we will finally realize what kind of goal we accomplished.”
He goes on to say, “We played in so many big tournaments and big games that we’re used to it and we know what we have to do to win the games and how focused we have to be and it gives us an upper hand.”
As for Mattison, he has become the first player to win 4 OFSAA golds, a record that will be very hard to break. He has been groomed from grade 9 onwards and is also having a hard time believing what the team has done. “It hasn’t sunk in yet, people have told me about it. It’s a great feeling to have.”
In terms of basketball in Toronto, several huge names come to mind: Jamal Magloire, Denham Brown, Phil Dixon, Rowan Barrett, Sherman Hamilton and Greg Francis to name a few. They all went on to play Division one basketball south of the border. Surprisingly, none have more than 2 OFSAA golds. Some didn’t even win one provincial gold in their storied high school careers, making Mattison’s feat even more remarkable. Mattison would definitely be in my Hall of Fame.
When you play basketball at Eastern you know who came before you. You know that Magloire and Colin Charles led the Saints to back-to-back championships in 1995 and 1996. You may have even heard of the 1982 provincial champs that were led by 6-5 big-time power forward Joe Alexander. So everyone who suits up in a Saints uniform and takes to the hardwood in the 70-seat gym that is their home court, is aware of the strong basketball pedigree that has existed for over three decades.
Magloire of course, has the greatest influence on Eastern’s program simply because he is the one that made it to the NBA. The 2004 All-Star has meant a lot to this program. He consistently reps for Eastern and coach Rana knows the value of Magloire’s success to his student athletes. “The kids look up to Jamaal. He’s been back a few times and spoken to the school population as a whole, not just the basketball players. He’s raised our profile from being a pretty good high school program to maybe the most high profile in the country.”
So what’s next for the champs? Well they are going to lose Williams and Mattison. Both have received scholarship offers from schools such as Purdue, Providence, Maine, San Diego, Wyoming and Monmouth. While Kedar Ahmed is the other key departing senior on the team.
So, can they get number five? Mattison thinks so. “Learie Duncan is a big key to getting number five, and Junior Cadougan is an unbelievable kid, one of the best in Canada.” Williams is also a believer. He notes “They definitely have a good shot despite losing three seniors because they have the talent to win as long as they play hard.” As for Rana, he feels Duncan, who will move to the point from the four spot, is the team’s leader. “He has the heart of a champion and these are the types of players that succeed in this program. He has all the mental and physical fortitude to get the job done.”
Now you can call Eastern anything, but just don’t call it a basketball factory. “I wouldn’t say it’s a basketball factory. What I’d say is it’s a great high school basketball program. A real emphasis on their academic support has helped guys move on,” says the coach. “I think people look at us as a factory because we’ve been able to move our athletes on to post-secondary education in Canada and the U.S. I think we’ve been very successful in moving kids on and keeping them in school.”
There is no doubt that Eastern Commerce will continue to develop quality basketball players that graduate and qualify for University or College, year after year. They simply possess the Gold Standard. With standards like that, these players cannot lose, on or off the court.