Strong start for rebuilding Courtenay basketball team

The Isfeld Ice senior boys basketball team is in a rebuilding year, considering the loss of two key starters, and longtime head coach Tom Elwood.

Elwood has retired, Thaskani Mtawali has graduated to college-level ball, and Aiden McDonald no longer attends the Courtenay high school. Nevertheless, the 3A Ice has compiled a 7-1 win-loss record in the early stages of the 2019/20 season.

Thaskani’s brother, Temwa, a 15-year-old provincial team player, has largely taken over as team leader. The Grade 10 was sidelined with a sprained ankle heading into the annual Ice Breaker Tourney on the weekend. The host Ice lost to eventual winner, St. Jean Brebeuf of Abbotsford, but rallied to win the next two games, and the consolation side of the draw.

“It’s tough to replace a 30-point player,” said Dikran Zabunyan, who has taken over head coaching duties. “We had to adjust and make some changes. The guys did a helluva job. It’s a great learning experience for the other kids, to pitch in and get better.”

Before Mtawali’s injury, he notes Isfeld had been the top-ranked 3A team on Vancouver island, and is seeded among the top 10 in B.C.

Zabunyan became a Campbell River resident this year. He is the area general manager of Painter’s Lodge in Campbell River, April Point on Quadra Island and the Quarterdeck in Port Hardy. Before entering hotel management, he had played professional basketball in his home country of Turkey, and collegiate basketball in Toronto, which became home at age 12.

“I haven’t coached high school basketball in years,” Zabunyan said. “I’ve been coaching pro basketball. I coached the Vancouver Dragons before this. We won the MLBA (Minor League Basketball Association) championship. We were 25-2.”

He had previously spent 14 years coaching at the pro level in Toronto. In August, Zabunyan was inducted into the P.H.A.S.E. 1 Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Trying to make a contribution to the game,” he said. “Ironically, coach Elwood is from Ontario as well. He was a helluva coach. I have big shoes to fill. But it’s been lots of fun.”

Along with instilling a sense of team play, Zabunyan is trying to teach some lessons to the players at Isfeld.

“I’m a lunch bucket kind of guy,” he said. “I earned everything I’ve done in my life. I’m trying to teach them that. They’re great kids. Every night I see them, they thank me for being there for them. I’ve never, ever experienced that in my life.”

Besides Mtawali, the Ice roster includes Grade 12 forward Zach Taylor, who scored 36 points in the opening game at the Ice Breaker.

“And then Sam (Purcell), our captain with Temwa, he moved to the point guard position, and he had 24 points,” Zabunyan said.

Karman Candola, a junior-age player who spends some time with the seniors, scored 32 of the team’s 111 points in the league opener against Alberni.

“My philosophy is to try to hit 100 (points) a game,” said Zabunyan, who hopes to win 20 games this season. “Get better every day. That’s our motto.

“We are going to surprise some people this year,” Zabunyan added. “We’re going to be real good next year. Nobody gave us a chance this year to do anything, and next thing you know, we’re 7-1 out of the gate.”

The Ice lost 53-52 to Carihi in their second league game, Tuesday in Campbell River. Michael Aguilar led Isfeld in scoring with 21 points. Two of the eight members played sparingly due to illness.

This weekend is the annual Santa Slam Tourney at Mount Douglas in Victoria.

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