It was common knowledge a year ago that the Kelowna Owls had the personnel to compete with the best teams in B.C. high school boys basketball.
In fact, with senior big man Braxston Bunce up front and Grade 12 Mitch Goodwin patrolling the backcourt, the Kelowna Secondary School 3A team was ranked No. 1 going into the 2011-12 season.
Fast forward to last week, and few prognosticators had the newest edition of the Black and Gold on their radar. Prior to the prestigious Telus Basketball Classic in the Lower Mainland on the weekend the Owls weren't among the top-10-ranked teams or even an honourable mention.
But with three wins in four games and a third-place finish at the Telus, the Owls are back in the provincial viewfinder.
Most importantly for coach Harry Parmar is his own team's realization that it can compete with the elite.
"That was probably the biggest positive we came away with - that our guys now know we're not that far away from the top teams in the province," said Parmar after his Owls upset a pair of top-ranked teams, including honourable mention Vancouver College Fighting Irish 82-70 for third place in the 16-team tournament at UBC's War Memorial Gymnasium on the weekend.
"And the guys are aware we hadn't had a lot of practice time together prior to the tournament, so the Coast teams are a bit more polished than we are at this point. I would like to think we probably have a lot more room for improvement than they do."
The Owls' march to bronze during the four-day event also included a "surprising" 76-72 win over the No. 7-ranked St. George's Saints of Vancouver and a 91-66 waltz by unranked Sir Charles Tupper Tigers (Vancouver) on opening day.
The only loss (80-70) came at the hands of the province's top-ranked Kitsilano Blue Demons, the eventual winners, who knocked off the White Rock Christian Warriors (No. 3) of Surrey 81-70 in the final.
Even the setback against Kits was cause for some optimism in the KSS camp.
"We didn't play well at all against them. We were two steps behind for most of the game," noted Parmar. "It's one thing to play well and lose, but quite another to play that poorly and still being able to hang with them (the Owls were within six points late in the game). The guys realize they can play with that team."
Shooting only 26 per cent in the first half, the Owls played catchup the entire game against the Blue Demons.
According to Parmar, it was team defence that kept the Owls within striking distance. The other positive came in the form of a balanced offensive attack.
Five players - Joel Burma (14), Malcolm Hlady (13), Buzz Truss (13), Cooper Simson (10) and John Katerberg (10) - reached double figures.
In the third-place showdown, the Owls showed a lot more energy, but Parmar said his team could have easily outscored the Fighting Irish by more than 10 points.
"We're still not competing on every possession. We could have put away College a lot earlier," he assured. "We take plays off - not playing to the best of our ability - and we seem to be satisfied with a 10-12-point lead."
Truss, voted to the tournament's first all-star team, led the Owls with 25 points and 10 rebounds against the Irish, while Burma kicked in with 17, to go along with nine points and 10 rebounds by Hlady.
The Owls showed character against St. George's, rebounding from an early deficit to take control for the final three quarters.
Katerberg broke loose for 26 points with the help of six baskets from beyond the arc. Truss contributed 19, while Darrion Bunce scored 13 and Burma added 12.
In the opener against Tupper, Hlady and Truss each scored 20 points.
"Overall, it was a good weekend for us, especially coming away with the knowledge we can compete," said Parmar, who sees his team moving up to the top five in the provincial rankings this week. "But of course we're not nearly where we need to be yet. There's still a lot of work to be done."
FREE THROWS: Burma and Liam McGoran were both awarded $1,000 scholarships at the Telus tournament for their high academic standing and basketball prowess. . . . The Owls dropped from the honourable mention category a week earlier when they lost two of three games at the Kamloops Invitational tournament. . . . KSS was playing without Bunce, Truss and Simson. . . . The Owls are home to the Mt. Boucherie Bears today beginning at 7:45 p.m. . . . That matchup will be preceded by the 3A Boucherie-KSS girls game starting at 6 p.m. . . . Boucherie boys is coming off a 50-49 win over the Salmon Arm Gold last week. . . . One of the youngest senior teams in the Okanagan Valley, the Bears received a 16-point effort from Quincey Johnson. Alex Josipovic added 12 points and 12 rebounds. . . . The Boucherie girls, coached by former KSS Owls, Ashley Bedwell and Jillian Kirk, fell 56-42 to Salmon Arm. Kailee Nicholl was the player-of-the-game in a losing cause. She finished with 11 points.