As 27 young men paced the court at Centennial’s main campus gym on the final day of try-outs on Friday, vying for a place in Ontario’s fastest-rising college program, Tristan Stern stood on the side taking it all in.
Last season with a new gym, new uniforms, and new expectations, a relatively inexperienced Centennial Colts went 18-2 in league play, good for best in Ontario at the college level.
It all came together faster than Stern or anybody involved with the team could have foreseen.
“The first day we had a practice, I believe, was at a church,” remembers Stern. “The gym wasn’t finished so I didn’t think anything of it.
“After probably about the first week I realized that our team was going to be very good.”
It has been a rapid turnaround for a team that went 7-13 in the 2010-11 season, the last of three consecutive sub-.500 campaigns.
Stern, a Whitby native, led the turnaround posting 15.6 points per game on a league-leading 57.6% from the floor, 8.4 rebounds and 26 total blocks, second in the OCAA.
His play earned him OCAA rookie of the year, and a spot on both the East division first-team all-stars and first-rookie team.
Now the place to be, many new faces at the try-out join an already youthful returning core hoping to build on last season’s successes and shortcomings.
After leading the OCAA through the regular season, the youth of the Colts showed, when, in the quarter-finals of the Ontario playoffs, Centennial’s age caught up to them resulting in a 73-69 loss to Mohawk College and their experienced backcourt including all-Canadian select guard Aminu Bello.
“What I found was when we lost to Mohawk, and they’re a very good team, but their guards are fourth- and fifth-year players and they really controlled the game,” said head coach Jim Barclay, who won OCAA East coach of the year last season.
“When we played against them we still lost by just four points and our guards were first- and second-year players, so I think that made a big difference.”
This season, the players that were new last year are the veterans and they’ll try to impart to the incoming talent the lessons they learned from a tough season of highs and lows.
“It fueled me throughout the summer because knowing that we could have been that much closer, throughout the summer I was in the gym almost every day I could be,” said Stern.
“From about nine in the morning until about one or two, just get my time in and my shots up so I’d be ready for the season.”
Point guard Natiel McKenzie sees next season as “a stepping stone,” that will help the team improve.
“I don’t believe that 18-2 is where we should put our heads at,” said McKenzie, who in his first season recorded a league-high 64 steals, won the East defensive player of the year award, and was named to the East all-rookie team along with teammate Stern.
“A 20-0 season is where we should be and it’s the beginning of a new year so there’s high expectations for the guys that are coming in that weren’t with us last year to just be hungry like we were.”
Once the final cuts are made and the roster is set, a select few of the 27 hopefuls will join the quest to make it back to the playoffs with experience earned the hard way last season.
“I expect that we’re strong enough to be contenders for first place in the East and my expectations are that we go further in the playoffs,” said Barclay.
“We’ve got to set our sites to win Ontario and win the Canadians, and I don’t think anybody who’s coming back would have any different expectations.”