From bench warmer to guard in the spotlight

Hard work and perseverance have helped Hyacks' co-captain to a key starting position

Not all opportunities are created equal.

But when a good one appears, the more determined players grab it for all they’ve got.

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New Westminster’s Mo Al-Ghreibawi is doing just that.

The co-captain of the Hyacks senior boys basketball team, Al-Ghreibawi has high expectations for this final season – as do his teammates. On paper, the feisty underdogs of the Burnaby-New West league have a lot of the components that could see them give provincial finalists Byrne Creek and 4-A champion Burnaby South some restless quarters.

However, staying with those highly ranked rivals for a full 40 minutes? Let’s say there are doubters around.

None of them are wearing orange and black, however.

Al-Ghreibawi knows something about being unranked, having spent most of the past three seasons as a support player with limited floor time.

Those experiences, however, didn’t define him. But they did motivate him.

“It’s always tough just sitting and watching, especially when you’re part of the team and want to get in,” Al-Ghreibawi said Tuesday after his team racked up a comfortable 97-76 exhibition win over visiting Centennial. “It just made me want to work harder for (this) year, more than anything to push me more in the summer and offseason to keep grinding and just trying to get better to get where I am now. I feel proud in myself now that I’m here.”

“Here” is a starting role with the club, where his teammates put his name forward as one to lead. It’s also a position from where he can be a good influence and help in the team’s pursuit of a lengthy playoff run.

Make no bones about it, watching others play is not only difficult, but for some it’s a hard pill to swallow. But the Grade 12 point guard says he made it pay off and isn’t about to take a step back.

“Guys can take it one of two ways; some people get frustrated and don’t want to play anymore; and some people get benched and take that as motivation and inspiration and that’s what I chose to do with it,” he said.

He was in good form Tuesday, as New West broke open a three-point game early in the second quarter with an 11-3 run that included one of Al-Ghreibawi’s three treys on the night. He finished with 15 points, while teammate Ethan Rivas powered to a team-high 20 points. Luke Burton chipped in with 14 points.

It came on the heels of the team’s 1-3 record at the Cariboo Hill tourney, where head coach Ted Cusick chose to sit his starters and give the floor time to his bench.

While they bettered the host squad 88-72, New West’s ‘B’ team dropped a pair of games to No. 7-ranked Vancouver College by an aggregate of 205-147, with the Vancouver school playing all its regulars.

“We lost to Vancouver College twice, and they didn’t sit their guys,” noted Cusick. “We’ll remember that – and we meet them first round in the Terry Fox Legal Beagle (in January). That will be a fun one for us to remember.”

For Al-Ghreibawi, watching from the sidelines this time was different.

“I feel it was a good learning experience for both the bench and the starters, and it was a real good idea by coach, because some games the entire bench doesn’t get in. Having an entire tournament dedicated to them was definitely a good idea, and good for their confidence.”

He’s been there. Having watched last year’s team fall short at the Lower Mainlands was difficult, wanting to be on the floor and help be a difference maker. Using his own experience as a tool to support his fellow teammates is the sign of a leader.

“In junior I was on the bench, I was like the sixth man. I felt I could have started then but my coach thought otherwise,” he said.

 “I know what it feels like. This is my first year getting big minutes, so it’s really exciting for me. I’m definitely trying to make sure they know I understand what they’re going through.”

His emergence as a sparkplug wasn’t set in stone, but with a new coach coming in – Cusick last coached senior boys three years ago, but took over from Arno Richter last spring – there was a fresh chance.

“He was on the second string last year, and I thought back in April, he may have trouble making it,” recalled Cusick. “I had my doubts about it because he was way down the list and didn’t play much. But he worked on it over the summer. His shot improved and he’s a smart player. He was smart from Day 1. He’s just worked out real well. I’m really happy with him.”

The team faces plenty of obstacles before playoffs arrive. The first pitfalls are some tough league opponents – led by the aforementioned highly ranked Burnaby South and Byrne Creek. New West hosts its annual Bob Gair Classic, starting Dec. 19 with the likes of Alpha, A.R. McNeill, Maple Ridge and Enver Creek in attendance.

On Boxing Day, the squad heads to Seattle to play in the Franklin Tournament of Champions, where they have been plugged in as the host’s first opponent.

No doubt, the Franklin Quakers expect a game where they can ramp it up and excite the home crowd. Cusick said the Hyacks go with their eyes wide open.

“The home team, we play them first so we’re cannon fodder,” said the bench boss, who is in his 46th year of high school coaching. “That’s fine. It’ll be a packed house and we’ll get demolished, supposedly. That’s going to be fun. They’ll learn so much by watching, plus we’ll travel as a team, live as a team.”

It’s part-and-parcel with being an underdog, Al-Ghreibawi said. And he embraces that.

“I like being the underdog, it’s really so rewarding when you come out, all odds against you and you topple the team you’re going up against,” he said.


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