2015-2016 team sporting new home uniforms. Photo supplied by Chris Niketas

© Copyright – 2016 – Victoria Sports News

The Victoria High School boys basketball team – the Totems – accomplished this year, something that they have not done in at least two decades: dress a winning team, in winning uniforms. It is through the passion of alumnus Tak Niketas, who has coached and managed the team from a rag-tag group of misdirected youth over three seasons that they are where they are now: off to compete for the Island Championships in Nanaimo on Thursday, February 25th.

Since the days when Walt Christianson ran the program as the Totems’ Athletic Director during the 1990s and until John Cole took over and now with Niketas as the basketball coach, for the team, winning has been of scorched earth. “When I arrived, we didn’t even have proper uniforms, the kids were playing in phys ed pinnies. They needed to have a proper uniform to feel a sense of school pride and team pride, as well as at least look the part,” said Niketas. “Thanks to some help from the City of Victoria, we do at least have a home uniform to play in as well as team-branded hoodies.”

It is a small ask when considering that Oak Bay High School just put the bow on a $51-million dollar building, the University of Victoria spent $77 million on their outstanding sports facilities (CARSA), Belmont Secondary built a brand new school with an apparent initial budget of $53-million and the construction of the new Royal Bay High School costs were rumoured to be around $40 million. The lights alone were paid for with a $50,000 grant from Phillips.

In all fairness, uniform budgets come from a different place than do the megabucks to build new schools and athletic facilities. Vic High is currently receiving their own modest upgrades with support from the City of Victoria, Bays Soccer Club and the Vic High Alumni Association as they have raised money towards Vic High getting a new track, pitch and field house – after 65 years.

But $2000 is proverbial couch change in comparison to hundreds of millions spent for construction around Greater Victoria.

For the oldest school west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco, with its rich history and while representing the province’s capital in name, it is quite pathetic to think the Totems competed in gym class pinnies.

Many notable Victorians graduated from Vic High – the only high school that is located in the city proper, including legendary artist Emily Carr, David Anderson who was a federal Cabinet Minister, hip hop artist Filip Filipi and international rugby player Mark Wyatt, to name just a few. It’s been a long time, but the Totems used to win. They won the provincial Triple-A title for the first time in 1956. They won again in ’62, ’66 and 69.

Vic High was originally built in 1876. The current building was constructed in 1914 and has undergone many renovations and additions since.

The Vic High, 440-yard track was built to the specifications of the old imperial system of weights and measures in 1951 – 65-years ago, long before tracks were made to the metric specifications of 400-metres. The surface is sand, as opposed to rubber, which has been commonplace since the 1970s and the stadium is tired, bland and often tagged by graffiti artists.

The school’s modest renovations will cost just $6.5 million, 12% of Oak Bay’s project.

About those uniforms…

bbal3“We need a second uniform so that if we end up playing a team that has a light-coloured uniform we can actually play. In theory, we could be disqualified for not having a road uniform – of a dark colour,” said Niketas. Niketas is looking for just $2000 for a second uniform for the team. It’s a small price tag for providing a sense of school pride as well as letting the team compete, should they make the provincials.

Currently the team is made up of two Grade 10 students, while the rest are in Grade 11, there are no Grade 12 students on the team. The 2016-2017 season promises to be an exciting one for the historic school.

Catchment issues

On April 16, 2002 Christie Clark, then the Minister of Education, dropped the catchment policy for schools in a news release titled, “CHANGES TO SCHOOL ACT EMPOWER PARENTS” which, according to the release would empower parents to have greater control over their children’s education, which included allowing students to attend any school they wish, “providing that space was available”, the document read.

At that time Totem’s now Athletic Director John Cole (he was not the athletic director at the time) said, “This will kill competitive sports for High Schools.” The prediction in a sense has come to fruition. Often kids in Greater Victoria will choose a different school than the one they live near. Oak Bay is an attractive high school, because of their long history of winning as well as currently having a brand new state of the art building; it waters down the talent pool for everyone else.

Photos supplied by Chris Niketas

“Oak Bay will have something like 40 kids show up for tryouts, while a dozen or so make the team. The rest play on the B-squad or don’t play at all, while they could be playing for another school,” said Niketas. Currently, Oak Bay has two kids who live in Fairfield and one that lives across the street from Vic High. They would have been Totems under the old system.

Niketas’s goal when his son Chris began at Vic High was to help the Totems become a competitive team again, just as they were in the past.  The open catchment program made it a challenge, but Niketas is a fighter.

A competitive athlete in several sports, Niketas grew up in Fairfield, attended Sir James Douglas Elementary, Central Junior High (now a middle school) and Vic High, graduating as class valedictorian in 1983. He played competitive hockey, volleyball and baseball, including making the provincial championships in volleyball in 1983.

The first year Niketas coached the Totems basketball team in 2013-2014, they started in the modest B-division. Their record was 3-7 on the season; it was a start. The following year, with mostly Grade-10 students, they made the play-offs in the Double-A division. “We lost to Oak Bay, then played Belmont and took them to double overtime, losing by just two points. This was a step in the right direction and something to build on,” said Niketas.

And build is what they did. The team this year is made up of mostly Grade 11 students. Niketas coached at the same three schools that he attended, Sir James Douglas School, then at Central Middle School. When Chris moved up to Vic High for Grades 9-12, only four of the nine eligible kids followed them.

But it too was something to build on…

Niketas found out that one of his fellow firefighters, Matt Ashmead previously played basketball for the University of Victoria Vikes. It didn’t take him long to recruit Ashmead to come out to the Totems’ practices to help out. “As soon as I found out he played for the Vikes, I said to him. “Matt, you got to help us out.””

Part of the problem for the Totems was with who they were playing against during the season to qualify for City, Islands and Provincial championships. For example, the powerhouse teams would play Quadruple-A all season, and then when they went to the play-offs, they would drop down to Double-A and win, where the Totems played as a Double-A team throughout the season.  Niketas found a way around the powerhouses.

He asked to move the school to Triple-A, which included Reynolds, Mt. Doug, Royal Bay and Stelly’s. The move worked. Within the Island Triple-A division, for the 2015-2016 school year, the Totems finished in second place, however, the rankings are based on all play, including a team’s record against higher and lower divisions, which does not provide an even playing field for a lower team like the Totems.

As of February 17th the two Victoria powerhouses St. Michael’s University School (SMUS) and Lambrick Park Senior Secondary are listed as being in the Double-A division. They are ranked second and fifth in the province, respectively. Meanwhile Oak Bay is ranked fourth in the much tougher Quadruple-A division.

During the city finals, Vic High drew Mt. Doug and subsequently lost by 24 points, 65-41. The Totems then defeated Stelly’s and in so doing qualified for the Island finals, which are taking place in Nanaimo starting February 24th in a double knockout tournament. Lose twice, you are out. The rankings were settled in a convoluted manner where team’s records against each other were taken into account. The Totems somehow ranked fourth, ended up playing three additional times –once in a challenge game – to make the Islands.

Nanaimo is at least a one-hour and 40-minute drive from Victoria. Apparently the school cannot afford hotel costs or are unwilling to pay. It is handy that Niketas happens to be a firefighter and has a class 1 driver’s license. Niketas is not only the defacto manager and coach he is also the team bus driver.

Niketas is no stranger to competitive sports and is no stranger to fundraising.  For example when his close friend Simon Keith, a professional soccer player, found out that he needed a heart transplant to survive, it was a 20-year-old Niketas who raised $12,000 during 1986 to help with the expenses  associated with getting the life-saving surgery in Great Britain.

He is passionate. While talking with me about the team and the politics of school sports, he had to temper is enthusiasm. His passion for fair play and having an even playing field runs deep and it is that passion that gives him the edge as a coach and leader of the team. “These kids will play for me, because I demand it. I tell them, that if I am going to take time off of work to do this, I expect a similar type of commitment back. If you cannot show up for a practice how are you going to feed yourself if your employer fires you for not showing up? I demand an effort and they give it.”

Niketas will make the drive up to Nanaimo on Thursday as well as Friday. If they continue to win, he will be driving them again Saturday and again on Sunday. They will walk into the tournament with Totem pride and play hard for their coach and their school. Whether they win or lose, they will have demonstrated their will to play – something that has been missing for roughly two decades at Vic High.

“I just want the team to be able to play competitively within the division that they are in. The kid’s should be able to walk into the tournament with a sense of school pride. They should be proud to wear a Totems uniform,” shared Niketas.

The results are being noticed. “At recent games the refs and parents have been coming up to me and telling me how great it was that Vic High is finally competitive again,” shared Niketas.

Anyone wishing to donate to help the Vic High Totems compete and acquire the much-needed road uniforms see this page: Totem’s alumni facebook page.

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