‘This team has a huge ceiling’: Tommies men’s basketball preview

The St. Thomas Tommies are seen playing against Mount Saint Vincent University at the Lady Beaverbrook Gym in this archive photo. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

With a record of four wins so far this pre-season, head coach of the St. Thomas University men’s basketball team John Hickey said “there’s still lots to work on.”

“We’re still early in the year,” said Hickey. “But it’s nice, our guys have competed well.”

Hickey and his coaching staff hope their versatile players will be an advantage when the time comes for regular-season Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association games and playoffs. During their Thanksgiving weekend trip to Quebec, all 14 team members played two of the three games.

“This is the most depth we’ve had,” said Hickey. “Whether it’s guarding, whether it’s shooting the ball, whether it’s rebounding – we’re excited about the level of player we have throughout the roster.” 

Eight of the 14 players on the roster haven’t worn a Tommies uniform before in ACAA. But even though they haven’t played at STU, the new recruits have close connections.

“This team has a huge ceiling – we’re only scratching the surface,” said Gayo Isaya, a third-year Tommies wing. “With the team we have, one through 14, we have all guys on board.”

Newcomers Isaya and Tyrese Paul are no strangers to basketball in the capital region. Second-year Isaya played at Fredericton High School, then played a season in Antigonish at St. Francis Xavier University. He came to STU because of his connection with assistant coach Dominic Laviolette, who was also a part of Isaya’s coaching staff at StFX. Fourth-year Paul played at Leo Hayes High School, then headed to Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax where he played until last season.

“I play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Isaya. “Getting to the rim is my number one strength, but my second one is [defending.] I want to set the tone on defense every time I step on the floor.”

Rookies Owen Amos and Evan Valanne were teammates at Miramichi Valley High School. Valanne’s older brother Travis played for the Tommies for four seasons and was a co-captain in his senior season in 2018-19. The Miramichi connection runs deep. Returning fourth-year guard Ian Watters also attended MVHS and his father, Jim Watters, coached all three former MVHS players.

First-year players Ben Dool and Shamus Cormier also have New Brunswick basketball roots. Dool started at Bernice MacNaughton High School, and Cormier at Bathurst High School.

John Hickey, left, is the head coach for the St. Thomas University Tommies Men’s Basketball team. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

“The fact that they’re from New Brunswick is great,” said Hickey. “It means local guys want to play at St. Thomas.”

With a fresh roster, the Tommies will rely on returning veteran players including guard Almin Dervisevic and forward Geoffrey Lavoie for leadership. Lavoie was named Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association All-Canadian in 2019-20 and Dervisevic was named ACAA All-Star.

“[Dervisevic and Lavoie] are obviously key figures for us,” said Hickey.

Other returning Tommies include guard Zachary Vautour and the 6’7” twin towers Ted Braden and Harrison Florean.

Looking ahead to the season

Isaya anticipates MSVU and Holland College will be tough opponents.

“Our league will be very good, but as it was two years ago, our expectation is to win,” said Hickey.

In 2019-20, Hickey’s rookie season as head coach, the Tommies went 12-6 in the regular season, placing third in the ACAA. But when they played at home in the Lady Beaverbrook Gymnasium (LBG) – known in New Brunswick sport circles as “The Pit”– they won 7-2. The Tommies will be hosting the ACAA championships in March.

“It’d be fantastic if we could get some people back in this place,” said Hickey. “We’re excited and hopeful to fill the pit.”

The Tommies hosted their annual Ken Gould Tournament this past weekend, with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the LBG. They open the regular season at home against Mount Allison on Oct. 29 at 8 p.m.

“Playing in the pit is electrifying, especially when it gets packed,” said Isaya.

“When it gets packed down there, it just feels like the crowd is with us. A dunk happens, a three happens, and we can just feel the energy from the crowd.”