St. Michael's Blue Raiders the team to beat at OFSAA AAAA basketball championship

The bitter memory is etched in Nelson Kaputo's mind.

The heartbreak of going out early in last year's Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations quadruple-A boys basketball championship gives Kaputo and his St.

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Michael's Blue Raiders teammates extra drive at this year's provincial showcase in Windsor.

The top seeds last year following a run to the title in 2013 (when some schools didn't compete due to a work-to-rule campaign), the Blue Raiders went out in the 2014 quarterfinals in Mississauga, losing to the upstart Notre Dame Knights of Brampton.

Since that loss on March 4, 2014, the Toronto indepenent powerhouse hasn't lost another game against a Canadian team. At 33-0 versus Canadian foes and 43-1 overall, the top-seeded Blue Raiders are the favourites to strike gold against a GTA-dominated field in the City of Roses.

"It helps a lot," Kaputo, one of four returning starters, said of last year's disappointment. "We know what it's like to lose and we don't want to have that feeling again. "That's the attitude we've carried throughout the whole season. It's definitely a motivator. You can see that in the way we play. We come out and we know we can't take any team lightly."

Based on their results, you really can't argue with Kaputo. Brampton's Campion Bears, the No. 2 seed at OFSAA, lost 67-46 to St. Mike's in January. That same day, the Blue Raiders crushed the No. 3 Henry Carr Crusaders of Etobicoke 79-46.

There have been some close ones, though. Two other OFSAA contenders -- the Oakwood Barons and Vaughan Voyageurs - lost by three-point margins against the Blue Raiders early in the season. The York Region champion Voyageurs, seeded just 10th, are a potential quarterfinal opponent for the Blue Raiders. The top seven seeds are all from the GTA.

"I'm not quite sure we were ready last year (to be favourites). I think there was a lot more parity in the top seeds," St. Mike's coach Jeff Zownir said. "We ran into a hot team at the (wrong) time. I think we're better prepared (this year). The returning guys understand (what it's like to lose) and they want to make sure that doesn't happen."

Tom Oliveri, the coach of the York University men's team, likes what he sees from Zownir's charges.

"St. Mike's is the team to beat, end of discussion," said Oliveri, a longtime member of the Toronto hoops scene. "They're the most lethal shooting team in the province, they're solid at point guard and with their bigs, they've got a stretch 4 and a stretch 3 who can take you 20 feel from the basket. Their wings are athletic and tough."

An experienced squad, St. Mike's also has a couple of excellent Grade 10 players in Marcus Carr (who is attracting significant Division I interest) and 6-foot-7 Danilo Djuricic.

The Blue Raiders aren't spending much time handicapping the field. They're simply looking in the mirror, working on their own game.

"We're just focusing on ourselves," said Kaputo, whose team opens play on Monday morning against the No. 11 Sir Allan McNab Lions of Hamilton. "We're just focusing on ourselves. If we come out and play the way we're capable of playing, it doesn't matter who we're playing."

Oliveri has similar thoughts.

"I watched them a week ago in (their league) final and even when they're not playing their best game, Zownir's got them playing his style of ball," Oliveri said. "He holds them accountable. Last year, they were a little young. This year's group has been through the wars, they've been to the States, they've been tested. You'd be hard fought to find a team where all five guys can shoot the three (like St. Mike's)."



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