By Michael Sun
Despite their season success and a bright future ahead for many of their players, the Ottawa Elite Under-19 men’s basketball team saw their season end on a low.
The team finished 10-0 in the Canadian Youth Basketball League this season before injuries ultimately cost the defending champs a chance at a repeat title, with coach Patrick Sullivan declaring the team unable to participate in the CYBL playoffs because of a lack of players.
For guards Aiden Warnholtz and Connor Vreeken, there’s a silver lining: Vreeken is making his debut with the Canadian U-18 team at the FIBA Americas in St. Catharines while Warnholtz was named a reserve. They’re both going to Carleton next year, where Sullivan will continue as part of the Carleton coaching staff.
“When I saw that the roster was released and I was on it, it kind of made me think that all the work I’ve put into get to this point was really worth it,” Vreeken said. “It was just a pretty amazing feeling.”
Sullivan noted the team’s dedication is crucial to their success. Vreeken credits Ottawa Elite for making him the player he is today. He calls Sullivan’s practices “meticulous and organized,” which the coach says stems from his military background.
Sullivan is a captain in the Canadian Forces, whoere he coached the military’s women’s basketball team before taking on the Elite four years ago.
“What the military taught me was teamwork, discipline, hard work, working with others, communicate with people,” he said. “That sense of belonging and direction.”
In terms of what motivates him, he says it’s the joy the game brings.
“I can’t wait to be on the court because it’s not a job,” he said. “I get to work with young men and I get to see them grow, I get to see them get better.”
Sullivan calls Warnholtz, who won CYBL MVP last year and playoff MVP for Canada Topflight Academy this season, “the best player I’ve ever had.” He’s coached him for four years. Sullivan said Warnholtz is like another coach on the team and the glue that holds the team together as a point guard.
“We’re not having the success we’re having at Ottawa Elite without Aiden Warnholtz,” he said.
Sullivan credits’ Vreeken’s dedication as the Kingston native travels to Ottawa twice a week for practice. Vreeken, who moved from point guard to shooting guard after joining Ottawa Elite in Grade 10, also won gold with Team Ontario at the Canada Games last year.
Growing up, Vreeken recalls how he was never the most athletic player but made up for it with skills.
“That was definitely a big hurdle for me… when all my friends were growing and getting stronger and I wasn’t, I was definitely behind the pack and then as soon as I caught up, I kind of leapfrogged them in a way I guess just because the work I put in on my own,” Vreeken adds.
He admits it is a struggle at times with travel and school but sees basketball as an escape.
“I just found a lot of comfort being alone, playing and then it turned into training basically full time and trying to pursue it to a higher level,” he said.
For Vreeken, another enjoyable part is that his basketball career has been all self-motivated.
“I’d definitely say that I’m able to enjoy the game a lot because the people around me don’t pressure me to play I guess,” he said. “It’s really been mainly a game and I decided to pursue it. I didn’t have people telling me that I had to.”
Without that enjoyment, he says players can be burned out from basketball.
Vreeken commended the Elite’s resilience this season in battling through injuries and adversity.
“I really believe that the group we had last year and this year [had] kind of saw a bigger picture and that if we all work together as a team in order to be successful…it’s kind of like the term ‘everybody eats,” he said of how the commitment would eventually lead to individual successes as well.
Vreeken calls the Elite a “tight knit group,” something you don’t see with some club teams.
“The other thing I get to see – which is the highlight for me – is that they’re friends off the court,” Sullivan adds. “They develop that friendship.”
Other Elite players will also head off to start university careers. Fellow Kingstonian Brennan Laidman is heading to McGill while Aron Masilingi is going to Heritage College.
For Sullivan, he says that’s what’s best and makes him the proudest.
“The championships and stuff like that is really nice…but the end goal is to get these kids to go to university or college and play university or college basketball,” he said. “That’s where I see the success.”
For Vreeken, making the national team is the pinnacle of his career so far – something he wouldn’t have ever believed growing up.
“If someone had told me when I was in Grade 7, 8 or 9 that I was going to be representing the country or our province, I would have laughed at them,” he adds.
Him and his teammates will head off to different universities and colleges, ending their Ottawa Elite careers. Vreeken said he recognizes the magnitude of the moment.
“In a way, I’d say it’s kind of sad to be closing this chapter with Ottawa Elite and high school basketball,” he said. “We have experienced a lot of success and I’ve built a lot of relationships with these guys that I think will last a lifetime.”