By Charlie Pinkerton
In a season planned to be a program reset for Canada Topflight Academy – even before they lost their most notable star to injury – the team came up just short of winning their third consecutive national championship, thanks in part to an unexpected emergence.
Topflight head coach Tony House said the team’s 2018-19 season was supposed to be a “rebuilding year.” His team had lost four of its five starters and seven of their best nine players, so even after winning the National Preparatory Association (NPA) championship in the league’s first two years, tempered expectations were more realistic to him.
The defending NPA champs lucked into a fortunate start to the season with matchups against the lowly B.E.A.S.T. Prep (who finished in last place in the NPA with a record of 0-12) and London Basketball Academy (who finished in the middle of the pack with a 7-5 record) before facing a litmus test against Toronto’s highly-regarded Crestwood Prep.
Crestwood featured eventual NPA most valuable player and Wake Forest commit, Jahcobi Neath, and Elijah Fisher, who early projections slate as a Top 3 player in the world in the Class of 2023. The teams met in November at Notre Dame High School, Topflight’s home court. Partway through a seesaw of a game, Muon Reath, Topflight’s only remaining starter from the season before and the most highly regarded Canadian prospect of the Class of 2021, reaggravated a shoulder injury. It turned out to be a torn rotator cuff that sidelined him for three months. But between the baselines in Reath’s absence, one of House’s new recruits proved himself.
Tesloch Luk scored a team-high 25 points for Topflight in a 99-92 against Crestwood. Luk told the Sportspage later in the year that it was his best game of the year. From talking to Luk, the game also seemed to represent why he joined CTA after the year before in which he led St. Paul High School to the city finals.
“The whole team was amped, I just liked the energy in the gym … I liked the attention,” Luk said of standing room only gymnasium where the game was played.
Luk, who is one of all-but-two local players on Topflight, was central to the team’s undefeated regular season, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding.
“I thought he’d be in my top eight or nine, but he’s been my second-best player,” House said of his most recent player to garner attention outside of Canada’s borders.
As a result of his play this year, Luk was invited to this summer’s Deng Camp, which Reath will also attend. Hosted by two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng, the camp is open to the top high school basketball players with ties to South Sudan, where Deng fled as a child. Luk’s story isn’t far from that.
In the early 2000s, Ethiopia was war-torn and facing various militant insurgencies. Luk was born in a refugee camp in Lalibela, in the country’s north. His family fled Ethiopia in 2002, when he was only one-year-old. He was raised in Calgary until he was seven and then moved to Ottawa.
Luk says he mostly played soccer growing up and only started playing basketball regularly in Grade 5 when the manager of a local Boys and Girls Club invited him to play there. As well as playing at St. Paul, he’s also played with Ottawa Elite since Grade 9.
When Reath – one of Topflight’s players Luk says he’s closest with – got hurt, Luk says he realized it could be beneficial to him, but that he “felt bad for” his injured teammate.
“I took it as a way to step up my game and I was like, ‘I’m going to play for him, since he’s injured; I’m not going to disappoint him,’” Luk said.
Topflight finished their regular season 12-0 and continued a more than year-long winning streak against teams in Canada, which elevated them late last year to be the No. 1 ranked high school age team in the country. Before the NPA’s championship weekend, House told the Sportspage he was “pleasantly surprised” with how their season had turned out.
“If you told me we would end up ranked No. 1 in the country I’d be like, ‘yeah, yeah, get lost, you’re crazy,’” he said.
Topflight came up short of what evolved to be their eventual goal, a third straight NPA championship, losing in the NPA quarterfinals to Alberta’s Edge School, the league’s top school in its Western division.
“We’re just going to keep trying to prove all the doubters wrong,” Luk said of the future, before the national championships, which took place in late March.
Luk was named a 1st Team league All-Star, as was Topflight’s point guard, Waterloo-import Dragan Stajic, who will graduate from the team this year. Luk has one year of eligibility left.
House was named the league’s top coach and says he’s confident in his squad going forward, even though they’ll graduate eight players this year.
“I’ve got to keep feeding the machine,” House said. “That is the plan.”
This season was the inaugural year for Topflight’s junior program. The Topflight junior boys operated out of nearby St. Pius X High School and was part of the new 22-team National Junior Circuit (NJC). House envisions Topflight’s junior squad acting as a feeder system for his program’s varsity team. The junior team played host to the first (NJC) championships in late February and early March and lost in the quarterfinals. They finished in 5th place overall.
“I have to say that the results – I think they were pretty good for a first year,” House said.
During this past season, Topflight announced they would be expanding even further by introducing what it’s calling the “CTA Red Senior Men’s Development Program.”
“We’re not just basing it on age-specific, we’re basing it on talent-specific. If there’s a really good Grade 9 kid who’s a phenom, he may play on the red team; so, let’s call it a junior varsity team,” House said.
The CTA Red team will play in a national-spanning high school circuit that House is playing a part in launching over the off-season. He’s hoping to have 20+ of Canada’s top high school basketball teams join in the circuit’s inaugural year in 2019-20.