Young local sports stars are rising in the big leagues

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It may take a decade—or possibly even two—to accurately gauge it, but early indications are that we are entering a golden age for athletes from this area. A year ago in this space, we documented the emergence of Brett Lawrie (baseball), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (hockey), Vasek Pospisil (tennis), and Adam Hadwin (golf) in their chosen sports. All four have strong ties to Vancouver, and each took a quantum leap in his professional career during the past 12 months.

Lawrie, from Langley, is now the Toronto Blue Jays’ everyday third baseman; Burnaby’s Nugent-Hopkins, the first pick in the 2011 NHL draft, registered 52 points as an 18-year-old rookie with the Edmonton Oilers last season; Pospisil, Vernon-born and Vancouver-raised, cracked the Association of Tennis Professionals’ top-100 weekly rankings for the first time earlier this summer; and Abbotsford’s Hadwin continues to chase his PGA Tour card as a full-time member of golf’s Web.com Tour.

It’s an impressive group that has turned heads and made headlines with sparkling performances, and all early in their careers—Hadwin is the old man of the group at 24. But all four of these guys may soon be looking over their shoulders at the next wave of Vancouver-based athletes destined for big things at the professional level.

Eugene Wong is already there. The 22-year-old North Vancouver native is on a roll, having won the past three professional golf tournaments he’s entered. He sandwiched a victory at the Vancouver Golf Tour’s Vancouver Open earlier this month between wins on the Canadian Tour.

The success comes mere months after Wong turned pro following a stellar college career at the University of Oregon. It’s not easy to win golf tournaments, especially as a youngster who is supposed to experience some growing pains while leaving the amateur ranks behind. But that’s hardly been the case for Wong, who tests himself at PGA Tour qualifying school this fall.

Filip Peliwo is another North Vancouverite who has had an incredible summer of 2012. The 18-year-old became the first Canadian male to capture a Grand Slam singles title when he aptured the Junior Boys championship at Wimbledon. In the process, Peliwo became the top-ranked junior tennis player in the world.

As an encore to his victory on the famed grass courts in London, Peliwo also won the junior U.S. Open title earlier this month in New York. Those victories came after tough losses in the finals at the Australian and French opens earlier this year, making Peliwo the first player since 1984 to reach the final of all four junior Grand Slam events in the same calendar year.

Not a prototypical power player with a massive serve, Peliwo’s biggest weapon is his dogged determination and ability to cover the entire court with unmatched hustle. It’ll be interesting to watch him leave the junior events behind and begin his climb up the professional tennis ladder. Based on his recent results, he has certainly given himself plenty of momentum and given his opponents ample warning that he is one to watch.

While Peliwo competes as a professional, Griffin Reinhart and Morgan Rielly will have to wait their turns. Currently caught in the middle of the National Hockey League’s work stoppage, the friends from West Vancouver will eventually be given every opportunity to make the NHL teams that drafted them fourth and fifth overall, respectively, in June’s entry draft.

Reinhart—whose father, Paul, played for the Vancouver Canucks (1988-90)—was selected by the New York Islanders, while Rielly was nabbed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both are highly touted defencemen who will surely make the jump from junior to the NHL with relative ease.

Until the NHL resumes business, Reinhart returns to the Edmonton Oil Kings for another season in the Western Hockey League while Rielly will patrol the blueline for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. Look for both to proudly represent Canada at the world junior hockey championship after Christmas, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if either of them gets to wear Canadian colours at an upcoming Olympics, too.

And one day, Robert Sacre hopes he gets the chance to slip on Canada’s red and white at the Olympics. Before then, though, he’ll get the opportunity of a lifetime to wear purple and gold alongside one of Canada’s greatest athletes. Sacre, a seven-footer from North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary School who just finished a four-year career at Gonzaga University, was taken by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of this year’s National Basketball Association draft.

In L.A., Sacre will share the floor with another new Laker and Canadian: Steve Nash, who was acquired from Phoenix this off-season. Sacre likely won’t see much playing time as a raw rookie on a team that boasts the talent of Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard, but he’ll have the best seat in the house to watch and learn about life in the top basketball league in the world.

There is no guarantee that Sacre or any of the other athletes mentioned above will reach stardom. But it’ll be fun to watch their development as they strive for success as professionals.

At the very least, this group proves local kids are getting the coaching and training to reach the highest levels. And these budding pros should provide inspiration for the next generation of high-level athletes from Vancouver.

The final chapters of all of these stories won’t be written for a long time yet. But 10 or 20 years from now, we may very well look back to a special time in Vancouver’s sports history.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.

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