A year ago, the Semiahmoo Totems senior girls basketball team found itself in a spot similar to the one it finds itself in now – as one of the top teams in the province.
With a roster made up almost entirely of Grade 10s, with the exception of star senior Faith Dut in the post, last year’s squad began ranked No. 3 – clearly among the B.C. elite, but perhaps with lingering questions about whether such a young team could hold its own among older competitors.
Any doubts were quickly erased, of course, as the Totems – who finished fourth at the senior level the year before, when the core of the team was only in Grade 9 – ran the table in the second half of the season en route to an undefeated record and a B.C. triple-A provincial championship, defeating Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators in the final game.
All of which leads them to where they find themselves today, a few weeks into a new season – as the undisputed No. 1 team in the BC Secondary Schools Girls Basketball Association’s new quad-A division.
It’s new territory for the now-mostly-Grade 11 group, which has had to adjust to being the hunted, rather than the hunters, right from Day 1.
“It some ways, it’s different,” said coach Allison McNeill, the former Canadian national women’s team bench boss who has been lending her coaching talent to Semiahmoo in recent years.
“We had a goal to win (provincials) last year, but you just never know what will happen, because you’re young… Last year, maybe it was more of a question mark, but but this year, we know we’re one of the teams to beat.”
Though the season is just in its infancy, the early returns for the top-ranked Totems have been good. The team is already one-for-one in tournament action, winning the Cascade Classic in Abbotsford earlier this month. Semiahmoo won the event last year, too.
Considering the added attention that comes with being the defending champs, starting the season strong is important, McNeill noted, adding that she didn’t feel that last year’s team really hit its stride until late January.
“I don’t feel like we really came on strong last year until after Christmas. Even early January, I don’t think we were playing our best basketball, but we improved and we peaked at the right time,” McNeill said.
Aside from the graduation of Dut – who is now playing at the NCAA Div. 1 level for the University of Florida Gators – the core of Semiahmoo’s team is intact, led by three players with Team Canada experience – Tara Wallack, Deja Lee and Izzy Forsyth.
All three are in Ontario this weekend for a Canada Basketball assessment camp.
“This year, they’re Grade 11s, so we’ve got more experience, and our practices have been more intense, more competitive,” McNeill said.
“They’re all older now and realize what it takes to win. We’re playing pretty good basketball right now but there’s still potential for us to get quite a bit better. I think the big improvements over last year are that everyone is just bigger and stronger. They’ve all improved in a lot of areas, which is what you want. You just want everyone to be the best they can be.”
Though excited that the core of the team is back again this year – and will be for one more season after this one, too – McNeill admitted that having to adapt to life without the six-foot-four Dut under the hoop has been a bit of an adjustment.
“It’s a big difference now, playing without her. We played with Fair for two years, and she just brought so much size and strength inside. So we miss that, and her ability to block shots and control the defensive boards,” McNeill said.
In her absence, McNeill said the team has “tried to collectively make up for her not being here anymore,” – a process that includes a more run-and-gun offence.
“We’ve tried to get the tempo up, and press a lot more and run,” McNeill said. “It’s been a lot of fun, actually. Not that we didn’t play that way with Faith – we still played fast last year – but it’s just been a bit different, having to change out style a little bit.”
Coaches, McNeill said, have also been quick to remind players that now is no time to rest on last season’s laurels, regardless of who is, or isn’t, on the roster.
“We like to say that this group hasn’t won anything. Last year’s team is last year’s team,” she said.
“We’ll always have that (championship), but this is a new year and this team has to earn its own stripes.”
The team will have plenty of opportunities to further improve its game in the coming weeks. The Totems will soon head south to Eugene, Ore. for a tournament set for Dec. 19-21, and after the Christmas break they’ll fly to Calgary for another tournament. They’ll also look to defend their Surrey Fire Fighters Goodwill Classic title next month, while also getting set to host, for the first time, a tournament of their own.
From Jan. 31-Feb. 1, Semiahmoo will host a four-team Totems Classic round-robin tourney, which in addition to the hosts will include other top teams from B.C. – The Terry Fox Ravens, who are currently the No. 2 team at the quad-A level; Abbotsford’s Yale Lion, ranked No. 7; and Kelowna’s Okanagan-Mission Huskies, who are the No. 1-ranked team at the triple-A level.
“After all the travel, it’ll be nice to play at home. And playing against three really quality opponents right before playoffs, I think that will help us, too,” McNeill said.
“We know everyone is going to be playing their best basketball against us. But that’s good – you want to be challenged like that because it brings out the best in you, so we’re excited.”