SURREY â€” The calendars are barely out of their plastic wrap, but the new year is already filled with hope for senior girls basketball players in Surrey.
This week female hoopsters in the city will be burning off energy pent up over the holiday break with the annual Surrey Firefighters Goodwill Basketball Classic in Cloverdale, an event that has become a traditional way to kick off the business end of the hoops schedule.
Princess Margaret’s Maggie Castillo said the tournament is one of the highlights on the Lions’ schedule every year. Castillo has helped the Lions win the last two Ladder Division titles and said the atmosphere – the players’ names are announced when they sink a shot and bragging rights for Surrey schools are on the line – is what makes the Firefighter tournament so special for the participants.
"The Firefighters tournament is my favourite part of the season just because it is the turning point of the season," Castillo said. "Early in the season we are still trying to figure out our team and with this tournament, all that is over and we’re playing as a team. It’s a chance to show our character and, because it’s a weeklong tournament, we build bonds as a team and for the rest of the season, we have that bond to build on."
The Firefighters tourney will offer one new twist this year. Traditionally the field is divided into two pools – the Axe Division for the high-calibre teams and the Ladder Division for less experienced squads. This time around that format has been altered somewhat.
Traditional powers Fleetwood Park, Holy Cross and Elgin Park will enjoy a first-round bye before picking up play in the second round of the Axe draw. All of the remaining teams will play the opening round against each other with the winners advancing to the Axe Division and the losers dropping into the Ladder Division.
"Those three all wanted to play in the Axe Division, but everybody else wasn’t so sure," said tournament organizing committee member Nancy Innes. "It’s hard to do ranking this time of year just because there haven’t been a ton of games played. So teams are still not sure where they are at and they definitely didn’t want to go into the wrong division and they get beaten badly. This way everything is evened out from the beginning. Everybody gets a chance and even if you lose your first game, you still have a chance to win the Ladder Division."
Players in the tournament may find more than they are expecting this week. Some players go into the gym hoping to win a championship banner and instead discover a career. Nicole Pruden is one former player who has since joined the Surrey Fire Department and several others are in the process of starting a firefighting career in Surrey or other municipalities.
Most of the female members of the Surrey Fire Department will be on hand as volunteers throughout the tournament and they also receive questions from players and high school students.
"I talk to a lot of girls at the tournament and even afterward about a career in firefighting," said Innes, who played basketball at Simon Fraser University before becoming a firefighter. "Every year there are five or six girls who will ask a lot of questions. These girls are the kind of firefighter we’re looking for – they excel in a team environment and they’re strong, athletic people. Those are all important things for firefighting."
One other big change in the tournament has taken place off the court when the Westland Insurance Group joined the event as a presenting sponsor.
Westland president Jason Wubs approached the firefighters about getting involved in the tournament and, after meeting with the charitable society, Westland was welcomed aboard.
"The Westland Insurance Group has been really good to us," said Todd Schierling, chair of Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society. "They’re going to cover our expenses for bursaries and merchandise and that is very significant for us to receive. This allows us to offer more in the way of bursaries as well as promote our event."
Last year the Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society awarded five bursaries of $750 to players in the Goodwill Classic and Schierling expects those numbers to rise in 2014 with the help of the Westland Insurance Group.
The scholarships are an exciting bonus for players in the tournament and, best of all, all participants are eligible to win one regardless of the strength of their team.
"I love how the tournament recognizes players of all ability, not just the top-notch players and teams," Princess Margaret’s Castillo said. "They give a lot of scholarships and awards and what you do in the classroom and in the community is just as important as how good you are at basketball. It recognizes everybody, not just those who are good at basketball."
Tournament play begins Tuesday (Jan. 7) and continues daily for the rest of the week at Lord Tweedsmuir and the Cloverdale Community Centre. The championships finals are slated for Saturday at Lord Tweedsmuir beginning with the Ladder final at 2:30 p.m. followed by the Axe final at 4 p.m.