COQUITLAM — Passion for basketball can come in a magnitude of degrees, but along the trail of a long season spent wandering through gymnasiums, you don’t easily forget the ones you score as perfect 10s.
For me, the occasion was the third-and-final day of the Top 10 Shoot-Out tournament last month at Centennial Secondary, and while the stakes may not have appeared to be particularly high in a game for fifth-place between Port Moody’s Heritage Woods Kodiaks and the Brookswood Bobcats of Langley, there was a particularly revealing moment in the pre-game shoot-around that spoke volumes about one of our province’s top high school talents.
It all began with Kodiaks’ head coach Ross Tomlinson explaining to a reporter that it was highly unlikely that his star senior guard, 5-foot-10 UBC-bound Hailey Counsell, would see much floor time as she nursed a sprained ankle which just a few days earlier had her on crutches.
Yet when Tomlinson shouted over to Counsell to reinforce the team’s plan for her that day, the B.C. Under-17 select, instead of arguing, began to leap and bounce in place on the court in a last-ditched attempt to ensure her extended participation.
“When the ball goes up, for Hailey, (an injury) is something that completely leaves her consciousness,” says Tomlinson, who while unsuccessful in his attempts to keep Counsell off the floor, watched as she scored a game-high 37 points, highlighted by a flurry of treys as part of a game-changing 17-0 third-quarter run and an eventual 87-78 victory.
“It’s happened here all week,” Tomlinson continued of the fact that Counsell would drag her ankle through the pre-game festivities at Top 10 then turn into a game-changing force after the opening tip. “She just forgets that she’s injured. You look at her, and all of a sudden she is sprinting up and down the court. It’s just completely been pushed out of her mind. It’s such a funny situation.”
A SENIOR OF INFLUENCE
Last season, Heritage Woods’ toughest day was its last.
“It was terrible,” Counsell recalls of the Kodiaks’ wildcard loss in Victoria to the Claremont Spartans in a last-ditch attempt to qualify for the B.C. AAA provincial tournament.
“We had six seniors on our team last season,” she continued, “and everyone was so depressed. I don’t think I talked to anyone for a couple of hours (on the return ferry ride). That was rough.”
And while nothing is as yet guaranteed for the current edition, this season’s team has been one of the province’s brightest surprises.
With under two weeks remaining before this season’s 16-team B.C. AAA draw is populated, Heritage Woods sits ranked fourth in the most recent provincial rankings, likely its highest position in program history.
And yet Counsell is the only fulltime senior on the entire roster.
Counsell’s Grade 10 sister Maddy and Grade 11 forward Breona Martin did join Counsell last season as underage players with the senior varsity, and while they have provided a steady base, not enough can be said for the nine Grade 11s which have moved into the senior ranks from last season’s JV team.
And with all of that youth, even its veteran head coach admits the team has come together quicker than he could have imagined.
“We are a team of mostly Grade 11s and 10s,” said Tomlinson, who formerly coached Burnaby Central to second place at the 1991 senior boys AAA tournament, then served a long stint as a lead assistant with the UBC Thunderbirds’ men’s team under former head coach Bruce Enns. “We’re fortunate in that the girls are very dedicated, and a core of them super dedicated. But we’re higher than I thought we would be, as far as rankings are concerned.”
Tomlinson, for the record, appreciates what rankings do to stir interest in the game, but says he prefers not to get too caught up with numbers on a computer screen.
“All I knew from last season, is that they were an honourable mention to end the season,” continues Tomlinson, who last season coached the Kodiaks’ JVs with Don Blake, his current co-coach. “This season, we weren’t even an honourable mention to start and the girls wanted to know why. I asked them ‘Have you earned it?’ I told them that they don’t give you things for free.’”
And thus with Counsell helping lead the way, the Kodiaks have begun to earn their keep among the provincial elite, throwing themselves into the same camp as Walnut Grove and Abbotsford among the Fraser Valley’s title contenders.
Hailey Counsell is the first to admit that in the past, her game ran the risk of hitting a drought.
“I have always tried to be more than a one-trick pony,” she begins. “When I was younger, I was just a three-point shooter, and when that stopped working for me in games, I would shut down. Now I am starting to drive more, and I am striving to be someone who makes it tough for defenders to try to stop.”
With that offensive versatility, and the near six-foot frame she brings to the backcourt, Counsell is even more valuable than her 22-points-per-game average would indicate.
“She is an extremely good shooter and one of the best athletes,” Tomlinson says of Counsell’s place within the B.C. girls high school hierarchy. “But she can also attack and get by people. It’s rare to see a player that can do both of those things very well.”
It has certainly made Counsell anything but a secret, and as UBC head coach Deb Huband looked to selectively recruit and reinforce a 2017-18 roster which returns in its entirelty next season, she loved what Counsell would bring to her backcourt at War Gym.
“Hailey plays a team game,” Huband began. “She has a team mindset, so she is not only willing to step up and make key plays but also to move and share the ball. I think the challenge with her is to get her to become more aggressive because she has the capacity to not only score in many ways, but to defend as well.”
EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY
Study the expression on her face in the photograph included both above and as this story’s cover, and you’re convinced that in this story of basketball passion, Hailey Counsell is most definitely smitten by her sport.
“Whenever I play,” she says, “I normally have a smile on my face.”
In the case of the photograph in question, one snapped during the aforementioned 17-0 run in the Kodiaks’ win over Brookswood, it’s fun just to study and appreciate the joyous place that she is in.
Consider last season’s 11th-hour loss to Claremont in a win-or-go-home battle for the final B.C. tournament berth.
Consider the fact that she is the only fulltime senior on a young Kodiaks team, and that her surge of offence at just the right moment resulted in a watershed moment for her team against the reigning B.C. AAA tourney finalists.
And then consider the fact that about 90 minutes earlier, she was dragging a sore ankle around in the pre-game shootaround.
With all of that in mind, take another look at that photo, one which followed her fourth three-point hoop of the day.
When it fell, the whistle blew for a Brookswood time-out, and Counsell somehow found herself in the neighbourhood of the ball.
Exulting, she cradled it and ran back up the court in the direction of her bench.
“I just get so into the moment,” she says. “I couple of days before the tournament, I was on crutches and then I sat out a game for the first time in my life. It was so hard to sit. And I have been waiting four years to play in the Top 10. We just never got invited before. So there was simply no way I wasn’t going to play.”
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