ABBOTSFORD — There were moments in the opening half of last season’s B.C. senior girls AAA championship final when you questioned what you were watching.
Had we reached an age where a team with two Grade 11s, a Grade 10 and a Grade 9 at the forefront of a postseason-shortened player rotation could actually lead their school to a provincial title at the game’s highest tier?
If you were watching the 2017 B.C. final last March at the Langley Events Centre, and you saw how just such a team of Abbotsford Panthers were taking it to Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers, it looked like that time had arrived.
Led by the tourney’s soon-to-be Top Defensive Player, Grade 11 Sienna Lenz, Abbotsford had opened the game like something shot out of a cannon, building an 11-point lead and threatening to run away with the title.
History, however, shows us that Lord Tweedsmuir was able to re-trench behind senior MVP guard Maryn Budiman and win the title 67-57.
Yet from the moment that game ended, to this Monday, when the 2017-18 season officially begins, there has been a silent countdown taking place, one which introduces the Abbotsford Panthers as the team to beat this season and the first from their school to win a girls provincial varsity title since
On cue, Abby opens as an unquestioned No. 1, led by the Simon Fraser-bound senior Lenz, fellow senior guard Sydney Fetterly, Grade 11 post/forward Kelsey Roufosse and Grade 10 guard Marin Lenz.
So many times, early success begets to varying degrees, too many undesirable traits, the kind which hinder the positive growth of both the individual and the collective.
And thus basketball purists should be heartened to see exactly the opposite taking place with the Panthers.
Head coach Lenz has a game-loving group, and if any trait has the ability to kick-start a group through those inevitable late-January doldrums, it’s simply loving the game.
“They don’t talk about the other teams, or who we might happen to be playing next,” offers Lenz. “They just want to come to practice and work hard, and when that happens, it doesn’t matter if you are the underdog or if you are the favourite.”
As good as the Panthers are expected to be this season, that bit of news simply reinforces the message to all comers that it’s going to take more than just talent to beat them on the LEC’s centre court come March.
SIENNA AND SYD, SENIORS OF MERIT
Sienna Lenz, the Panthers’ tough-minded guard, put a brave face on a painful Grade 11 season in 2016-17.
Watching her play last season, where she was named MVP at the season-opening Tsumura Basketball Invitational, to those final few days of March Madness where she led her team to final, it was easy to see both the talent and the tenacity around which her game is built.
Yet while she didn’t seem fully healthy during provincials, it wasn’t until the season was done that the full extent of her physical woes surfaced.
“She tore her ACL in the Brookswood (championship) game at your tournament last year,” the elder Lenz confirms of his oldest daughter’s injury, suffered at last year’s TBI. “She really wanted to finish the year, so they ran a battery of tests and in mid-January they were satisfied that she could operate the way she was.”
A knee brace became her new friend, and by late March she had successfully undergone off-season surgery, putting her on a timeline for medical clearance to join her team in games at any time over the next few days.
That she was named B.C.’s best defensive player at last season’s provincial tournament says so much about the level of grit she brings, an element she seems to infuse in all of those around her in the team’s starting five.
Sienna will head to Simon Fraser to join the Clan’s NCAA D2 program next season. Prentice Lenz played at SFU during its days as an NAIA school.
Fellow senior Fetterly, like Sienna, sets a bar for the team’s younger player with her indefatigable work ethic, and also like Sienna, has a plus-factor in minutes-played that makes her a most experienced 12th grader.
“Syd is an incredible shooter,” says coach Lenz. “But beyond that, her work ethic on the floor before school starts and in practice, it’s helped to increase our energy. She is someone who never seems to get tired, and that kind of thing is contagious.”
KELSEY AND MARIN, ROOKIES NO MORE
The Panthers’ two key underclassmen have been playing senior varsity from the beginning of their high school careers and if you were to come in blind to watch an Abby game, you likely couldn’t tell that Grade 11 Roufosse and Grade 10 Marin Lenz were the babies of the bunch.
While guard depth is more commonly present on any team, Roufosse’s lofty stature meant a more immediate opportunity to grow within a JV-aged group that just happened to be playing senior varsity.
“She was here in Grade 9 and she started in Grade 9,” coach Lenz remembers. “Sometimes you like to work people in, but we weren’t in that situation so you’re pushing the envelope that way. But she is a great kid who understood that there would be growing along the way, and the idea that mistakes would be made. She was really mature in that way.”
The end result heading into this season?
There is nothing static about Roufosse’s game.
She plays with energy, is able to play a post role, but has a level of dexterity and confident footwork which allows her play both ways outside of the normal comfort zone.
“I talked to her in Grade 9 and I told her ‘We’ll bring you through the post, but we see you (able to play) in a bunch of different areas,” continued coach Lenz, “and the more versatile you become, the more opportunities you will get.”
And finally, there is the Grade 10 guard Marin, Sienna’s younger sister.
There were moments in games last season when, despite her tender age, she took over games, changing momentum and allowing her team to re-discover its flow through her determined takes to the basket.
“I can’t say I have tried to compare them,” admits Prentice Lenz of his two daughters. “They are different players. We have always just tried to help all the players in the areas where they need to undergo the biggest growth. When you start playing (senior varsity) at Grade 8, you tend to forget sometimes that she’s only in Grade 10.”
And where might Marin look to add another facet to her game this season?
“I think taking a little bit more of a role at the end (of the shot clock),” her dad says. “More decision making, and I think she got some great opportunities (playing club ball with VK Basketball) over the summer.”
The fifth member of that starting group?
It may remain a fluid situation past the start of the season, but there are several candidates including 5-foot-10 Grade 11 forward Beryl Kithinji, who saw spot minutes throughout the provincial tourney a season ago.
Whomever it winds up being would do well to try and embody some of the characteristics brought by last season’s Grade 12 Gabrielle MacGregor, the only senior who saw the floor in Abby’s title-tilt loss to Lord Tweedsmuir in March.
“I don’t think you can actually replace that,” says coach Lenz, who will lead Abbotsford back to the LEC as the favourites at the 2017 Tsumura Basketball Invitational (Dec. 14-16). “Gabby was willing to work so hard, didn’t care if she scored. She was like the team mother. We lost a real special one there.”
At the same time, a lot of special ones have returned.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate in that it’s a great group,” the coach concludes. “They come to practice and they want to compete. They realize that what they are doing is important and they are willing to sacrifice for it.”
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