LANGLEY — Venica Davignon didn’t have to click the heels of her red basketball slippers together three times and repeat the phrase ‘There’s no place like home’ on Saturday night in order to transport both herself and her Riverside Rapids teammates to their version of hoops utopia.
After all, they were already standing on centre court at the Langley Events Centre and hoisting the championship trophy of the 2021 Tsumura Basketball Invitational after defeating the Quad-A No. 1-ranked Terry Fox Ravens 90-79 in the Battle of Port Coquitlam.
OK, they were sneakers, not the glittery slippers that Dorothy wore, but just like the ones from The Wizard of Oz, they were definitely bright red. The only all-red pair on the court.
Besides, you can ask anyone who watched Saturday’s game, and they’ll tell you that fairy tale or not, they were perfect for a coronation as TBI Tournament MVP Davignon and her No. 6 Rapids ascended to a place not many figured they could climb this early in the season.
“Ultimately, it was just being able to play as a team,” said the 5-foot-11 senior, who before fouling out with 2:33 remaining and her team leading 80-73, supplied not only a team-high 18 points, but also the kind of grit, fortitude and focus required to beat what is a very special Ravens team.
“If we had started to play individually, then we weren’t going to win,” she added. “We needed to be able to put everything together, and if we did, the outcome would be what it is now.”
Added Jeremy Neufeld, who coaches the team with veteran skipper Paul Langford, of Davignon’s performance: “She dug deep. She was absolutely exhausted and she just kept going for us. She just played smart. She was phenomenal.”
The question right from the start was remained the same: Could the Rapids, against what was essentially the same Terry Fox team which had advanced all the way to the 2020 B.C. Quad title game, find a level of tenacity — both mentally and physically – which would enable it to play its brand of pressing defence and not self-implode from exhaustion in the process.
The answer Saturday was unequivocally ‘Yes’.
Bringing not only length and athleticism to the equation, but also self-belief, Riverside rose to challenge at a juncture when most of the rest would begin to wane, rising up on an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter to take a 71-67 with just under six minutes remaining, and never looking back the rest of the night.
Although Terry Fox would rally to within 81-79 with 1:39 remaining on a pair of Emily Sussex free throws, Riverside got buckets from Jorja Hart, Avery Sussex, and Alexis Hart as part of a game-ending 9-0 run. Sussex’s was capped with an and-one make from the stripe, while Alexis Hart sank two free throws to wrap up the scoring.
It was somewhat miraculous to see the way Riverside finished, getting stronger as the game progressed despite the fatigue and attrition which hard to mask.
“I mean, we’ve been practicing at 6 a.m. every day for the past few months,” pleaded Davignon. “So I think we were able to maintain a strong cardio and be a force going forward, but there was definitely a lot of fatigue with us not having a lot of subs on the bench.”
That’s an understatement.
Riverside won the game with only eight players.
Yet without the luxury of a deeper bench, Neufeld explained that the team’s current level of fitness would still have to climb substantially if the Rapids are to scale the peak that leads to a provincial title in March.
“First off, it’s Fox we were playing, so there is some motivation there and that showed,” began Neufeld. “But it also showed how much heart we have. But if we have eight (players) going through the season and into the provincials, we have to get in much better shape.
“Tonight you saw a lot of missed layups and you saw a lot of missed free throws, and those are areas where it shows we just need to continue to get in better shape. It’s going to be tough with the new COVID restrictions, but we have to keep progressing.”
Sussex and Natalie Curley each finished with 15 points for Riverside, while Jorja Hart added 14 and Brooke Kendal 12. For Terry Fox, Lauren Clements scored 14 points.
So as the season reaches the holiday break, with classes dismissed and the provincial government’s rule on no tournament play through the month of January set to take effect Monday, it would be criminal not to reflect on all that was great about Saturday’s title tile between two great teams.
First, Terry Fox’s view from the bench.
How irrepressible is senior point guard Cerys Merton’s love for the game, how special is the grit with which she plays, and how much did they miss No. 5’s presence when she left the game for a spell with 7:06 remaining after picking up her fourth foul?
On a team built on the two-way talents of so many of its players, how eye-opening was the defence displayed by guard Taylor Matthews at critical junctures?
And if anyone on the team earned the honour of hardcourt warrior Saturday, wouldn’t you agree her name was Ana-Maria Misic?
And from the Riverside bench?
How about the fact that on a Rapids’ team filled with underclassmen, Davignon and Brooke Kendal might be the two most important seniors of influence on any one team in the province?
None of that is said lightly because uber-talented Grade 10 Avery Sussex, Saturday’s Riverside player of the game with 15 points, and up-and-coming Grade 9 standout Jorja Hart, are each busy taking notes as both the present and the future of the program.
And lastly, how about the ultimate tie to this big old neighbourhood dance?
How about the couple seated centre court, cheering wildly for both teams?
“Hey, look up there in the stands,” Langford said to the game’s broadcast team just minutes before the opening tip.
“See that couple, they’re wearing tops with the Fox and Riverside logos,” he continued.
Indeed, it was momma Jodie and papa Aaron, proud parents of the Sussex sisters.
Yes, as incredible as it all sounds, Grade 12 Emily Sussex plays for Terry Fox, and Grade 10 Avery Sussex plays for Riverside.
“They’ve each got their own group of friends, so they ended up going to different schools,” Langford explains, smiling wildly before adding “And you know what the best part of it all is? Tonight, both of the girls arrived here in the same car.”
There are, of course, so many other names to mention and stories to tell.
Yet the gist of it all is that on a Saturday night, one week from Christmas, coming back off a cancelled season with the potential of perhaps another looming in the air, we all sat, watched and marvelled at this great thing called high school basketball… this enormous living, breathing celebration of youth, and one which in this case had province and neighbourhood all wrapped into one.
“It was a great game and Riverside played really well and it was… it was fun to be here in this atmosphere,” said gracious Terry Fox co-head coach Mike Carkner. “We battled. We didn’t play super. We’ve been having some struggles, and sometimes a loss at a time like this can be a good thing. You face a bit of adversity. But all credit to Riverside. They played a great game down the stretch.”
All that made Riverside celebrate, and all that made Terry Fox ache, is, in the broadest sense possible, what makes this game so great.
“It’a huge confidence boost for us, because every time we play Fox, there are nerves and there are butterflies,” added Neufeld. “So this is a statement to us, knowing we can beat them. We can build on this.”
And in its quest to do what Riverside did Saturday at the TBI, it re-defined to itself what it means to serve each other without ego.
“I think we finally are starting to play as a team and I think there were a lot of individual things going on earlier,” said Neufeld. We don’t care who scores now. “We don’t care who does this or who does that. We work hard for each other and that is what our goal was coming into this tournament. I think it’s what gave us the edge.”
That and a pair of red sneakers.
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