LANGLEY — They are historic geographic rivals dating back to their days on the provincial college circuit when the British Columbia Collegiate Athletic Association was perhaps the longest league moniker in all of North American post-secondary sports.
And they’ve spent a good long time building up their respective programs since moving up to U SPORTS.
Yet on Thursday (6 p.m.), when they face each at the Langley Events Centre, the host Trinity Western Spartans and the visiting Fraser Valley Cascades will do so for the first time as the Canada West’s top two B.C. women’s basketball teams.
“We’re not taking it for granted,” said Trinity Western head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul, whose team, riding a program-high 8-0 start to the conference season, faces Abbotsford’s 7-1 Fraser Valley Cascades.
“We are very, very thankful and we’re very grateful.” added Jean-Paul, who besides entering her 12th season as Spartans’ head coach, has also coached some of the Cascades’ top players during her time as a B.C. provincial team coach. “All of our athletes have had a lot of difficult choices to make over the past few years, so it’s nice for them to get some positive experiences, despite everything that has been going on.”
By Tuesday evening, the Canada West announced that seven basketball games originally scheduled for this weekend in B.C. were being postponed due to COVID-related issues. Somehow, both of the TWU women’s games, including a Saturday (3 p.m.) game against visiting Thompson Rivers, were unaffected. The TWU men’s team is also on track to not only host Fraser Valley on Thursday (8 p.m.), but also Thompson Rivers in back-to-back games Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (5 p.m.).
And so to carry on with the spirit of Jean-Paul’s sentiment, from a fan’s perspective, Thursday’s clash of the province’s top two teams is the kind of ‘event basketball’ that has been so sorely missing from the local scene since the start of the pandemic.
Trinity Western will then play the role of visitor next week (Jan. 21-22) when it travels to Abbotsford to face the Cascades in a pair of games which could well go a long ways towards determining first place in the Canada West’s West Division.
For Jean-Paul, the best start in program history has come on the heels of the steady maturation of her first five in the rotation, a group that is steadied by a quartet of players — forwards Nicole Fransson and Jolene Vlieg, and guards Kianna Wiens and Abbotsford-Robert Bateman’s Jayden Gill — each averaging over 30 minutes of playing time per game this season.
“They really committed last year to getting better for this season,” said Jean-Paul of a starting unit which has also included third-year guard Hailey Van Roekel, a Langley Christian product averaging 24 minutes per game.
“A lot of coaches had concerns about motivating their athletes through last year and wondered if they were going to see progress or not,” continued Jean-Paul, who had any questions she might have had about her leadership group’s potential answered in the affirmative.
“They committed to getting stronger,” she said. “They committed to understanding the game better. They were really in tune with their opportunity to develop instead of seeing last year as a missed opportunity.”
Leading the way for the Spartans have been 6-foot-2 third-year Edmonton-native Fransson, who has been as dominant as they come nationally, averaging 17.8 points and 12.5 rebounds over 30.6 minutes per game; and Wiens, the 5-foot-6, fourth-year point guard from Regina, whose 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals per game have come while logging a team-high 34.6 minutes per game.
Yet the fact that each can look across the court to the Cascades’ top pairing and know that its opposition has taken no less a challenging road to get better is just another reason Thursday’s game likes like a hoops oasis in the middle of a desert of cancelled contests and general uncertainty.
UFV’s dynamic second-year duo of 6-foot-1 guard/forward Deanna Tuchscherer (19.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and 5-foot-7 point guard Maddy Gobeil (16.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg) actually took the extraordinary step of embarking on pro careers in Europe during the cancelled campaign.
Gobeil, in fact, is one of only two players in Canada West to rank in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals per game.
Those two, along with guard Nikki Cabuco (11.4 ppg over a team-high 38.4 mpg) and freshman forward Julia Tuchscherer (10.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) have all averaged double-figures in points.
Put it all together and there are great matchups all over the court.
For her part, as well as her team’s, Jean-Paul knows how important the mental aspect of being ready for every second will be come tip-off time Thursday.
“I think it’s just about that kind of warrior-battle mindset that they have,” Jean-Paul said of the Cascades. “I mean, they get after loose balls. They force you to make mistakes. And they crash the boards hard.
“Maddy, for a guard, is one of the most physical players and she will hit the floor (for a loose ball) more often and sooner than anyone else, and I think Deanna really makes you have to play at a high level,” she added from first-hand experience, having coached the pair on a B.C. Under-17 team which finished third at the national championships a few seasons back.
As mentioned, the Spartans have four players averaging over 30 minutes per game and the Cascades have three of their own, yet if Trinity Western is more seasoned within in its first group, Fraser Valley certainly has an edge when it comes time to bringing experience off the bench.
“The importance of our second unit (including players like first years Shemaiah Abatayo, Jenna Gill, Gracie Corneau, and second-year Kailey Reimer) is not lost on them,” Jean-Paul explained. “They understand how important it is that they have to take minutes from our core group and how that impacts our team.
“This is going to be a very interesting test,” said Jean-Paul whose starting group includes a fourth year, three thirds and a second.
“Their second unit is quite experienced, and so when you’re getting fourth and fifth-year athletes coming off the bench for them, and we have firsts and seconds coming off the bench, that is really where the game, I think, is going to be won this weekend. We’re excited to see how we step up to that.”
And the best part of all come Thursday?
It’s the fact that in just over a week’s time, both teams will be back at it again, this time with back-to-back games in Abbotsford.
But most of all, it’s a reminder of how in these tough times, just how therapeutic a good basketball game can be for the soul.
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