Kelowna's Jaeli Ibbetson (centre) and Kennedy Dickie (left) move to the front of the Owls' leadership group following the graduation of Taya Hanson. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2018. All Rights Reserved)

Encore, encore 2019: With Kennedy and Jaeli ready to run, Kelowna Owls set to begin defence of 2018’s B.C. title triumph

If Kennedy Dickie and Jaeli Ibbetson are to lead their Kelowna Owls in a quest to repeat as B.C. senior girls AAA basketball champions, then that run to the title is going to have a lot to do with how much the talented senior forwards are actually willing to run.

When we last left this season’s preseason Triple A No. 1-ranked Owls, they were busy putting the finishing touches on a comeback victory over the Walnut Grove Gators last March in the 2018 title game at the Langley Events Centre, rallying at one stage from 12 down to lead by 13, its 25-point swing courtesy of a pressing and trapping scheme which took every opponent it faced in the tournament by some degree of surprise.

Yet it’s because every team remains a fluid, in-the-moment entity that Kelowna head coach Darren Semeniuk knows his new-look Owls can not rest on either their laurels or last season’s championship identity.

They, can however, borrow a lot of that championship edition’s attitude and swagger by asking Dickie and Ibbetson to provide the same level of captaincy through their strengths the way current Arizona State freshman guard Taya Hanson did with hers.

“With Kennedy and Jaeli we have two very versatile bigs,” Semeniuk says of the six-footers. “They are not the kind of posts that will just go from block to block. They are both girls that can also shoot the three. So our style of play has to revolve around our two best players. And so, if we don’t get baseline to baseline really fast, we won’t be able to exploit our greatest strength.”

So as dangerous as Kelowna became late last season with its pressing mentality, the broader hope in Owls’ camp is that attacking tempo will carry the day, giving Kelowna the ability to get its share of easy baskets with quick-hitting mismatches based on the overall skill sets of the recent Eastern Washington signee Dickie and Ibbetson.

“Kennedy, with the leadership she has shown, has impressed me greatly,” says Semeniuk, whose team opens its season Tuesday with a tradtional rivalry clash against the host Salmon Arm Golds, before moving on to Abbotsford this coming weekend for the UFV Classic which features a field that includes Semiahmoo, South Kamloops, Abbotsford, G.W. Graham, Langley Christian and Okanagan Mission.

“She’s been so comfortable since she signed,” says Semeniuk, “This is the first time that she has been the oldest person on the team since Grade 7. She has always been playing up, and now that she is, she is able to tell all the other girls what it’s all about.”

Both she and Ibbetson, who has yet to make her post-secondary choice, were instrumental in providing the contrast in style to Hanson last season.

In so many ways, its press and the variance in styles with its top three is what put the Owls over the top.

That pressure-based schematic can not be fully replicated without Hanson, but it can still thrive with a tinkered look.

Kelowna’s Japleen Chahal (centre) is one of a number of rising Owls’ JV players set to join the No. 1-ranked senior varsity this season. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2018. All Rights Reserved)

Yet any of that to happen, another vital element of the team’s design must come through.

Last season, it was easier to notice what Hanson, Ibbetson and Dickie were doing, and easier not notice the guard trio of senior Kasey Patchell, Dez Day and Rachel Hare.

“It’s great to give recognition to those girls,” says Semeniuk. “Already, in our first two-to-three weeks of practice we’re missing them in terms of what is going on and why we haven’t been able to do certain things we could normally do in terms of moving the ball and pressuring. I didn’t quite realize what the gap would be, or the fact that it’s as big as it is.”

Coaches around the province are no doubt relating to that sentiment.

As new groups come together, forging their own identity, the loss of graduated glue-girls are so often lamented in November.

Of course, just as the Owls and so many other teams built new identities as the season progressed, Semeniuk and his assistants are determined to see what qualities will define their new rising guard group.

Semeniuk’s daughter, Grade 11 Rylee, is a part of that mix as is Day’s younger sister, fellow Grade 11 Kassidy. There are other rising holdovers as well, and from the Owls’ B.C. JV tournament qualifying team of a season ago, incoming 11s like Katrina Fink and Japleen Chahal.

“(Last season) it was January before we thought this was a good defensive team,” Semeniuk says. “But I like where we’re at, even though our depth is not where we’re hoping or thinking it can be by January or February again.”

Of course, the rivalry with Walnut Grove seems set to climb to that very top notch on the scale.

Post -forward Natalie Rathler has left for a U Sports career at Fraser Valley, but Tavia Rowell is back for her senior season, and the Grand Canyon signee is among that rare handful of tough-minded and talented a guards B.C. has produced since the turn of the century.

Of course Simon Fraser Clan signee Jessia Wisotzki also returns for her senior season, the 6-foot guard in the midst of rise in her game that makes her a true match-up nightmare.

Senior guard Rolande Taylor as well as Grade 10 Sophia Wisotzki will also play leading roles in that mix.

“It seems like they lost Natalie, and we didn’t lose our inside (game),” says Semeniuk. “But we lost Taya and three other guards, while they kept Tavia and their guards. So it will be interesting to see who guards Tavia.”

It will be interesting, in fact, to watch as so many different trends develop over the course of a 2018-19 season which begins for real on Monday.

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