Walnut Grove's Sophia Wisotzki (right) is guarded by Riverside's Sammy Shields on Thursday at the LEC. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters)
Feature High School Girls Basketball

Growth in the Grove: Maturity helps Gators punch Final Four tickets with deepest run in program history

LANGLEY — One year ago seems like a very long time in the maturation process of Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators.

Oh yes, they took on all comers as the No. 1-ranked team for the majority of this B.C. senior girls Triple A season.

And oh yes, you have to search the provincial scene long and hard to find a trio as effective as that of Tavia Rowell, Jess Wisotzki and Natalie Rathler.

But all talent aside, the Gators carry a very important additional ingredient into the fray Friday (3:30 p.m.) when they face the Abbotsford Panthers in the first of two AAA Final Four games at the Langley Events Centre.

“I think this year we come in with a whole new respect for the game,” said Gators’ UFV-bound senior forward Natalie Rathler after her team turned on the jets in the fourth quarter and rolled to a convincing 96-67 win over PoCo’s Riverside Rapids.

Last season, at this very juncture, Walnut Grove’s season ended with an 85-70 loss to eventual finalist Panorama Ridge Thunder of Surrey.

“Last year the feeling was they we were a top team and that we could win it,” said Rathler who supplied 21 points and 16 rebounds to the winning cause. “We came in a bit too confident in ourselves. This year,we know that the team that shows up and works the hardest is going to be the one that wins it.”

On Thursday, with Walnut Grove leading 65-59 deep in the third quarter, Gators guard Rowell pulled up for a short jumper and then at the other end, Rathler stood in and took a charge even though the quarter was set to expire.

From that point forward, the Gators hit perhaps their sweetest groove of the season, leaning on a zone defence to get stops and turning those into instant offence and 29-8 game-closing run.

“We took a time out and we had a little team talk,” said Rathler of what fuelled the run. “We kind of realized that we were going to have to work and push ourselves.”

Rowell would finish with a game-high 34 points against a Rapids team without a single senior in its ranks. Wisotzki added 31 more.

And while the Gators have enjoyed a spectacular year, their victory Thursday was significant enough to represent the deepest tourney run in the history of its girls varsity basketball program.

“We have taken another big step after one year,” agreed head coach Darren Rowell. “There is a lot more maturity and they all work so well together. It’s been nice to see that growth over the last four years.”

Tessa Burton led the Rapids with 20 points, Sammy Shields added 17 and Jessica Parker 15.

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