LANGLEY — Hope springs eternal on the face of Jake Cowley.
You can spot it on his defined chin, and along the sides of his visage where once was stubble, there are now the first few signs of impending sideburns.
Yes, the Walnut Grove Gators’ 6-foot-8 forward, in the waning days of February, is set to welcome March Madness with a playoff beard.
No longer just for hipsters and hockey players, Cowley’s fascination with the follicle is well-timed as a uniting force for B.C.’s No. 1-ranked Quad-A senior varsity team, which after its 91-70 win over Surrey’s Holy Cross Crusaders in Sunday’s Fraser Valley championship final, carries a 28-1 record against B.C. competition into its March 8 opening-round game at the Telus B.C. championships.
Yet as Cowley explains, it initially wasn’t all about some grand plan.
“Honestly, it wasn’t for the playoffs,” he said after cutting down the final few strands of the net at one end of the Langley Events Centre’s centre court after his team’s win over the Crusaders, played before a standing-room only crowd.
“I just decided to go with it, and coincidentally it was right around the start of playoff time.”
Still, as a symbol of the deep run the Gators are hoping to mount right here in the township when the B.C. tournament returns to the LEC, it’s spot on, both as a sign to his teammates of the level of leadership he wants to bring, and as a personal statement of the post-season longevity he desires to cap a senior season that began with more than its share of bumps.
It has been well-chronicled that Cowley left the team this season to play basketball at Ontario’s Orangeville Prep, but then decided to return, receiving an 11th hour reinstatement from B.C. School Sports to rejoin his team at Walnut Grove for the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
However as he found his stride through the regular season and into the playoffs, he rolled his ankle in a Feb. 20 win over Port Moody’s Heritage Woods Kodiaks in the early portion of the marathon Fraser Valley championships.
“I rolled it, I sprained it, and it turned out to be worse than I initially thought,” Cowley explained. “I was in physio and I have been icing it all week, and I was 100 per cent playing tonight no matter what. I couldn’t perform at my best, but the main this is, we got the win.”
And so the Gators, a juggernaut all season, move into the most important week of the season for teams which have punched their tickets to the Big Dance.
It’s that time of seven-plus days when no games are played and when the pitch of practice carries penultimate purpose.
Walnut Grove head coach George Bergen not only has the ability to polish and refine ahead of the provincial tourney, but to inspire through both his own words and the words of others.
“We have a tradition here where we like to bring in ex-players,” Bergen said with a smile, no doubt not only relishing the opportunity to re-connect with former Gators, but to ask them to speak to their experiences in helping build the program to provincial elite status.
All that said, the Gators looked plenty inspired Sunday on their way to the Fraser Valley crown.
Ty Rowell led the winners with 25 points, Brett Christiansen added 23 and James Woods 20.
“It’s difficult to win the Fraser Valley,” said Bergen. “It was difficult when I played (MEI, 1970) and it still is. But I feel like the guys are coming together because I can sense it in practice. They like each other, they like working together and it shows in the game.”
Holy Cross can claim very much the same.
Head coach Anthony Pezzente built a team this season based on an unquestioned attitude about its style, one that netted the Valley No. 2 seed despite the fact its most talented player was lost early in the season to a knee injury.
“If you had told me in mid-January that we would be here without Keegan, I would have called you a liar,” said Pezzente of Keegan Konn, the team’s starting point guard and perhaps the highest tempo guard in the province. “We didn’t think we would get here, but it’s all on the kids. They are the ones who wanted this, who bought in, were selfless and shared the work together.
“That’s why we’re here, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. On a given day, I think we can beat anyone in the province.”
Balance remains their key.
On Sunday, Jamal Osei Anim led the way with 15 points, Marcus Garcia and Ian Park added 12 each and Uyi Ologhola added 11. All four of those players will return next season.
Which brings us back to the end of the current campaign and the eternal question: How long can Jake Cowley’s beard actually get?
“I’m going to just let it go,” he laughs. “And if we win provincials, I’ll shave it off in the locker room.”
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