Riverside senior Shae Sanchez and her head coach, Paul Langford. (Howard Tsumura photo)
Feature High School Girls Basketball

Riverside coach Langford has but two words: ‘Proud Coach’

PORT COQUITLAM — They weren’t supposed to have a team this season.

A program that stands amongst the most consistent, durable and excellent in the recent history of Fraser Valley senior girls Triple-A basketball was, back in the late fall, so numbers challenged that Paul Langford gave the kind of speech to his players that no head coach ever wants to deliver.

“We weren’t going to have a senior (varsity) team because all of the players were in Grade 10 (or younger), and they didn’t have to play up,” said Langford, the head coach of the Riverside Rapids. “They could have all played junior. So I had to tell them that if they didn’t play at senior, that Shae wouldn’t get her final year. So the kids did it for Shae”

Shae, of course, is Shae Sanchez, the Rapids’ ultra-talented 5-foot-9 guard and the only senior on the team’s seven-player roster.

Sanchez had begun her senior varsity career as an eighth-grader and had helped Riverside reach the provincial tournament in every one of her first four campaigns.

Yet on Tuesday, in a wildcard game which offered the team that almost wasn’t one last chance to make the Big Dance, a shared dream was dashed.

Struggling from the free-throw line and unable to protect a double-digit lead, the Rapids came out on the short end of a 68-64 score against Vancouver’s Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs.

Every team has its own story to tell, and in the case of the Bulldogs, victory meant a second straight trip to the provincials after missing out the previous 49 years.

What did it mean, historically, for Riverside?:

The end of the longest active streak of B.C. berths among Fraser Valley girls Triple A teams.

The Rapids had made it 10 straight years

Her teammates wanted so much to make it 11 so that they could celebrate a fitting end to Sanchez’s senior varsity career.

Yet even in defeat, after she scored 23 points in her final high school game, Sanchez spoke to the countless other players in this province who all had their careers cut short of a trip to the provincial tournament.

“I wouldn’t want to have played my senior year with any other group of girls,” she told them.

It was a fitting reminder that for Riverside, just getting to Tuesday was an incredible feat.

Late last week, Langford had a hard time holding back tears as he spoke to the group’s accomplishments, especially it’s 83-82 loss Friday as the Fraser Valley championships to Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers, the zone’s No. 1 seed and the province’s No. 2-ranked team.

Langford admitted that drawing an angry, purpose-filled Tweedsmuir team in a game in which the loser would be denied an automatic B.C. tourney berth, was less than ideal for his young and numbers-challenged group.

So after Riverside’s junior team was eliminated from further play this season, he invited them to join his senior team for the Tweedsmuir game, realizing the Rapids were in David vs. Goliath situation and that they could get a chance to play some meaningful minutes.

“But our five starters were not good with the plan,” said Langford. “It was 42-41 (for Tweedsmuir) at the half, and it was tied after three quarters. They weren’t going to get blown out and at the end (in that 83-82 loss) we had a shot to win it. They weren’t going to let (the JV call-ups) play, and good for them.

“After the game, I just had two words for them: Proud Coach.”

Through a very trying season, one which has seen the Rapids win when their outside shooting was on point and lose if it wasn’t, Sanchez has been incredible.

Against Lord Tweedsmuir, she scored 34 points. In an elimination game the day before, she scored 39 in a win over Dr. Charles Best. She averaged 29 points-a-game for the season.

Tessa Burton, Adrienne Wllems, Alanya Davignon and Keimi Cuellar have all played big minutes as Grade 10s, and Ingrid Vacha has also contributed as an 11th grader.

And, there has been the remarkable debut of Sammy Shields, a 5-foot-8 Grade 8 guard who may well end up being the No. 1 player in the entire B.C. Class of 2021 when it’s all said and done.

“We’ve had some bizarre things happen this year, like Sammy scoring 35 points in a game, as a Grade 8,” says Langford, acknowledging the symmetrical torch-passing of Sanchez’s five-year career overlapping by one season with that of Shields.

Next season, Riverside brings back its entire team sans Sanchez, and adds not only a new class of incoming senior varsity players, but as well, a 5-foot-9 guard named Jessica Parker.

Ruled ineligible to join the team this season, the talented native of Princeton nonetheless played an important role this season by bringing a physical edge to practices.

“Having a team with seven players is a lot like driving a car without insurance,” says Langford, who in a figurative basketball sense, likened the dangers his shallow lineup would take to even a tiny ding at a traffic light. “You don’t want to get pulled over by the police and you don’t want to get into an accident. But we’ve only had two kids foul out of a game this season.”

And from almost not having a team to falling achingly short of a place in the LEC’s Sweet 16?

We’ll the spend the coming week writing and talking about the teams that did make it, but there remains sop much substance in speaking about the ones that did not. And their stories are equally compelling.

“For Shae to go (to B.C.’s) five times would have been incredible,” Langford says. “It would have been off the charts. But I also never thought we would have gone this far.”

Not to put words in Langford’s mouth but two more are especially in order here.

Proud Coach.

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