LANGLEY — Imagine a B.C. girls high school basketball world without any tiers of classification.
Instead, replace it with a soup pot of sorts in which every team in the province is thrown together to form a chowder-like broth.
Bring to a boil.
Let the cream rise to the top.
And when you lift that cover, who might you figuratively find as the surprise ingredient floating on the very top of this hoops-flavoured hodge-podge?
How about the Langley Christian Lightning, that tiny Double-A school, this season with a roster of just nine players, who have taken on all comers and emerged victorious?
“They are right there with us,” admitted Paul Langford, the head coach of the Quad-A No. 1-ranked Riverside Rapids of Port Coquitlam.
“They are very good and I have total respect for them,” continued Langford of the Double-A tier’s No. 1-ranked team, which features three Class of 2022 university signees. “They are, regardless of tier, top four in the province. They are the kind of team that you’d like to be able to play 20 times.”
Langford is nonetheless grateful his team has had a chance to get better by playing the Lightning twice this season, including a January 24 clash at the Rapids’ gym in which the Langley Christian trio of Lainey Shelvey (21 points), Taelor Coxford (21) and Sydney Bradshaw (16) combined for 58 points in a 78-66 win over Riverside.
Back on Dec. 17, in the semifinals of the Tsumura Basketball Invitational at the Langley Events Centre, Riverside overwhelmed the Lightning 95-73, handing them what has been their only loss in what is currently a 16-1 season.
“We showed a lot of grit in that game,” Langley Christian head coach Danielle Gardner explained of the team’s win over Riverside. “We shot the ball well at times and I think it was kind of one of those games where they’d go on a run, and then we’d have an answer. I thought that was the difference.”
The Lightning have also beaten numerous other ranked Quad-A teams including No. 3 Terry Fox and No. 5 Sir Winston Churchill this season.
In creating a program which has stressed such crucial tenets as dedication, camaraderie and accountability, Gardner has taken Langley Christian’s program to the apex of competitiveness within the province, especially since moving the up to Double-A after winning back-to-back B.C. Single A titles in 2016 and 2017.
And the steps along the way, while painful, have been nonetheless soul-testing, illuminating and educational.
The Lightning fell to Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies 74-68 in the semifinals of the 2019 championships after a last-second regulation shot by GWG’s Deanna Tuchscherer ultimately snatched away the opportunity for a berth in the finals.
Then in 2020, just days before the onset of COVID-19, the Lightning cleared that hurdle and made it to their first B.C 2A final, only to fall 81-73 to East Vancouver’s Britannia Bruins.
Along the way players like Makenna Gardner (Simon Fraser), Hailey Van Roekel (Trinity Western) and Ava Krepp (TWU) have gone on to continue their careers at the university level.
It’s been an organic process, carefully tended to by Gardner, and one which has manifested itself in the unique DNA of the 2021-22 Lightning.
Yet despite the fact they were No. 1 to open the season at Double-A, the coach has kept her team grounded, and most importantly, conveyed to her players the difference between what is written on paper versus the real thing.
“Even when the rankings first came out, coach told us, ‘Sure, it says No. 1, but that doesn’t mean anything until the final weekend at the provincials,’” said Coxford. “So we all have the same goal of going for that provincial championship because we have come so close the last two years and this year we have the potential to bring the championship banner to our school, and leave that imprint and that legacy.”
Of course, the aforementioned trio of Simon Fraser-bound guard Shelvey, UBC-bound forward Coxford and Trinity Western-bound guard Bradshaw has been the catalyst.
And when you ask Gardner to explain the combined impact of the three, she can only do the best she can to try and define that which has so much to do with intangibles.
“I think what makes them special is just the way that they do gel when they are on the floor together,” she begins. “As individuals, they are such great people. But I also think the fact that as players, despite the fact that they are all so individually different in what they bring, they all still find ways to make each other shine… that’s why they are special.”
It’s the classic case of the sum being greater than whole of its parts.
And when you add the contributions of the team’s two other seniors — guard Matteya Tuinga and forward Clara Fenske — who have been stalwarts along with Coxford and Shelvey since the eighth grade, the foundation is even more solid.
Centre Ava French is the only Grade 11 on the roster, while the rest of the active squad is rounded out by Grade 10s Shaylah Black, Colette Vander Hoven and Madden DeWitt.
And ‘active’ is a key word, because Grade 10 Grace Bradshaw is serving this season as one of the team’s two managers, along with Maya Vanderzalm, after tearing her ACL before the season.
Added Riverside head coach Langford: “If the other Bradshaw wasn’t injured, I think they might be untouchable. If they had her this year? Wow.”
Here’s a look at each of the three university-bound Lightning players:
The transition from high school basketball to university hoops is best defined by the information overload factor.
Quite suddenly for the younger player, there is a little too much information to decipher and not the necessary time with which to process it.
Yet Simon Fraser women’s basketball coach Bruce Langford doesn’t feel that is going to be a big issue next season when LCS’ 5-foot-9 senior guard Lainey Shelvey joins the NCAA team atop Burnaby Mountain.
“I watch when kids go south and they compete against Americans, and Lainey has been one of the best at doing that the past couple of summers,” says Langford of Shelvey, who like the rest of the Lightning triumvirate play their summer hoops with North Vancouver-based VK Basketball.
“Because Lainey has the athleticism to play with Americans, the game isn’t faster for her down there,” continued Langford. “It’s her speed. What will determine things for her will be her mental toughness and putting the time into her game to continue to get better.
“She can become a player who can score from three levels,” added Langford, noting that her attack to the rim and three-point shot are currently ahead of her mid-range game.
As it pertains to the high school game, Shelvey handles a huge load of responsibilities for her team, all aided by her innate sense to find the ball in traffic and make good things happen as a result.
“What is neat about her is that she is such an explosive player, such a dynamic scorer,” adds Gardner, “yet there is a lot that can go unnoticed until you look at the rebounding chart after a game and see that she pulled down 15 boards and scored 20 points.
“She just has a knack for the ball, she’s aggressive and physical and she has a nose for it.”
If there is a sleeping giant amongst the Langley Christian trio in terms of a future filled with offensive potential, then senior point guard Sydney Bradshaw would be that player.
Because in inspiring old-school ways, she cares more about the other side of the floor first, and always has.
Yet the 2021-22 model of the 5-foot-5 floor general is showing that, coming out of the cancelled season, her game has not remained static.
“She is a dynamic guard that is defensive-minded, and that is exciting for a coach,” relates Trinity Western head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul who is keeping Bradshaw within city limits by plugging her into the Spartans’ talented backcourt next season.
“But then in the last calendar year, she’s worked on her offence and grown so much,” adds Jean-Paul. “She has shown the work ethic needed to bring new parts to her game.”
That much was on display back on Dec. 18 at TBI 2021 when Bradshaw put on a first-half clinic in a win over the Quad-A South Delta Sun Devils, pouring in 24 first-half points as part of an 85-59 win in which she ultimately finished with 31.
It’s Bradshaw’s understanding of giving her team just what it needs, regardless of how glamorous, which makes her the prototypical point guard.
“It’s just finding what she needs to do for us and when we need it, and she is OK with that,” says Gardner of Bradshaw who joined LCS in Grade 10 after formerly playing on the North Shore. “She doesn’t need to be in the spotlight. She’s just as happy to get the ball to others. And, she is tenacious on the defensive end.”
Adds Jean-Paul of that 31-point outing Bradshaw turned in a week before Christmas at TBI on the same LEC Centre-Court floor on which she will play for Trinity Western: “Oh, man, this kid is ready to go and that was a great game. I was excited to see her find her threes, create, go to the rim. She wouldn’t describe herself as an offensive player, so to be able to do that and keep her team ahead… that was exciting.”
Taelor Coxford is treading on some rare hardwood these days, and that’s because the UBC-bound 6-foot-2 Langley Christian senior forward is in the midst of what is her first full season of high school basketball since back in ninth grade.
Two dislocated kneecaps, a serious elbow injury on her shooting arm, two separate surgeries and a COVID-cancelled season later, the versatile, rangy Coxford is thriving, playing the role of hard-to-guard wildcard in the Lightning’s overall schematic.
“I think the ceiling is high for her because she can do a lot of things and she works hard,” says Gardner of Coxford, who brings a distinctly European flair to the proceedings when she’s facing the basket.
“She brings leadership to our team, she is vocal, she plays inside-out, she rebounds and she runs the court well,” continued Gardner. “And I am continuing to find ways to challenge her in different ways to make our team it’s best.”
For Coxford’s part, every day has been an opportunity to soak up all that she loves about the game and her teammates.
“Honestly, it’s meant the world to me with my injuries and stuff,” she begins. “I wasn’t able to play the full Grade 10 year and then COVID happened. And over that time I basically had to re-teach myself how to shoot the basketball. So this year, when I found out that the season would happen in some way, I told myself that I would leave it all on the floor.”
McAleenan is very hopeful Coxford’s immersion within the daily U SPORTS development cycle at UBC will help reveal the full perimetre-to-paint potential of a wing-span laden player who had the misfortune of three serious injuries over a short span of time, one in which it’s important to note came in unison with a pronounced growth spurt.
“At 6-2, she has the ability to play from the three-point line to close to the rim,” McAleenan notes of shooting from distance, finishing inside and protecting the rim.
“We want to work on her lateral speed and she is someone who is just recovering from injuries,” McAleenan continued. “But we like that kind of a versatile player, and the options she gives us inside and out, the kind that allows us to switch a lot on screening action. That makes us a lot harder to be attacked.”
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