PORT COQUITLAM — If you went by the manner in which the No. 1-ranked Terry Fox Ravens junior girls basketball team has arrived this season to stake their place in the B.C. high school hoops community, what with that perfect 31-0 record, you’d be excused for looking at them like a group of youthful super-heroines soaring off the pages of a comic book.
Yet ask coach Mike Carkner about the secret origins of a team composed entirely of ninth-graders, and the answer might surprise you.
“They were a random group of girls who had never played,” explains Carkner, a former Simon Fraser Clan player. “It all just started in the gym at Castle Park Elementary about four or five years ago.”
From those humble origins, Carkner and Teena Frost, another former Clan player, began to work with a group that included Frost’s daughter Kianna and a number of her soccer friends.
On Tuesday, it was pretty plain to see what it had all grown to become.
The Ravens kept their undefeated record in tact by beating its crosstown rivals, the No. 3 Riverside Rapids, 60-58 in a down-to-the-wire Fraser Valley championship final at Maple Ridge’s Westview Secondary.
Terry Fox’s Emily Sussex hit a three-pointer to put the Ravens on top 58-55.
Riverside’s Brooke Kendal answered with a triple of her own to tie it up again.
The Rapids, who had led by 11 points (33-22) in the first half, later called a timeout to plot their next move with 15 seconds remaining in the game.
However Ravens’ defenders Cerys Merton and Alisha Weloy somehow managed to force a turnover that went to teammate Ana-Maria Misic.
Although she hadn’t scored from the field the entire game, watching her shots rim out of the cylinder on numerous occasions, Misic this time dribbled through a pair of defenders and banked home the winning lay-up with three seconds remaining.
“Our girls couldn’t have competed any harder. The gas tanks were empty,” said Jeremy Neufeld, Riverside’s senior lead assistant coach who has often times assisted the school’s JV head coach Desha Puri.
“And when the game ended,” said Neufeld, “our girls jumped off the bench like they had won the game. They are a phenomenal group.”
The Ravens, however, didn’t get to 31-0 by accident, and this, their fifth win this season over the Rapids, was the most dramatic.
“Mike and I call them the Bad News Bears,” Teena Frost said afterwards of her team. “They’re maybe not as physically big as some other teams, but they have grit and determination like no other group of girls I have ever been around. They just believe in themselves as a team.”
FUN COMES FIRST, THE REST WILL FOLLOW
Terry Fox is expected to be seeded No. 1 heading into the 2019 B.C. junior girls championships which begin Feb. 27 at the Langley Events Centre.
And while every one of the qualifying teams will have arrived among the province’s best Grade 9-10 teams through their own unique journeys, Carkner is steadfast in why this “random group” of former soccer players has so thoroughly enjoyed embracing every aspect of their identity as student-athletes and basketball players.
“Kids can get hung up on playing a lot of games,” said Carkner. “But kids have to learn the basic skills and have fun doing it. I’m about skill development and fun. And I think if you do that, the rest just takes care of itself.”
To that end, the aptly-named PoCo Galaxy started small before they ever dared to dream big, staying away from anything which resembled a heavy schedule of games until their seventh grade years.
And if you’re wondering how successful the formula has been, over this past summer, that Poco Galaxy team, playing under the VK Basketball moniker of VK Carkner, finished second at the Junior NBA national tournament, missing a shot to tie at the buzzer in a three-point championship finals loss to a team from Welland, Ont.
NEXT STOP: THE B.C. JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIPS
Just days after returning from the Junior NBA tournament, the team was rocked by the news that one of its own players, Karin Khuong, had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“She is an amazing kid,” says Carkner.” She will go though a round of chemo and then she’ll be at our next practice helping me with drills. The kids have all rallied around her. I think it’s why they are so tough.”
Khuong was with her teammates Tuesday, and after the dramatic victory, took her turn, alongside tourney MVP Sussex and defensive stalwart Merton, posing for a photo with the Fraser Valley championship banner.
Sussex played a huge role on Tuesday, the 5-foot-11 forward not only scoring a game-high 24 points, but coming into her own in terms of using her physical gifts on the floor.
“She’s continued to evolve as a post player,” Carkner said. “She is learning to get more aggressive and she is figuring out how to use her size inside.”
Yet no player scored more in the second half Tuesday than the Ravens’ 5-foot-8 guard Lauren Clements who scored 10 of her 18 points in the third quarter, later earning the praise of Carkner for her two-way play.
“She is a force,” the coach said. “She is the kind of girl that takes a charge at one end, then attacks the rim with skill and passion at the other end.”
And while all of that is impressive, reciting her full basketball lineage also lets us know that generation after generation, the game remains vibrant and connected with the countless families that make up our B.C. basketball community.
Lauren’s dad is Brian Clements, who in 1987 led Burnaby’s Cariboo Hill Chargers to the B.C. Double A championship title as the tournament MVP.
Clements would later play for the Clan under the legendary Jay Triano, but the even deeper connection is that he was coached at Cariboo Hill by Mark Prinster, who these days is the lead assistant on Terry Fox’s No. 1-ranked Quad A senior boys basketball team.
Another connection is Kianna Frost, the 5-foot-11 Raven, who in Terry Fox’s recent win over B.C. title-contending Kelowna Owls, hit five triples.
“This is a kid who is going to be such a huge part of our future,” says Carkner. “She’s almost six-feet tall and still growing into her body, but she’s got phenomenal skill and she shoots the three. She brings terrific length to the perimetre.”
Interestingly enough, while the Ravens are B.C.’s No. 1-ranked junior varsity team, they are often mentioned as the younger version of the current Triple A No. 1 Semiahmoo Totems, whose core this season is largely 10th grade.
Kianna Frost’s mom Teena was coached at SFU by current Semiahmoo head coach Allison McNeill.
As well, Carkner himself was coached at Simon Fraser by Mike McNeill, Allison’s husband and her current coaching partner at Semiahmoo.
Taylor Matthews and Hanna Rao, as well as Alanna Noble are also a part of a Ravens’ team which Carkner admits won’t be playing its second straight season of junior varsity in 2019-20.
“This year was our best scenario because we have young kids who weren’t yet physically mature (to play senior varsity),” Carkner said. “But at the same time, they are still in Grade 9 and it was a good for them to have success. But we’re going senior next year. Win or lose, there is no sense sticking around.”
Game notes — Misic finished with eight points for the winners, scoring her first six from the line. Merton added six points, Frost three and Weloy one. For Riverside, Maria Kim led the way with 16 points. Lucy Caldwell had 13, Kendal added 11, and both Venica Davignon and Francine Basiga scored nine each.
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