Photo by Chung Chow
Richmond has been synonymous with basketball for as long as most can remember. Not that many seasons ago, arriving for a game between Richmond and Steveston hours before tip-off still wouldn't guarantee you a seat.
But while interest today remains high, there are signs times are changing.
"I am worried about the state of high school girls basketball in Richmond," says Chris Kennedy, coach of the R.A. McMath Wildcats senior team which is the only Lower Mainland squad ranked provincially.
"The loss of a junior league (this season) makes it more challenging to run programs. You look across the schools and there are not many programs. With girls you have some good teams but not many programs."
Kennedy says it's different on the boys' side, with a number of strong and competitive programs. The top players are as good as they have ever been in the community, but there is not much of a second tier of players right now. I am not sure the cause—maybe sports specialization, maybe it is a lack of strong programs (or) maybe it is changing interests in the community."
McMath is a bit of a bubble when it comes to girls sports, Kennedy points out.
"There is a lot of participation and benefit from a number of strong community coaches," he says. "And you get parents, grandparents, alumni and community at our games. This is very unique, and it something special that has been built. And when you look down the line McMath girls' basketball looks to continue to be a provincial contender for at least the next five years. It would be better for the game, though, if it was more like the boys with multiple teams in Richmond in the hunt every year."
The 2018-19 Wildcats appear to have all the ingredients for success. So much so, they should not only contend for city honours but also for the Crehan Cup as the best in the district.
But they've lost several key starters from last year's team to graduation, and must re-establish themselves as a dominant force. In their league opener Dec. 3 versus the Steveston-London Sharks, the Wildcats showed stretches of strong play but were not as consistent as they'll need to be to compete with the best teams in the province.
"We turned the ball over too much and were sloppy with our passes," Kennedy says.
However, he remains confident the girls will figure it out and be on the same page by early in the new year.
"It is definitely an adjustment for us. We have three girls who played Grade 9 last year and two girls who were in Grade 7, and now we're asking them to be major contributors at the senior level," Kennedy explains. "The game is faster and more physical so that is an adjustment.
Though she is only in Grade 8, Marina Radocaj gives the Wildcats some added height, and Kennedy believes the team is deeper than it has been the last few years.
Against Steveston-London, McMath rolled all 12 players for most of the game. They looked good, even dominating early to build up an 11-0 lead, but must take care of the ball better.
"Some of that will come with experience," Kennedy says. "There was definitely some nervousness for this game as it was seen as a key league opponent."
One bad week last year in February spoiled the Wildcats' plans, and ended their season early. They are determined to make sure that is not repeated.