Photo by Chung Chow
In basketball-mad Richmond, the McMath Wildcats stand tall.
Amidst a culture of excellence, the school’s senior girls team is proving to be a leading force guided by veteran coaches Chris Kennedy and Anne Gillrie-Carre, whose passion for the game is as apparent as that of the players.
This is the calm before the storm, as the Wildcats prepare for the biggest week on the high school hoops calendar. The quest for the B.C. High School AAA championships begins at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday when the 11th-ranked Richmond side faces No. 6 Brookswood Bobcats of Lanley on Centre Court at the Langley Events Centre. The ultimate goal is to reach the final and play for the big prize Saturday night.
A long shot maybe, but all season long the Wildcats have defied the odds.
“A lot of people around the province thought we were a year away from contending, but here were are,” Kennedy says with a hint of pride. “I want our girls to enjoy the experience and show their best. With a little luck, we will go on a run.”
Having graduated so many key players in 2018, the 2019 season was forecast to be one of rebuilding. Even Kennedy is surprised by how well the Wildcats have fared with so many young players.
“We knew we would get strong play from our Grade 12 guard Jayna Wilson and our other Grade 12s, but our Grade 8 and 10 players have really matured quickly,” he explains. “The move to senior basketball is huge and they have adjusted really well. I think playing many of the best teams early in the year was smart strategy, as it showed us where we needed to be for playoffs. We have played Walnut Grove, Riverside and Brookswood. There is nothing to be intimidated about (being at the provincials).”
While the upstart Wildcats qualifying for provincials is a story in itself, their play since the Christmas break has been nothing short of remarkable. They’re 20-2 since the flip of the calendar and enter the season’s final tournament with an overall record of 30-11.
Though they lost to the Argyle Pipers in the regional Crehan Cup final last Saturday, McMath still enters with plenty of optimism if not confidence as the Lower Mainland’s second seed. What is perhaps as impressive, and potentially concerning for the opposition, is the balanced attack they displayed throughout the Lower Mainland tournament. With Wilson providing leadership in a standout performance during the team’s 72-56 semifinal win over Burnaby South, coupled with equally impressive showings by senior forward Morgan Flynn and Grade 10 guard Abby Bodden in the championship game against Argyle, the Wildcats clearly have the ingredients required to go far.
For five players, this week’s provincial championships represents the end of their high school basketball careers. But for 10 others, including four starters with at least one more year of eligibility, the experience alone will be invaluable.
The 2019 tournament marks the fourth time in the last five years that McMath has qualified for the provincials, a testament to a dedicated coaching staff and the players who’ve set a high standard.
McMath last faced Brookswood at the provincials in the 2016 finals, with the Bobcats holding off the Wildcats for the B.C. title. Earlier this season, the teams played even through three quarters before Brookswood’s hot shooting allowed them to pull away.
Kennedy believes to be successful at provincials requires momentum, good preparation and a little bit of luck. Match-ups are also key.
“We don't have the size like some of the teams in the tournament, so the longer we can avoid those teams the better,” he says.
Already, the Wildcats have realized their goal of making provincials. But they’re clearly hungry for more than just an appearance.
“It is an interesting feeling this year heading into provincials,” Kennedy says. “For the 10 girls that will be back this experience will be incredibly important in their development.”
Only Liz Kennedy (as a Grade 8 and 9 student) and Morgan Flynn (in Grade 10) have previously played in a senior provincials, and I tried to explain to the girls it is a completely different experience. It is something that is hard to prepare for.
I have always found it hard to ensure we are ready for provincials. After playing a game every night almost for two weeks, there is a 10-day break before provincials. We are scrimmaging a couple other teams and also training with our junior boys’ team (they are also going to provincials) to try to ensure we keep the intensity high. We want to build up to next Wednesday and our first game.”
Kennedy says there is always some pressure having been so consistent in recent years. But with so many young players this season, expectations are at least lessened.
“We definitely showed some nervousness the last two weeks through Richmond and Lower Mainland playoffs, but in many ways success at the BCs is a bonus now,” he says.
“Provincials are such a great experience. I am so glad the girls will get a chance to experience playing with all the best players in the province on a huge stage. Whether it is our Grade 8s who will get to do this many more times, or our Grade 12s who get to do this one last time, it is all special.”
Now that the stage is set, it’s time to let the games begin.
As Wings once sang, “With a little luck…”