The Ballenas Secondary School girls basketball team has had to recalibrate its expectations entering this week’s B.C. AA senior basketball championships in Langley.
After all, they didn’t expect to be there at all.
The Whalers, who opened the 2017 championships Wednesday with a 65-53 win over Okanagan Mission at the Langley Events Centre, cruised into the provincial championships with an overwhelming 82-47 win over St. Michael’s University School in the Vancouver Island AA championship final.
“I didn’t even know if we’d make it in this year,” Whalers coach Bryan Spray said. “And I certainly didn’t expect to win (the Vancouver Island championship) that easily.”
The Island championship was the program’s second in three years, following the Whalers’ first-ever title in 2015.
After placing seventh in the AA provincials that year, Ballenas returned in 2016 as the No. 2 seed from Vancouver Island and finished 12th in the 16-team provincial finals.
The common denominator is senior guard Makayla Hoey, who started for the Whalers as a precocious Grade 10 on that 2015 squad and who is one of B.C.’s top basketball recruits with a 25 point-per-game scoring average.
But she is also one of only two Grade 12 players — along with Kate Reynolds — who returned this season from last year’s provincial squad.
“It’s a lot different this year because we only have two seniors,” said Hoey. “But the last two tournaments it pretty much worked out that the whole team played our best ball.”
The Whalers overwhelmed the North Island AA tournament field, sweeping through Nanaimo rivals John Barsby, Wellington and Nanaimo District Secondary to claim the top seed to the Island championships in Shawnigan Lake.
Their unprecedented run through the Islands included lopsided wins over Lambrick and Shawnigan Lake before the championship win over SMUS. The closest margin of any of the games was 27 points.
“It turned out this team was better than we thought, and the competition was not as good,” said Spray. “I’ve seen years where it was a lot better on the Island. And we used every single player in both tournaments; we didn’t use a short bench.”
Hoey and Reynolds are surrounded by a mixed group of Grade 10 and 11 players who all moved up from the junior ranks this season. Another key piece of the puzzle has been Contanze Ehrmeier, an exchange student from Germany who adds solid ball-handling and passing skills to the team’s mix.
Even with its front-line firepower, Ballenas faces a tough challenge in this week’s tournament. The Whalers, despite their overwhelming dominance on the Island, were seeded ninth in the 16-team tourney. Okanagan Mission of Kelowna, one of four Okanagan Valley teams ranked in the top six provincially, earned the No. 8 seed despite finishing fourth in its own region.
And for their win over Mission on Wednesday, the Whalers’ reward was a quarterfinal date Thursday afternoon against top-ranked and No. 1 seed Seycove of North Vancouver.
“The teams on the Lower Mainland have a lot of club players,” said Spray. “To be competitive at provincials you really need to be exceptional. We have a part-time basketball team.”
Hoey, who competes with the Triple Threat Basketball program in Vancouver, is the only Ballenas player who plays year-round basketball. The other students, said Spray, disperse to play volleyball, soccer, rugby, track and field and other sports at other times of the year.
Reynolds, for example, is a top soccer player who will move to the pitch when this weekend’s tournament brings her basketball career to a close. In the meantime, though, she’s going to enjoy her moment in the spotlight.
“There’s nothing like playing in provincials,” said Reynolds. “I really like how they announce your names at the start of each game, and you go high-five your teammates and the other coach. There’s just a lot of excitement.”