Hometown vision brings it all into focus for UFV, Cascade women thrive with No. 2 CIS rank

From The Province, Nov 22, 2012

By Howard Tsumura

Al Tuchscherer had a pretty good feeling that starting a CIS women’s basketball program in the eastern part of the Fraser Valley was kind of like having the only shopping mall in a mass of suburban sprawl.

But as the head coach of Abbotsford’s University of the Fraser Valley Cascades now candidly admits, the path to this season’s 6-0 Canada West start and program-best No. 2 CIS ranking didn’t begin to happen until he started to believe it 100 per cent of the time.

Friday and Saturday respectively, when the Cascades (15-2 overall) play host to the Manitoba Bisons (6 p.m.) and Winnipeg Wesmen (5 p.m.) in games at UFV, a belief system now so deeply entrenched will be on display with a roster that lends new meaning to the term home grown.

Twelve of the team’s 13 players hail from just four high schools (Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat and Yale, as well as Chilliwack and Mission secondaries), all of which are within relative shouting distance of each other, and all of which sit in the back yard of the Cascades’ on-campus home at the Envision Athletic Centre.

So when it’s suggested to Tuchscherer that recruiting freshman forward Shayna Litman from Coquitlam’s Centennial Secondary, and red-shirt guard Sydney Schepikoff from Brookswood in Langley, seems somewhat akin to pulling in players from the U.S. deep south, a roar of laughter can be heard at the other end of the phone line.

“The first couple of years, I was kind of lost in recruiting,” says Tuchscherer, the former Pitt Meadows prep star and the only head coach the women’s program has known in its seven-year CIS existence. “To be honest with you, I was looking at what all of the other schools were doing, and so I thought I had to go into Manitoba and Ontario, and talk to kids there. But it wasn’t working for us at all.”

So four years ago, the coach decided to trust his gut.

“That’s when we made that concerted effort to get the best Valley kids who wanted to play at UFV,” explains Tuchscherer of a 2009 recruiting class that featured Mission guard Aieisha Luyken, and Chilliwack forwards Courtney Bartel and Nicole Wierks, now the foundation of the program. “It’s not that it’s the only place we’re going to look. But the Fraser Valley is our area. We’re a regional university. We don’t have the national recruiting power that UBC has. It was a scary gamble, but it’s paying off. We’ll see what the final chapters are.”

The early chapters have been encouraging for a team of team-first Valley girls who currently boast the best field goal percentage in the entire CIS at 45.8 per cent and lead the conference in defensive field goal percentage at a stingy 30.3 per cent.

Last weekend, the Cascades went into UBC’s War Memorial Gym and showed it could win in different ways, blowing out the No. 10 Thunderbirds 76-48 on Friday, then coming back the next night and going to double overtime to win 88-82.

It was a far cry from the 2009-10 season when rookie-laden UFV went 2-16 in the conference, including back-to-back 22- and 24-point losses at UBC.

And that’s why Wierks, one of four Chilliwack Secondary players on the roster, including her younger sister Sarah, Bartel and Alexa McCarthy, says the Cascades aren’t struggling in the least to find the motivation necessary to combat all of the intangibles that come with a No. 2 national ranking.

“It helps being the team that used to have to play the teams that were ranked No. 2,” says Wierks, who leads a balanced Cascacdes scoring attack at 14.2 points per game and also averages 6.5 rebounds per contest. “We’ve been there, we’ve been at the bottom. So we know what kind of drive and passion we have to fight against.”

Thus far, the Cascades have answered the bell, going with what has largely been a seven-player rotation. Sarah Wierks averages 13.3 poitns and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds, Luyken averages 13 point and five assists as the point guard, McCarthy and Tessa Hart have split time at off-guard, and Bartel (11.5 points, 5.5 rebounds) has thrived coming off the bench. Ex-Mouat forward Kayli Sartori (9.3 points, 6.2 rebounds), a member of The Province’s 2011 Head of the Class, is the group’s emerging star.

And the spin-off benefits that come from their shared geographic proximity?

“It’s not like they’ve been together for two or three years,” laughs Tuchscherer of a group of players who have played with and against each other on regional teams, at Valley championships, and in open gyms. “They have been together, in some way for six, seven, eight years now. They enjoy being there for each other. And they have each other’s backs like you wouldn’t believe.”

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