A couple of underdogs stole the show at the Richmond Juvenile Girls Basketball Championships.
The Palmer Griffins held off the McRoberts Strikers 24-21 to earn the school its first city girls basketball title in 14 years. Both teams head to next week’s Vancouver and District Championships, a scenario few would have predicted a week earlier.
The Steveston-London Sharks and McMath Wildcats entered the Richmond tourney as heavy favourites to meet in last Thursday’s final.
The Sharks went through league play unbeaten (6-0), while the Wildcats (5-1) were right behind them. However, the Griffins (3-3) came through with a big 40-37 semi-final upset of McMath, while the Strikers (2-4) stunned the Wildcats 35-32.
Two months earlier, Palmer coaches Daniel Chang and Isabelle Chung didn’t even know if they would have a team to coach.
With low enrollment numbers, there were not enough players to form separate Juvenile and Bantam teams. Instead, six Grade 8s were aged up to join four Grade 9s.
The Griffins dropped a 17-point decision to the Wildcats back in December and played them tougher in a 32-20 loss in their final regular season game on Jan. 24. That set the stage for the upset.
“We always knew for us to have a shot at winning city, we would have to beat McMath, so it was something we always kept in the back of our minds,” said Chang. “I think after the first two games, the girls understood McMath's motion offense, physicality, and what we had to do to take away their best options. We also went over a bit of film, and just laid out a game plan that, if executed, would get us the win.”
Palmer also needed some clutch performances and captain Kelsha Wong stepped up with 15 points to help erase a tough start for her team. The Griffins’ press was a big part of the second half with Fiona Vergel de Dios doing a terrific job guarding the Wildcats’ top offensive player and also chipping in with 11 points.
“We made the shots we had to make down the stretch, and the Grade 8s hold their composure and chipped in,” added Chang. “All of them kept battling the whole game, and despite McMath's physicality they never backed off and just kept competing. They wanted it really bad, especially the Grade 9s since we had a tough loss against McMath last year in the playoffs.”
The Palmer roster also features: Rana Ghadymimahani, Seema Al-Tabbaa, Mary Win, Mariya Konovalova, Katarina Provci, Joan Liu, Haruhi Asada and Sophie Co.
In similar fashion, the Strikers brought some confidence into their semi-final tilt with Steveston-London. They lost both regular season meetings against the Sharks but hung tough in a 28-18 defeat just six days prior to the semi-final rematch.
“We talked about what we had to do as a team to shut down their top scorers and our girls really stepped up,” said Teresa DeBou, who praised the inside play of Jaya Sidhu and Kyra Bates, who has made significant strides since the start of the season.
DeBou, a former Steveston Packer standout and now an elementary teacher at Garden City, is back coaching at the high school level after watching her daughter Jessica Jones have a leading role in McMath reaching the provincial “AAA” championship game last season.
What lured her to McRoberts is a chance to coach her niece Emma Hodgins and to help out at a school where volleyball is the unofficial number one sport. She is sharing the coaching duties with longtime teacher Dave Milholm.
“Other sports are most of these girls’ priorities. We have volleyball, soccer, fastpitch players and even a competitive gymnast,” added DeBou. “It’s a fun group to coach and it’s great to see them have success in basketball too.”
The Strikers’ roster also includes Minal Nijhawan, Isabella Boquist, Hana Terencio, Aaliyah Libatique, Kirstin Mann, Amber Chow, Sydney Lipu and Nikita Johnson.
The Wildcats will be joining the Griffins and Strikers at next week’s Vancouver and District Championships after beating the Sharks in the third place game.