The clock bleeds down to zero, and the buzzer blares as a wave of fans crash the court; the Senior Girls just won the Provincial Championship for the first time in school history, but it was a long and bumpy journey to get here.

Riverside has always been known for its school sports teams and their competitive nature. 2021-22 had been a great season for the Sr. Girls, with the team making it all the way to the provincial finals. But after coming so close, they lost by 2 points to cross-town rivals, Terry Fox Secondary.

“The girls all got a good taste of what a provincial final is like, the atmosphere and excitement of it, and they were hungry, they were way less nervous, and they were determined. We call it the redemption season,” said assistant coach Jeremy Neufeld. There was a common consensus that the team had ‘what it takes’ to go all the way, but just needed to hone their skills a little more.

Grade 12, Alexis Hart commented on the journey to the final, “We train every morning, we saw that as our goal, to be better than we were last season. Going into last year, it was the first time we had been in provincials, so we were all very nervous and I think we tried to stay calm and composed. Knowing that we lost by two last year, we knew we had something to prove this year.”

Avery Sussex said, “Before each game, that’s what we talked about. No remaking what happened last year. It’s go time. Lock in.”

The season was looking promising until a devastating injury during a preseason game. “A setback we had early in the season was a huge injury to one of our grade 12 starters, Alexis Hart who tore her ACL, so that was just a massive hole in our roster and other girls had to step up big time,” Neufeld said. It was not likely that she would return to regular play after the injury, so each player on the team stepped up in their own way to fill the hole in the lineup.

“The special part about this group this year was every player played for the team, every player played their own role, nobody cared about personal acolytes like all-stars or MVPs, everybody supported each other and was happy for each other’s success,” said Neufeld. The Sr. Girls continued to have an excellent season going so far as to be ranked number one in the province by the Varsity Letters publication. They participated in the TBI 2022 tournament hosted by Howard Tsmura of Varsity Letters and became champions two years in a row.

Walnut Grove Secondary had been chasing Riverside since the start of the season and had been ranked second in the province.

“Every team that came to play us had nothing to lose and they wanted to rise to beat the number 1 team,” said Neufeld.

Sussex would say that the team had a “target on its back.” Both Riverside and Walnut Grove would meet in the finals of the Top 10 Tournament hosted by Centennial Secondary. The Walnut Grove Gators would pull ahead early and keep the lead to deprive Riverside of the win. Walnut Grove became one of the few teams to beat Riverside and a natural rivalry between the two teams formed.

“We could’ve easily won that game, but we were having problems with our team, we weren’t in the right mindset,” said grade 12, Grace Park.

The girls fought their way to the Fraser North finals against the Burnaby Central Wildcats who were ranked 3rd in the province at the time. The girls were met by a hostile crowd and a Burnaby Central team prepared to do whatever it would take to win. Injuries were common as Hart was still out from the ACL injury she sustained before the start of the regular season and Sussex had suffered an injured shooting hand.

“I severely sprained my right thumb mid-season and had to play through it the rest of the season,” said Sussex. The team had been in a slump and didn’t seem like themselves as they were scoring well below their average points per game. The game against Burnaby Central was no different. They were making bad passes, risky plays, and weren’t scoring as much as they would normally. “Overrated!” was chanted by the Wildcats crowd as Riverside was down by 12+ points with only a few minutes left in the game. That’s when Olivia Wheatley went down with an ankle injury which forced her out for the rest of the game. The Sr. Girls would go on to lose the game and be forced to leave empty-handed.

“One of the good things about losing that game was that it brought us down a bit. It helped us realize we weren’t untouchable, and it gave us a little more motivation because we met up with them in the semi-finals [of provincials],” said Neufeld. The loss was just what the team needed to jumpstart them back into their competitive nature.

“It was genuinely so beneficial for us losing that game because it got in our heads that we can be beat by anyone if we aren’t at our best and so we gave it everything and made sure we were at our best,” said Sussex.

Hart would make a miraculous comeback to the team and play the final few games of the end of the season.

“I finally got my MRI and then my physio said that technically I could play with a brace so that’s what I did, and I think that was the best outcome. I’d like to say that I contributed as much as I could.” For the first time in months, Alexis Hart would be reunited on the court with her teammates and her sister, grade 10, Jorja Hart who had really stepped up in Alexis’s absence.

“I was very nervous and very excited to get back on the floor because it had almost been 4-5 months since the last time I played so it was very exciting. I hurt myself in that game, but I got right back up and still played but it was definitely nerve-racking for sure,” said Alexis Hart. “My first game back, I hit 2 threes and I think I averaged 10 points per game which is pretty crazy, so I’d like to say that I did really well, and I gave it my all and the fact that I was brave enough to go back on the court and potentially risk hurting myself again, was really worth it.”

The Rapids entered the BC Provincials coming out of a slump, reunited with Alexis Hart who had made her return a few games ago, and a team with a whole lot to prove. Seeming like their old selves again, Riverside dominated and quickly cleared a way to the Provincial Semi-Finals. But not without losing Alexis Hart yet again due to re-injury.

“Obviously devastating because it’s my senior year, but I felt that I was a contributor on the bench and had great energy and I think that’s one of the things that helped us get as far as we did,” said Alexis Hart.

Burnaby Central, the team that beat Riverside in the Fraser North Finals were standing between the Rapids and the finals.

Alexis Hart said, “We were actually more nervous for playing central than Walnut Grove because they were definitely great shooters and when we played them, they had 17 threes on us, so we learned how to switch up our defence on their good players. We saw them as our competition in the tournament and we gave it our all and it was beneficial in the end.”

After a hard-fought battle, Riverside would pull away with a victory, winning 56-44 defeating the team that took the Fraser North banner from them, defeating the school that chanted “overrated!”

The Riverside crowd goes wild after Annabelle Neufeld scores a three pointer.

The Provincial Finals would have the 1st ranked Riverside Rapids face off against rival, 2nd ranked Walnut Grove Gators. The finals would bring Riverside together as a community as a massive crowd turnout sold out the Langley Event Centre. Neufeld would call the crowd “unbelievable” and “electric.” Kiera Pemberton, Walnut Grove starter, was Riverside’s main problem.

“Kiera is a great player, but I don’t see her as anyone different. She carries her team, it’s just someone we need to focus more on not letting her score. We did more prep and ran different defences for her in the finals which led us to success,” said Sussex.

Running new defensive strategies would be majorly beneficial as Riverside was able to pull ahead early while keeping the Walnut Grove Gators at bay.

“Provincials are the symbol of the end. Where we give it our all and put everything out on the floor. The most important tournament with the one important banner on the line,” said Sussex.

The Rapids would continue to stay ahead of the Gators with points coming from up and down the lineup as well as overwhelming support from the crowd. The Sr. Girls were able to pull ahead by 20+ points with only a few minutes left in the game.

“I looked at the clock and we had 8 minutes left and I said this is going to be the longest eight minutes of my life and the next thing I knew, I looked at the clock and it was two minutes and the next thing I knew, I was counting down from 30 seconds and I looked at the score and I honestly didn’t believe it because to win something that big is really, really impressive and really a great thing to accomplish,” said Hart.

“At about the 3-minute mark of the game is when I took my first deep breath and came to the realization that ‘holy smokes, we did this.’ It was just a huge relief along with just a lot of emotion. So

proud of the girls and their dedication this year and their commitment. It was really, really emotional,” said Neufeld.

The clock ran down to zero and the final buzzer blared. Sussex threw the ball into the sky and gathered with the team to celebrate a hard-fought victory. The Riverside crowd stampeded the court, swarming the team to join in on the celebrations.

“Unfortunately, when everybody stormed the court, I couldn’t really go on because I was in a wheelchair, but I was sitting on the side watching how proud everyone was and it was a great experience and I’m really proud of my team and it was fun to watch,” said Alexis Hart.

As the medals were awarded and the prestigious blue champion banner was handed over, the realization set in; Riverside Secondary had won the first Sr. Girls Basketball Provincial Championship in school history.

“My whole life I went to BC Christian, and we didn’t really have a good basketball team, like we would lose on the daily but coming to Riverside, ranked number one, it was a big jump, especially coming from private school to public school,” said Park. “It felt like home here, and I felt that I fit in well here and overall, probably the best season of my life and I don’t regret a single thing. I’m so thankful that I got to be a part of this team and we all worked so hard for it.”

Alexis Hart highlighted the emotional aspect of bringing home the title for one of their coaches. “Provincials is something that really means a lot to us because Paul hasn’t won in a long time and we really wanted to prove to him and make him proud,” said Hart. The team had come a long way from where they were just one year ago.

The Sr. Girls pose with their gold medals and well deserved championship banner.

“We have a very strong program at Riverside. We’re always in contention to win. They’re lucky to put themselves in a situation where they could win but it’s a strong program, so I’d like to acknowledge the alumni; the teams before this team that helped us get to this point. You know, the win was a school win, it was a team win, even the boys’ teams, helping us with practice, unbelievable fan support, we had great parent support, coaching, players were very dedicated; it was a very good team win, all the players contributed,” said Neufeld.