From the start, Rosedale middle school girls basketball coach Jim Adam knew there was something special about Alexa McCarthy, Courtney Bartel and Sarah and Nicole Wierks.
From their determination and perseverance to their team-first attitude and willingness to support- and pass to-the less-skilled players, the four young basketball players showed something special.
Junior high school coaches would tell Adam they were glad their teams didn't have to tip off against his middle schoolers.
Yet Rosedale was just one such school out of dozens in the Fraser Valley, his players just a few of the hundreds of young basketball players tossing large orange balls at hoops.
It would have been presumptuous, at best, for Adam to have thought four of his players would go on to star for one of the best women's teams in the country.
And yet, as 2013 begins, the four Rosedale grads are front and centre as the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades take aim at a national championship.
It all starts with Ogmundson
McCarthy, Bartel and the Wierks sisters can trace their joint love for basketball back beyond middle school, all the way to the ages of eight and nine, when the four took part in Joe Ogmundson's Chilliwack Hoops basketball program. (Even then they had a shared history: all four had attended Cheam elementary school; Bartel and Nicole Wierks first met in kindergarten.)
Ogmundson helped the girls discover a passion for sport that would lead them-more than a decade down the road-to the very same spot.
The longtime Chilliwack secondary school basketball coach "totally made [basketball] fun and he made it something that you look forward to every day," McCarthy said. "He totally instilled a love for the game."
So by the time the girls reached middle school, they were already standout players.
"Those were all girls who were high achievers," Adam told the Times. "They worked hard; they put the time and effort into every practice.
"As a coach, you can only lead them to the water; they've got to decide if they want to drink the water."
That dedication payed immediate dividends when the Wierkses and Bartel helped lead Rosedale to a provincial championship in 2006. (McCarthy, the oldest of the bunch, had moved on to high school at the time.)
Soon, the four were back together with Ogmundson, this time at CSS.
The girls' age differences meant that Nicole Wierks and Bartel, who are the same age, often found themselves playing on teams with either McCarthy or Sarah (the youngest), but not both. However, in 2008, the girls were all together and Sarah saw first hand what it takes to be a premier basketball player.
"In high school, Nicole and Lex would always try to get me out to go to morning practices and scrim-mage with the boys," Sarah said. "I don't think I've seen another player as committed to getting her shots up, getting her workouts in as Lex, and it's always been motivation."
That year, CSS finished fourth at the provincial championships-one of the best finishes ever for a Chilliwack school.
The perfect pipeline to UFV
During high school, the four had participated in UFV head coach Al Tuchscherer's junior Cascades summer basketball program. So when McCarthy graduated in 2008 and committed to play for the Cascades, it set the stage for Bartel and the Wierkses to follow.
"Once Alexa signed, it was almost like, 'OK, that's an option,'" Bartel said.
Now, midway through the 2012-13 season, the Cascades are currently the second-ranked women's basketball team in the nation, and the CSS clan are core components. The Wierks sisters are first and second on the team in scoring and rebounding; Bartel averages nine points a game while playing the fifth-most minutes; and before McCarthy went down with a wrist injury in late-November, she had started six of seven games and was second on the team in assists.
More than a decade since they first started shooting hoops together, the women say their long history together has contributed to their present success on the court.
"Understanding each other on a whole other level totally shapes our team," Nicole Wierks said.
Over the years, those bonds have grown as demanded by the ups and downs of the sport. For instance, Sarah Wierks says she forged a special connection with Bartel that was fostered during high school while Nicole was injured.
" W e know each other like the back of our hands," S a r a h Wierks said. "We just have that instinct." Bartel agreed: "It's really fun. It almost feels that we can almost sense where each other are."
Four players, of course, don't make a complete team. The Cascades also boast a foursome who attended WJ Mouat in Abbotsford, along with players from a variety of other Fraser Valley schools (including Kayli Sar-tori, who grew up in the Columbia Valley but went to school in Abbotsford). Despite that, Tuchscherer hasn't see factions developing that could otherwise split a team.
"When you have a group that's that tight, there's always the challenge of integrating players into that group, but they make that pretty easy," Tuchscherer said of the Chilliwack core. "It's not like they're super cliquey."
Indeed, Tuchscherer says it's better to have groups of old friends on the team who can brush off disagreements that might cause harsh feelings among less familiar teammates.
Nicole Wierks says she finds it hard to conceive of a life without basketball and her teammates and says the close bond has helped the women find success.
"In the off-season, us girls get together, we're working out together, we're going to the gym together, we're getting shots up together, and I totally see that, if I wasn't a part of a team like this, I wouldn't be able to do that kind of thing," she said. "It's kind of weird to think of how different my downtime would be. Even on the weekends I get to see the girls, we hang out, we're all friends."
She continued: "A lot of us were friends before we got serious about the sport, but the fact that we all loved it and we all stuck together . . . totally has everything to do with where we are now."
Even with that bond, though, the Chilliwack women didn't find instant success with the Cascades. It's taken several years for UFV to become the juggernaut they are now.
"We've finally learned how to win now and how to be a top team," Bar-tel said.
But while Tuchscherer says they talk more about process than results, Sarah was less coy: