Kayli Sartori and the Cascades women’s basketball team

Local flavour: Unique recruiting strategy lifts UFV women’s hoopsters to national prominence

The No. 2-ranked women's basketball team in Canada is comprised entirely of players from within a 60-kilometre radius of their campus.

It’s remarkable, when you really get down to it.

The No. 2-ranked women’s university basketball team in Canada is comprised entirely of players who hail from within a 60-kilometre radius of their campus.

That team is the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades, and its distinctive composition is no accident. It’s a product of head coach Al Tuchscherer’s shop-local recruiting strategy, which amounts to the basketball equivalent of the 100-Mile Diet.

The roster features five players from Abbotsford, five from Chilliwack, and one each from Mission, Maple Ridge and Langley. Rookie forward Shayna Litman hails from the farthest afield, and she’s from Coquitlam.

This UFV squad certainly embodies the name and mandate of the institution to which it is attached. But most remarkable thing is, national championship contenders – which the Cascades most certainly are – aren’t usually built this way.

That was the impression Tuchscherer was under back in 2006, as his team made the jump from the Canadian Colleges Athletics Association (CCAA) to Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS).

“We didn’t have any focus in how we were recruiting,” Tuchscherer recalled. “I was flying to Manitoba, flying to Ontario, talking to kids all over the country. I was doing what UBC and SFU were doing, saying, ‘How can we be these guys?’ And we weren’t having a lot of success getting kids into our program.

“I remember coming back from a trip to Manitoba where a kid told me, ‘No, I’m going somewhere else.’ And I just said, ‘We’ve got to focus all our attention on the Fraser Valley.’ This is how it’s got to happen.”

To revisit the food analogy, think of basketball players as an agricultural crop. The national powerhouses – the UBCs and SFUs – have the cachet to walk into the supermarket and pick the best-looking produce off the shelves.

Tuchscherer, at a fledgling program with comparatively limited resources, came to realize he needed to plant his own garden – sow the seed, fertilize and water it, before reaping a harvest.

What that ended up looking like, in practical terms, was the Junior Cascades program.

Established in 2007, the summer club system provided an avenue for Tuchscherer to connect with the best local athletes at a younger age, while providing guidance to enhance their development.

Such an initiative requires an awful lot of patience, though.

After making the playoffs their first two CIS seasons with a core of veterans who moved up from the college ranks, UFV went 4-19 in 2008-09 after the bulk of those players graduated. Then in 2009-10, they sank to 2-16 – dead last in Canada West – and Tuchscherer began to catch flak for his Fraser Valley-centric recruiting strategy.

“People pretty close to the program were questioning whether this was the right route to take,” he said. “Even a few years ago, I wasn’t sure it was going to work.

“But we stuck to it.”

But what if it didn’t work? What if UFV simply settled in as a second-tier program, forever chasing the UBCs of the world?

“I think I would have had to pass the program along to somebody else,” Tuchscherer candidly admitted. “I don’t think I’d be able to be content being a .500 team year in and year out. I don’t think that would work for me at all.”

Things began to turn around in the summer of 2009, when Tuchscherer brought in what he considers a program-saving recruiting class featuring Junior Cascades alumni Aieisha Luyken, Nicole Wierks, Tessa Hart, Courtney Bartel and Sam Kurath.

“I had never considered going to UFV at all,” said point guard Luyken, now in her fourth year. “But the previous summer I had the opportunity to play for Al with the Junior Cascades. I just fell in love with his coaching style and the family atmosphere.”

As rookies, Luyken and company weathered the last-place season of 2009-10, but Tuchscherer saw light at the end of the tunnel. These girls were hungry. If they weren’t shooting in the gym, they were in the weight room working out.

The Cascades’ fortunes turned around in an awful hurry. Each of the past two seasons, they won a playoff series, qualified for the Canada West Final Four and advanced to the CIS regionals.

Earning a national championship berth is still on their to-do list, but nationwide respect arrived this fall, as the Cascades debuted at No. 3 – a team record – in the first CIS coaches poll of the season. After the No. 2 Regina Cougars split a pair of games with the Saskatchewan Huskies on opening weekend, UFV leapfrogged them in the new rankings released Tuesday.

“Oh my gosh, it’s so exciting,” sophomore forward Kayli Sartori enthused. “We’re over the moon. But then again, now you have all these teams knocking on your door, wanting to knock you down.

“We’ve come so close to nationals the last two years now. Now it’s time for us to start making steps and getting there. There comes a point where we just have to do it, and that’s this year.”

The Junior Cascades farm is fully functional, delivering a fresh crop of recruits every year. Eleven of the 13 players on the active roster are alumni of the summer club.

That’s produced a unique family atmosphere. These girls don’t go their separate ways after practice – they’re always together, whether having dinner, watching movies or playing board games.

They also do a lot of charity work. On Halloween, fourth-year guard Alexa McCarthy spearheaded a walk-and-knock campaign to collect non-perishable food items for the Abbotsford Food Bank. The team has also been known to show up en masse to donate blood, or serve food at soup kitchens.

“It’s not that we have to be together or that Al’s making us,” Sartori said. “We grew up together, and we just love being around each other.”

This past Sunday, after the Cascades opened the regular season with a weekend sweep of the Mount Royal Cougars on the road, Tuchscherer took his team to Peters’ Drive-in, an iconic Calgary restaurant.

As they sat at the outdoor tables and feasted on fries and milkshakes, the girls started reminiscing about their days with the Junior Cascades – reliving road trips, recalling past wins and losses.

“It was just awesome to stand back from it a little bit,” Tuchscherer said. “I’m looking around, and I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to be pretty freaking hard to beat.’ We’ve been together for such a long time. These girls love playing with each other.

“You could just see that legacy building.”

• The UFV hoopsters host their home openers this weekend vs. the UVic Vikes on Friday (women 6 p.m., men 8 p.m.) and Saturday (women 5 p.m., men 7 p.m.) at the Envision Athletic Centre.

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