Championship banners aren't handed out at the beginning of the season. If they were, the Duchess Park Condors probably wouldn't have laid their hands on one.
But the Condors -- through steady development and the forging of a team identity -- proved themselves best in the north central zone when it mattered most. Their payoff is a trip to provincials, March 6-9 in Kamloops.
The Duchess Park senior girls basketball team, which competes at the double-A level, topped the field at the zone championship tournament in Williams Lake last weekend. The Condors compiled a perfect 3-0 record at the double-knockout event, including consecutive victories against the Nechako Valley Viqueens, a squad that had beaten them during the season.
In the 'A' final at zones, the Condors defeated the Vanderhoof-based Viqueens 68-52. The next day, in the 'A-B' final, a rested Duchess Park downed a worn-out Nechako Valley 63-32 and clinched a spot in the provincial tournament.
"I don't think that was expected but we just got tougher and tougher as the year went on," said Condors coach Bruce Ballantyne. "We had lost to College Heights earlier in the year, we had lost to NVSS earlier in the year. We took our lumps but I always told the kids that you only get better by working through adversity together."
Back in December and January, the Duchess Park girls were far from being a zone power.
"I told the kids that the first two months would be to build the team and to find what we were trying to do," Ballantyne said. "And we started off quite slowly. At one point we were 8-7. After a couple of trips down south, we sort of toughened ourselves and finished the rest of the year going about 17-4. We had a really good run the last little bit."
A few weeks ago, the Condors won a local tournament when they beat two teams that later played in the city championship game, the Cedars Christian School Eagles and PGSS Polars.
Duchess rolled into zones as the No. 1 seed, one spot higher than Nechako Valley. At the zone playdown, the Condors had a first-round bye and then dumped host Williams Lake secondary 78-39 to set up the 'A' final against the Viqueens.
Throughout the tournament, Duchess Park played the style of basketball that suited it best -- a smothering man-to-man defence and the near-constant launching of three-point bombs.
"We don't always shoot it well -- we can be at 20 per cent sometimes, and other times we can be up to 40 per cent -- but we'll put up 25 to 30 three-point shots a game," Ballantyne said. "I've got four or five kids who are willing shooters and good shooters. We hit about seven or eight [three-pointers] a game [at zones]."
Cassie Rerick, a Grade 12 guard and the unquestioned leader of the Condors, was picked as the tournament's most valuable player. Two other Duchess Park players -- Celine Foucher and Carly Frenkel -- made the first all-star team. Local second-team all-stars were Alexis Schlick of Duchess Park, Julia Babicz of the College Heights Cougars and Fiona Raymond of the D.P. Todd Trojans. Meanwhile, Chantel Nicholson of College Heights was a deserving winner of the top defensive player award.
The other story of zones was the shining performance of the Cougars. They were the No. 5 seed but finished third.
After an opening-game 60-57 loss to fourth-ranked Williams Lake, the Cougars knocked off the third-seeded Trojans -- a team they hadn't beaten all season -- 60-54. College Heights then met Williams Lake again, and, this time, battled to a 60-53 decision. After that, the Cougars faced the Viqueens and kept things close until the fourth quarter. At the final buzzer though, the Viqueens celebrated a 72-65 win and moved on to play Duchess Park in what proved to be the last game.
While Nicholson was outstanding on defence, she was also an offensive juggernaut, with 115 points in her team's four outings.
The Condors have been seeded eighth for the 16-team provincial championship.