UFV WBB Midseason Review: Generations of UFV stars have set the stage for an exciting finish to the Cascades’ 2020 campaign and a promising chapter in women’s basketball history.
Silence filled the space between a room of players who sat in reflection. Some exchanged glances. Others untied shoes. No words were said.
A collection of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen had come together in pursuit of a common goal: a Canada West title and a shot at a national championship. Each would have the opportunity to return next season. Except for one: Kayli Sartori.
“I just remember it being dead quiet in the locker room. No one said anything because we knew what that moment meant,” said Taylor Claggett, then a budding star on the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) Cascades.
“We just wanted another chance to practice together again.”
The final buzzer at the University of Saskatchewan had sounded moments earlier, symbolizing the conclusion of Sartori’s university career and cementing her legacy as perhaps the greatest player in UFV women’s basketball history.
An all-around force, Sartori’s impact on UFV basketball cannot be understated. After leading Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat Secondary to a 2011 AAA provincial championship, she helped lead the Cascades to successive appearances at the CIS (now known as U SPORTS) Final 8 national championship tournament in 2013 and 2014.
As part of UFV’s ascension to the national stage, the Cascades won Canada West conference bronze in 2013 and silver in 2014, respectively. In 2014, UFV travelled to CIS nationals in Windsor and defeated Saskatchewan 69-57 to clinch bronze – UFV’s first national medal. Sartori was named to the CIS all-tournament team for her efforts. That was March 25, 2014.
Just shy of three years later, Sartori would play the final game of her career against Saskatchewan on Feb. 25, 2017. Despite losing 78-69 in the final game of a three-game series in the Canada West quarter-finals, Sartori left behind a powerful precedent for the future of the program – one that wasn’t lost on Claggett, her protégé in the room on that chilly late-February night in Saskatoon.
Fast forward another three years and Claggett occupies a role similar to that of her predecessor Sartori. Claggett is currently in the midst of her fifth and final year with the Cascades. Along the way she has earned Canada West all-rookie and third team all-star honours and is both a UFV female athlete of the year and community service award winner across all team sports.
“As a leader I try to get the most out of everyone. I want my legacy to be of someone who isn’t just a hardworking teammate, but is a good person as well. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to invest myself in the community,” Claggett said.
After being knocked out of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion by the University of Victoria last winter, Claggett entered the 2019-20 campaign determined to not only lead by example, but as a vocal leader off the court as well. Her leadership has proved crucial as three different freshmen — Deanna Tuchscherer, Maddy Gobeil and Jessica Parker — have all started at least seven of the Cascades’ eight games played thus far. Adding to the youth movement is Nikki Cabuco, a freshman who has also started a game and is averaging a solid 16 minutes a night and has quickly earned a reputation as one of the feistiest guards in Canada West, averaging the fourth-most steals among players averaging less than 20 minutes per game.
Together, the four freshmen have a precocious demeanor and have shown Canada West that UFV is a force to be reckoned with this season in the Canada West conference. The Cascades currently sit seventh in Canada West with a 5-3 record. Although their record situates them in the middle of the pack, they are trending upward at the right time with the arrival of the New Year marking the midway point of the season. UFV are winners of five of their past six games and are third in steals, offensive rebounds per game and free throw percentage.
Claggett has led the way with in nearly every statistical category. Her 19.9 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game situate her second, third and sixth among Canada West leaders – not to mention she’s shooting two more free throws per game than the next closest player and is on pace to shatter the record for most free throws made in a Canada West career. (Claggett has already broken the record for most free throws attempted in a Canada West career.)
Like Sartori in her final season, Claggett is the lone fifth-year player guiding a ship whose crew is comprised nearly 40 per cent of rookies and faces high expectations after bringing in arguably its most talented recruiting class ever. With the youth movement afoot, each rookie has risen to the occasion, especially the likes of Jessica Parker, a Princeton-to-Port Coquitlam export who arrived at UFV with a well-documented reputation as one of the province’s best two-way players.
“Each of our rookies play with confidence, and what really makes them special is that they all do something different, whether it be on the offensive or defensive end of the floor,” Claggett said.
“Jessica fights on every possession. She brings a grit that is just contagious and energizes the group. It’s easy to feed off of that type of play. We’re really lucky to have her.”
Parker is one of five Cascades rookies that together represent five of the Cascades’ top seven scorers this season – a feat no other team in Canada West can currently say. When not sacrificing her body to dive for a loose ball, darting into the lane to deflect a pass, or driving to the rim for a tough finish in traffic, Parker can be heard yelling reads on the defensive end and cheering her teammates on from the bench when given a chance to catch her breath.
“I want to be remembered as a gritty and all-around player that is always tenacious. I may not be able to have a standout game every time out, but it’s more important to me to get my teammates going. That’s how I want to define myself,” Parker said.
Ask Claggett and Parker what they remember about their first-ever Canada West regular season game and their answers are indicative of the decorated career that Claggett has had and the bright future that Parker has ahead.
For Claggett, she remembers the faces of family who had made the short drive from Mission to watch her debut, the roar of the public address system as her name echoed across the gym, and how quickly the initial shakes she felt evaporated once the game began. In the end, the nerves faded, and the forward who had made a name for herself as a star for the Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI) Eagles arrived as advertised; her play fuelled a win as part of a double-double performance.
Similarly, Parker faced the weight of anticipation as one of the cornerstones of UFV’s latest recruiting class. Parker was a student of the game while leading the way at Riverside Secondary, where she credits much of her knowledge of the game to the year she sat out and watched Shae Sanchez, then a star at Riverside before being recruited to play college basketball south of the border. Thanks to 6 a.m. practices that consisted of sprints, circuits and drills, Parker developed a discipline for the game and a willingness to learn from accomplished veterans.
On the brink of her debut with UFV, Claggett sat down with Parker and the rest of the Cascades rookies at the airport on the team’s way to Winnipeg. Claggett instructed the freshmen on how to watch film, the intricacies of the game, and how to scout other teams for potential weaknesses. She also reiterated the team’s expectations of the highly touted group.
“You’re never going to get another first game of university. Make it count,” said Parker in retrospect.
Parker scored in double digits each game versus the Winnipeg Wesmen, but the Cascades lost both contests. The morale of the group bent, but did not break. Following the losses, Claggett was once again there to remind the group of the importance of maintaining their composure.
“That’s just something that really got me thinking I have to do whatever is possible and put my heart on the court in those first games. I just really loved how she brought us together, it shows how serious she is as a player and how good of a teammate she is,” Parker said.
“She’s someone that I really look up to because of that.”
The Cascades rallied and returned home to close out 2019 by winning each of their four home games and splitting a pair against the University of Manitoba.
After finishing last season 10-10 and being ousted by Victoria in the opening round of the Canada West playoffs, Claggett and company have their sights firmly set on ascending Canada West and earning a shot at a berth at U SPORTS nationals. For Claggett, a Cinderella season would be the perfect end to an illustrious career.
All signs point to an exciting push toward the postseason for the Cascades. From a lesser-known university that punched above its weight to earn national recognition during the days of Kayli Sartori, to a Canada West contender with a bold mission as Claggett similarly writes the final chapter in her own post-secondary career, basketball fans in the Fraser Valley have a lot to look forward to beginning with the Cascades’ first two games of 2020 against the powerhouse UBC Thunderbirds, at home on January 3 and 4.
“The lasting image that I’ll take away is that it’s a community. Whether it’s fundraisers, practices, games, or socializing, we’re all best friends and we are in this together. That’s what you get when you play at UFV, and that’s what I’ll remember about my time here,” Claggett said.