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.
It would be presumptuous, at best, for Adam to have thought that 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, now ranked No. 1 in the CIS in the country, take aim at a national championship.
McCarthy, Bartel and the Wierks sisters can trace their joint love for basketball back to the ages of eight and nine, when the four took part in the Chilliwack Hoops basketball program. 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 paid immediate dividends when the Wierks and Bartel helped lead Rosedale to a provincial championship in 2006.
During high school at Chilliwack Secondary, the four 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 201213 season, the Cascades are currently the top-ranked women's
basketball team in the nation, and the Chilliwack 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.
"We know each other like the back of our hands," Sarah Wierks said. "We just have that instinct."
Four players, of course, don't make a complete team.
The Cascades also boast a foursome who attended W.J. Mouat in Abbotsford, along with players from a variety of other Fraser Valley schools (including Kayli Sartori, who grew up in the Columbia Valley but went to school in Abbotsford).
Despite that, Tuchscherer hasn't seen 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," Tuch-scherer 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," Bartel said.
But while Tuchscherer says they talk more about process than results, Sarah was less coy.
"Our goal," she said, "is to bring home the national championship."
That brings with it new challenges every week as lower-ranked squads try to upend one of the best teams in the nation.
"It kind of feels like there's a target on our backs," Bartel said. "It's more pressure, but I think we've finally learned how to deal with that pressure."