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New-look Thunderbirds aim to keep program’s winning tradition alive

Semiahmoo Secondary’s senior girls basketball team aims for provincials again
Semiahmoo’s Izzy Forsyth battles (right) was a key member of the senior girls team’s run to back-to-back provincial quad-A championships, but has now graduated to the NCAA. (Garrett James photo)

For the past three years – two basketball seasons, plus one wiped out by COVID-19 – Semiahmoo Secondary’s senior girls basketball team has been in a class by itself when it comes to quad-A competition in B.C.

The team – coached by teacher Lori Pajic and former Canadian national women’s team coach Allison McNeill – won back-to-back provincial championships, in 2018-19 and again the following season, before the pandemic wiped out the 2020-21 campaign.

Prior to their championship run, the squad also finished fourth at provincials in 2017-18 – the first season together at the senior level, when the core group of players were only in Grade 9.

Along the way the last two seasons, the Thunderbirds – called the Totems at the time – never lost a game to B.C. competition. The team’s last loss to a local team came against Abbotsford Senior Secondary in the spring of 2018.

Things are different now, however.

The team is no longer ranked No. 1 in the province – they’re not currently ranked in the top 10, at all – and the key senior players have all left – Faith Dut graduated and moved on to the University of Florida two years ago, and three others, Tara Wallack, Deja Lee and Izzy Forsyth, graduated last year and are also now all playing in the NCAA. A fourth member of the championship team, Nicole Pajic, is now playing at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna.

McNeill, too, has stepped back after five years volunteering with the team.

“We were so incredibly lucky to get five years of volunteer service from such an amazing coach and person,” Pajic said of McNeill.

Pajic is now assisted by UBC basketball alum Lori McKinnon and Simrit Bindra, a former Trinity Western University hoops player.

• READ ALSO: Semiahmoo adjusting to life as defending hoops champs

And though plenty has changed, one thing has not: the team has still yet to lose to a B.C. team. A win earlier this week over Lord Tweedsmuir – 87-47 – gave Semiahmoo a 61-0 record since that 2018 loss to Abbotsford.

That streak will be put to the test tonight (Thursday), however, when the Thunderbirds host the Seaquam Seahawks, who are ranked tenth in B.C.

“It will be a tough battle,” Pajic said.

Regardless of how their tilt with Seaquam goes, Pajic said they aren’t fooling themselves into the thinking that it’s business as usual without their graduated stars, but she’s still pleased with the group that has hit the court this year – especially considering there was a time Pajic wondered if they would have a team at all.

“Initially we were not even sure if we would have a team, after losing eight seniors and (having) the forfeited season,” she explained. “Fortunately, we had 16 players show up for tryouts in October.”

This year’s team “has some talent and a good work ethic,” Pajic said, and is led by seniors Maria Zhang, Madelyn McKinnon and Ashley Clayton. The trio combined to score 66 of the team’s 87 points against Tweedsmuir.

Clayton has scored in double-digits every game thus far – including a season-high 28 against Southridge earlier in the schedule – while McKinnon has been with the senior team since she was in Grade 9.

The two-sport star – McKinnon is a member of the White Rock Renegades and has already committed to a softball scholarship at McLennon Junior College in Texas – “continues to be a force with her precision passing, rebounding and tremendous defensive pressure,” according to her coach.

Considering the roster turnover, and the fact that there wasn’t a season at all last year, Pajic said she, and the rest of the team, came into the season with no expectations, but still has the same goal as always: to make it to provincial championships, should a tournament be held in a few months.

“It was strange going into a season having no idea what to expect from your own team or your opponents,” she said. “Missing an entire season of games will do that.

“The South Fraser Zone has a number of strong teams this season… We are looking forward to these teams testing us as we still don’t quite know where we fit. Our goal is to see if we can make it to the BC Championships at the beginning of March.”

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