Since bursting onto the senior girls hoops scene last year as a primarily Grade 9 team – eventually finishing fourth at provincials – the Semiahmoo Totems have, because of their relative youth, received plenty of attention in high-school basketball circles.
This time around, the South Surrey squad – which features just one senior starter in University of Florida-bound Faith Dut – has rolled through much of their older competition both in Surrey and further abroad, and have had a stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking among B.C. triple-A teams since the season tipped off in the fall.
Grade 10 star Tara Wallack has been a big reason for that success.
The six-foot-one guard – who, like many of her teammates, is a multi-sport athlete – has been one of the Totems’ key cogs this season, which comes as little surprise to her coach, who has had a front-row seat for far longer than the last two seasons.
“I’ve had the chance to watch Tara as an athlete since she was five years old, because she’s the same age as my daughter,” said Semiahmoo coach Lori Pajic, whose daughter Nicole is also part of Semiahmoo’s current hoops squad.
“They started playing soccer together… and I’ve been able to watch her since then, which is pretty unique.”
Even then, Wallack’s natural athletic ability was evident, as was her competitiveness, Pajic said.
“Tara is one of those kids who you could recognize had (talent) right away. Out on the soccer pitch, she could one, see the gaps (in the opposition defence), and two, she wanted the ball – she wanted to make a play.
“She had an innate competitive nature that you just can’t teach somebody. She had it even at five, and it’s what has helped elevate her to the level she’s at right now. It’s something you just can’t teach.”
At least some of Wallack’s competitive spirit likely comes from growing up in a house full of talented athletes. Her parents, Maureen and Dave, were both university-level athletes themselves, and Wallack’s two older brothers also currently play at an elite level.
Her oldest brother, Brian, is a former Semiahmoo basketball star himself – he was the school’s senior athlete of the year in 2017 – who now plays for the UBC Thunderbirds, and her other brother, Riley, is currently in his rookie season with the BC Hockey League’s Langley Rivermen.
“I’ve learned a lot from both of them,” the youngest Wallack said. “Especially Brian, because we play the same sport.”
The Wallack house, Tara explained, had a basketball hoop that faced into a cul-de-sac, which provided plenty of space for sibling shoot-arounds. Even now, Tara and Brian will get together when they can to work on their game.
“He’ll tell me different drills to do – ball-handling drills, especially,” she explained.
“And when he’s home on weekends, we’ll go to the rec centre and he’ll rebound for me.”
Wallack said she hopes to one day follow in her oldest brother’s footsteps and play at the university level, though a decision on what sport she ultimately decides to play will come one day down the road. In addition to basketball, Wallack also plays volleyball and runs track at Semiahmoo. She only recently gave up soccer, she said, because juggling multiple sports “was just too much.”
Though she no longer plays, Wallack and Pajic’s daughter, Nicole, are not the only two members of the Totems team whose roots date back to those youth soccer days.
When the two soccer teammates were in the second grade, Pajic said her husband was coaching basketball and thought he’d try to put an all-girl youth team together. At a soccer practice one day, he asked if anyone wanted to learn basketball, “and the Wallacks put their hands up because they’re keen for having their kids try just about everything.”
That team – which featured a handful of future Totems – eventually merged with another all-girls squad in the city, thus forming the nucleus of Semiahmoo’s current squad.
“They haven’t all stuck together, but at some point they all played together (before high school). That’s where they met,” Pajic explained, adding that in all her years of teaching and coaching she has never seen a team this young be ranked No. 1 in the province.
Wallack – one of six Grade 10s on the roster – has been at the centre of it all, Pajic said.
Though she may not lead in a typically boisterous, vocal manner, Wallack, her coach explained, simply has a way of making her teammates around her better.
“From Day 1, she’s always been the kid who wants the ball in a tough situation. She wants to make the last shot, wants to make the big play. But what’s great about Tara is that she’s also extremely humble…. When you watch her play, it’s not about her – she’s not wanting to make the big play to make herself look good. She genuinely wants to be the person who does the best she can for her team,” Pajic said.
“Part of the reason we’ve won as much as we have is because of that – because of Tara’s innate ability to be competitive.
“People are drawn to it, and she’s helped elevate everyone else’s game. When you see someone working as hard as Tara does, and see someone as committed as she is, you want to be good for that person. She makes everyone good around her, and that’s why every team she’s ever played for has had success.”
For her part, Wallack deflects praise in favour of talking about her team as a whole, and suggests that when provincial championships start in a few weeks, they’ll be even more prepared than last year, when they entered the senior scene as wide-eyed rookies.
“We’ve been together a long time… we’re more confident now,” Wallack said.
The Totems will hit the court for Fraser Valley championships next week – on their home court – against a yet-to-be-determined opponent. Provincial championships are set for Feb. 27-March 2 at the Langley Events Centre.
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