BURNABY — Looking for the clearest way to illustrate just how young and how numbers-challenged the Simon Fraser Clan women’s basketball team is this season?
How about the fact that when it came time for head coach Bruce Langford to pair each of his younger players with a so-called mentor player, one of the duos consisted of two freshmen players.
OK, so Jessica Jones isn’t a raw rookie, but as a redshirt last season, she didn’t appear in any of the team’s games.
That’s still pretty inexperienced, but on this season’s edition of the Clan, it makes her a veteran.
“So Jessica is my mentor,” begins pure freshman guard Kendal Sands, “and it’s funny because I will go to her and say ‘What are we running?’ And she’ll joke back ‘Don’t ask me, I’m a freshman, too.’ But it makes us lean on each other all the more. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all young and we’re all excited.”
Langford will admit that opening the non-conference portion of the schedule a few weeks back with just seven players — a number that will swell to nine once injured red shirt freshman Claudia Hart returns — isn’t the first time he’s played with a short bench over his lengthy coaching career.
Yet this 2017-18 scenario represents about as big a personnel turnaround as a program can ever expect to experience. Despite it all, however, Simon Fraser heads into Wednesday’s (4 p.m.) home game against San Francisco’s Academy of Art as vital as ever, boasting a 3-2 record while scheduling some of the very best teams in all of D2 basketball.
“We didn’t schedule easy,” confirms Langford, whose club opens Great Northwest Athletic Conference play at perennial power Alaska Anchorage on Dec. 29.
“We went to the best preseason tournament we could go to,” he continued. “Cal Baptist and San Diego both looked like league champs, so let’s play them. Hawaii Pacific went to nationals last season and they brought everybody back, so let’s get them up here. We didn’t look for an easy schedule. We said ‘Who are the best?’ and ‘Let’s see where we are.’”
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Look at the box score from Simon Fraser’s final game of last season, a loss to Cal Baptist in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 round, and the turnover experienced by the Clan’s roster is stunning.
Only four of the 10 players who suited up that day — Sophie Swant, Tayla Jackson, Tayler Drynan, Tia Tsang — are even with the team this season, and Swant is only starter from that game who has returned.
Forward Meg Wilson and point guard Ellen Kett, the latter back as a student assistant this season, wrapped up star-studded careers as graduating seniors from that 2016-17 team.
However the likes of guards Elisa Homer and Vanessa Gee, and forward Rachel Fradgley elected not to return, despite the fact all three had remaining eligibility.
Then, guard Ozi Nwabuko, last season one of the most exciting rookie talents in all of D2 hoops, suffered an injury which will sideline her for the entire season.
The numbers that further tell the story?
*SFU went 26-8 overall last season, and over those 34 games had a total of 170 starting player positions available (five starters per game multiplied by 34 games).
Of those 170 available spots, only eight, or 4.7 per cent, were manned by players who have returned for the 2017-18 season. That includes five starts by Tsang and three starts by Swant.
*SFU returns just 1,980 of its 6,826 playe
minutes last season. Swant (662), Tsang (544), post-forward Tayla Jackson (370) and point guard Taylor Drynan (394) are the team’s only active returnees from a season ago. Add redshirts Jones and Hart, rookies Sands and Marissa Babic and transfer forward Nicole Vander Helm, and you’ve got the entire group of nine.
“We thought we were going to be at 12 this year but it is what it is,” said Langford. “I have told the players that they have a real opportunity here.
“When we recruited Kendal Sands (Coquitlam-Dr. Charles Best), we thought that she would probably red shirt. But we’ve lost players, and as she has said, she might have a better chance to play this year than in the next couple of years, so this gives her a year’s head start to show what she can do.”
When the Clan hosted Hawaii Pacific last Thursday in its home opener, both Hart and Babic sat out with injuries, and with a seven-player rotation, SFU lost a tightly-contested game 82-76.
Yet if you watched the way in which the Clan’s two freshmen players carried themselves throughout that game, you couldn’t help but be encouraged.
“I think we are just playing fearless,” said Jones, who went 5-of-8 from beyond the arc against the Sharks and scored a team-high 16 points while also grabbing five rebounds. “We’re like the underdogs who just go out there and do their best.”
Sands prescribes to the same theory.
“I can’t have my mental game shutting me out,” she said after coming off a very short bench to score 10 points, including 2-of-2 three-point shooting, the total representing the first points she had ever scored at the collegiate level. “I just have to do it. I know my teammates will always have my back and that really helped me through today.”
The lack of bodies meant, against a Hawaii Pacific team which returned virtually its entire roster from a season, that Jones and Sands would have to guard players out of their regular positions.
In the case of Jones, a season spent in the weight room has given her more of the kind of physique needed to make a defensive difference in the paint.
“This year she has come into the season fit, she is toned,” said Langford, “and I think that she has a huge upside.”
Jones, in fact, is fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 11.4 points-per-game through the Clan’s first five games.
She’s averaging 2.8 ppg, but based on her breakout performance against Hawaii Pacific, much bigger days are ahead.
“For a rookie who wasn’t supposed to play this year, Kendal has been our biggest surprise,” says Langford. “From day one she’s worked her butt off. She sees the floor, she pushes the ball, she has been a joy.”
Following it’s impressive post-season drive to the Sweet 16 last March, no one could have predicted the cards to fall as they have.
And although it’s tough to even have competitive practices, there is a sense of adventure running through the team.
If anything, it’s going to be fun.
“It seemed like every couple of weeks (in the off-season) there was some more news (about a player not returning to the team),” begins Sands, who could sense her role increasing each time.
“It was a huge shift for me,” she continues. “I came in here thinking I would be red-shirting. It’s been a huge change but it’s been super exciting.”
Simon Fraser will lose no one to graduation from its roster this season, and only Jackson and Swant after the 2018-19 campaign. Add Nwabuko and incoming freshmen like Sienna Lenz (Abbotsford), Georgia Swant (Argyle) and Emma Kramer (Sullivan Heights) next season and the roster is expected to once again swell to more manageable numbers.
The 2017-18 season will come with more than its share of challenges, but ask anyone involved with the Clan team about it, and no one is lowering expectations.
The first few chapters of the script have received a late re-write, but that just makes the rest of the chapters whole lot more interesting.
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