BURNABY — Hang around in the stands at Simon Fraser’s West Gym after a women’s basketball game, and the first thing you’ll notice are the scores of elementary school-aged girls, all lined up with team posters and felt-tipped pens, waiting to collect the autographs of their favourite Clan players.

Before she helped lead her high school team, Langley’s Brookswood Bobcats, to an amazing five straight B.C. AAA Final Fours, and before her one season spent out-of-province as a promising freshman with NCAA Div. 1 UC Irvine, Tayla Jackson was one of those girls.

And so perhaps it should come as no surprise that starting Thursday (7:30 p.m., Clan TV), as the Clan (6-10) winds down it’s eighth Great Northwest Athletic Conference campaign by hosting Idaho’s Northwest Nazarene Nighthawks (14-2) to begin a four-game regular season-ending home stand, that the 6-foot-3 junior centre will hear her name called in the starting lineup of her hometown team, one locked in a tooth-and-claw battle for its post-season life.

“I grew up watching the game here, back when I was in the fifth (2007-08) and sixth grades (2008-09),” begins Jackson, referencing the team’s dynastic, bygone era in Canadian Interuniversity Sports (now U Sports), where she watched the likes of former stars like Robyn Buna, Kate Hole, Courtney Gerwing and Lani Gibbons.

“When I think of SFU basketball from back then,” continues Jackson, “I remember thinking that those women were so smart and so strong. It was such a difference for me to watch as a little girl.”

And so after her transfer following just one season at Cal Irvine, and her subsequent arrival last season as a Clan sophomore, Jackson has felt the natural pull to become the same kind of ‘strong’ force for her school.

So not only has Jackson worked to find her best role on the court, she has made it a priority to be just as influential off the court, in the mindful ways she hopes will continue to affect her campus community long after her gradation.

Tayla Jackson scored 22 points in her last Clan home game. She’s back on the court Thursday to face powerhouse Northwest Nazarene at the West Gym. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)

NO REGRETS

Ask Tayla Jackson about her one season at Cal Irvine and her decision to return home and she has nothing to hide.

Like a typical freshman, she had begun to work her way into the team’s rotation, yet she far surpassed the norm by becoming a part-time starter. 

And in all the ways a freshman would hope, she bonded with her teammates and coaches to the extent that those relationships continue to this day.

Yet when a coaching change occurred after that season, she weighed the risk-reward of keeping that same team chemistry, then measured it against some of the moments she encountered living away from home for the first time.

“I felt I had created a bond with the (former) coaching staff at UC Irvine,” says Jackson, who started 14 of the team’s 31 games as a freshman. “I had this opportunity that I think I would have regretted if I didn’t go down and try, and even though I transferred back, I don’t regret a thing about it because I learned a ton about myself.”

One of those things was a reaffirmation of her deep devotion to family.

“I had a really tight team over my year there,” Jackson explains. “We did everything together. I am still best friends with those girls. I visit them and they visit me. I will invite them to my wedding one day. But we got new coaches and a lot (of the players) transferred. I had a family away from home, but I didn’t feel comfortable to stay because I didn’t know if I was still going to have that.”

There was also the matter of her niece (Ivy-Lux) and nephew (Joplin), both under the age of five, whom Jackson is very close to.

“My roomate at the time was local, so she would go home on the weekends and I would be sitting in my dorm room alone,” Jackson added. “I felt like I was watching life happen through a (computer) screen on FaceTime.”

Tayla Jackson has shot a sizzling 82 per cent from the free throw line over her last five games for Simon Fraser. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)

LIVING THE DREAM

Back home in B.C., Jackson admits that she has found her basketball home on the court with the Clan.

“I think speaking personally, this has been the most exciting year of my university career,” she says of getting the chance to start at centre where she has averaged 11.4 PPG on the season in conference play. “I am in the role that I always wanted to have.”

While fellow junior Sophie Swant has led the way in both scoring (14.2 PPG) and rebounding (6.1 RPG), Jackson has stepped up her game from last season to give a Simon Fraser team desperate for paint productivity, a reliable double-figure low-post scorer.

Jackson comes into this weekend having averaged, over her last five games, 14.8 points on 55 per cent shooting. While becoming a greater rebounding presence will give the team an even bigger boost, Jackson’s productivity can also be measured by the near-eight free-throw trips per game over her past five contests, and by the fact that over that stretch she’s shot 82 per cent (32-of-39) from the stripe.

Jackson, in fact, comes into play Thursday hoping to build on her best home-court performance of the season on Feb. 3 as part of a 74-57 win over Western Oregon.

In that contest, Jackson scored a game-high 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and she went a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.

Ask Jackson about that game, and she will tell you that, on several levels, it was her most significant day spent as a member of the Clan.

Why?

The 2017-18 Clan (left-to-right Claudia Hart, Tayla Jackson, Sophie Swant, Tia Tsang, Kendal Sands, Tayler Drynan, Jessica Jones, Nicole Vander Helm) has been eight strong since the opening tip. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)

PLAYING WITH PURPOSE

Around Christmas time, Clan head coach Bruce Langford approached the team with the idea of celebrating the broad theme of diversity at the team’s Feb. 3 game vs. Western Oregon.

Jackson couldn’t have taken the team’s reins any quicker and the passion with which she  spoke of the night, one which coincided with her team-leading performance, confirmed her 100 per cent investment.

“I feel like at this point in time, we need to really come together and let people know it’s OK to be you,” she begins. “It’s encouraged to be you. I want you to be you. And that doesn’t mean I have to fully understand everything and keep a detailed notebook on how to talk to you or refer to you. It just means that whatever you choose to be in life, I want to celebrate that and be a part of it.

“I think we’re living in such an amazing community and the thing I am most proud of is that I get to live here,” she continued. “Not everyone gets that opportunity. Imagine the fact that we can have someone with physical disabilities and then all of a sudden, boom, an act is signed and we have an elevator in a building. There are some people in the world without the ability to walk who are shot and killed because they don’t fit into society.”

As part of Diversity Night, Jackson invited as many groups as she could to the West Gym, covering as wide a gamut as possible, the school noting that the student-driven initiative strived to celebrate “age, race, culture, religion and more.”

For Jackson, who has watched her young nephew Joplin battle his afflictions with courage on a daily basis, the theme of celebrating diversity really hit home.

“He is one of the biggest parts of my life,” says Jackson who was thrilled to have Joplin in attendance that evening. “Some days he’s not feeling too well and he gets sick very easily. He has a genetic mutation. His genetic sequence is different from ours. He’s got autism. He gets seizures. I try to support all I can but I am not there for the everyday things my sister deals with.

“Not a lot of people know and this is my family’s reality,” continues Jackson. “We love him so much and he is one of the biggest blessing in my life. He’s taught me so much as a person. That’s why this game today really hit home for me. That’s why I was so passionate about it.”

Tayla Jackson is aiming to make the 2019 version of SFU’s Diversity Night even grander than this season’s debut effort. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)

COMING FULL CIRCLE

It’s been a decade since the sixth-grade Jackson attended games at Simon Fraser, and on a personal note, I am pretty certain the girls on the Grade 6 team I am coaching this season will be waiting to ask for her autograph when they attend the team’s regular-season finale on Feb. 22 against Montana State Billings.

For Jackson, transferring back home has been a lot like coming full circle from those early days in the West Gym.

In fact, by the time her five-year senior varsity career began at Brookswood in 2010-11, the Clan’s first in the NCAA, the eighth-grade Jackson was beginning to model in her mind, what a collegiate basketball experience was going to be all about based on what she saw at Simon Fraser games.

“The thing I remember most is that when someone would take a charge, they would all swarm together,” Jackson remembers of players like Erin Chambers, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, Rebecca Langmead, Chelsea Reist and Kristina Collins. “They were the only team I saw where almost every time, they would have a huddle (on the court). I could just tell they were a family. Now, it’s nice to be on the opposite side as a player because what I am doing now is something I had always aspired to when I was a young basketball player here in the gym watching.”

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