BURNABY — College basketball is filled with unexpected contingencies, the likes of which can, in the course of one offseason, drastically change the fabric of a program.
Take the Simon Fraser Clan women’s basketball team as a prime example of that.
Last season, the campaign ended in the Sweet 16 round at the NCAA Div. 2 national championships, a finish which equalled the best-ever for the Clan in its NCAA era.
Yet in the transition to the current campaign, from a 14-player roster (including redshirts) last season, only four players who saw action have been active thus far this season for the Clan, who tonight approach the midway mark of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference campaign in Ellensburg with a date against the Central Washington Wildcats.
That’s what happens when two seniors graduate, five players who have remaining eligibility do not return, and another is lost to a season-ending injury.
All of these numbers are brought to your attention because help is on the way after this season.
While the current team will play with just eight players this entire season, the 2018-19 Simon Fraser team will be noticeably bolstered by the fact that there are no seniors on this season’s team, and by the fact that reigning GNAC Freshman of the Year Ozi Nwabuko will return from an injury-redshirt campaign.
And along with that, is an impressive trio of incoming freshman recruits for head coach Bruce Langford, all guards, and all of whom fit lockstep with the program’s uptempo style and its desire to make long-distance shooting a major part of its identity.
“I like that they are all competitors, that they all want to win every possession they play,” Langford says of Abbotsford Panthers’ Sienna Lenz, Georgia Swant of North Vancouver’s Argyle Pipers and Emma Kramer of Surrey’s Sullivan Heights Stars.
“I think they all also have in-between games,” continued Langford of the trio, noting an important trait of versatility. “They can all take people one-on-one, and they can all go hard to the hole. Plus, they are all super serious in the classroom which makes them all a perfect fit for us.”
Lenz, the 5-foot-8 guard, personifies toughness on the court, and what Langford loves most is that she never dwells on a negative.
“She competes every possession and she is hard on herself without letting it affect the next play,” the coach says of Lenz, who played almost all of last season with a knee braced for stability after she suffered an ACL tear.
“In fact, she gets after it even harder and so if it ever does effect the next play, it’s in a positive way,” he adds. “She is fearless to go to the floor (for a loose ball), fearless in the air. And she is one of the few girls in basketball at any level who has a legitimate jump shot in the lane. She has a fire burning in her that is self-fuelled.”
Anyone who has seen Lenz play knows that none of that is hyperbole.
Swant, the younger sister of current Clan junior forward Sophie Swant, is just as effective, but in a contrasting way as a quick-strike force who can not only shoot and finish in the paint but, of late, has begun to dish the ball with great confidence and vision.
“The first time I saw her, the thing I came away with was how incredibly quick she was,” begins Langford of the 5-foot-9 Swant. “She went by people like a bat out of hell.”
Ever since, layers have been continually been added, and Langford has watched her shooting game mature.
“She has put more and more time into her shot, and she’s added a jump shot to it,” he continues. “But you can also see that she can see the floor so much better now as well. I thought at first that she was more of a two (off-guard) but I see a lot more one (point guard) in her, too.”
And Kramer, the player Langford has known the longest, is the player who has made the biggest forward strides over the past two seasons.
“Her mother (current Sullivan Heights head coach and former SFU player (1985-90) Lani Kramer nee Kalutycz) was my assistant when Emma was born,” Langford says. “Emma used to be baby-sat on the high jump mats where we practiced (at the old West Gym). I used to bring her fruit-ee-o’s to keep her quiet.”
That was back in 2000.
What Langford sees these days is a dynamic 5-foot-10 guard who has taken huge strides in her ability to go out on the court and dictate play.
“Emma developed a little bit later than the other two in terms of her game, and her mental approach to it,” he says. “I think that for her, the biggest thing is she now has her head way more under control, and I think that mental toughness is the biggest aspect in girls basketball that separates the good players from the ones who think they will be good.”
They are three blue-chip talents, coming into the program 24 months after the five-player class of 2016, which Langford called the best of his coaching career.
The Clan, of course, are determined to make an impact this season as well in a parity-filled GNAC circuit. But from the program’s overall perspective, you can pull out pen and paper and see that the plotlines for 2018-19 are more than encouraging.
Within the guard group, both point guard Tayler Drynan (2015) and guard/wing Tia Tsang (2015) will be back for their junior campaigns.
Jessica Jones (2015), who has made a seamless transition into the core group as a redshirt freshman will be a sophomore, as will Kendal Sands (2016), who has excelled this season as a pure freshman.
And among the forward group, both sophomore-to-be Nwabuko (2016) and Santa Clara transfer Nicole Vander Helm, this season a sophomore, have as many back court attributes as they do front court ones.
Forwards Tayla Jackson, the Cal-Irvine transfer, and Sophie Swant (2015) will be the team’s only two seniors next season, while Claudia Hart (2016) returns for her redshirt sophomore season.
Add it all up, and at tip next fall, it will be a 12-player rotation which stunningly has 32 of its 48 total combined eligible seasons still remaining.
It looks like a true win-win for both a Clan program which will happily return to more manageable levels and can actually split the team for 5-on-5 practices, and for the three incoming freshman who will be joining a young but experienced roster which needs depth fortification.
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