ABBOTSFORD — So many time-honoured adages centre around the fact that greatness remains elusive without first taking a willing step outside of your comfort zone.
Taylor Claggett wants to lead her team to the top of the Canadian university basketball mountain this coming spring, so maybe it was fitting that she stepped outside of hers earlier this month on a harrowing bus ride up the side of an actual mountain, complete with sheer 1,000-foot drop-offs, on the other side of the world.
“I hate roller-coasters and this was like a roller-coaster-times-one-hundred,” the fifth-year senior forward with Abbotsford’s Fraser Valley Cascades recounted of the journey to the mile-high city of Kasauli, an especially impactful moment during her team’s two week (Aug. 26-Sept. 8) training camp odyssey through India.
“I have never been so scared in my life,” explained the MEI grad, known to her teammates as a true homebody. “It was all winding roads, sides of cliffs with no railings and no rules to the roads,” she continued. “Everyone was just doing their own thing and half-way up, it became a one-lane road. We were all just coming at each other. There were blind spots and we were swerving side to side. I couldn’t believe it when we got to the top. I was just bawling.”
And just how far did that experience take Claggett out of her comfort zone?
“I texted my parents at the top and I told them that if we didn’t make it back, that I loved them,” Claggett said. “I wasn’t kidding, I was serious.”
Upon her return, however, she called it “…a trip I will remember forever.”
PLANNING AN ADVENTURE
The Fraser Valley Cascades are a basketball team on the verge of losing their status as a kind of ‘best-kept secret’.
With what looks to be the most talented-and-together recruiting class in program history set to join a veteran core led by its lone senior, the 5-foot-11 Claggett, and a quartet of fourth-year vets in Amanda Thompson, Veronica Kobes, Jess Zawada and Victoria Jacobse, UFV head coach Al Tuchscherer wanted to find an international trip which would not only serve to culturally inform his team, but also place them in a more spartan environment where their focus would be boiled down to relying on each other.
“For sure, a lot of the timing was intentional,” said Tuchscherer, whose team made the northern city of Chandigarh, home to a satellite campus of UFV, their main base. “We knew it would be a time of the year for a training camp situation. It would be a lot of basketball, a lot of fraternity, and a lot of team-building exercises.”
The Cascades would rise by 6 a.m., attend a morning workout session at the yoga stations located in a nearby open-air park, then head to the only covered-court in the city for training camp.
“It was not air-conditioned,” admitted Tuchscherer of the muggy, 35-degree indoor court. “Honestly, it wasn’t to the same standard of a Canadian gym but it more than did the job for us. It was very hot and humid and it took a couple of days to adjust to. But once we did, we got some good work in.”
Read between the lines and it was pretty clear that Tuchscherer was OK with his team roughing it.
“One of the things is, when you’re there doing it together, under somewhat adverse conditions, with heat and humidity, a change of diet, a change of sleep patterns, you just have to figure it out. A little suffering brings a team closer together.”
A FIRE TO INSPIRE
Smack-dab in the middle of their Indian adventure, the Cascades were invited to train and scrimmage on the outdoor court at Chandigarh’s St. Xavier High School.
“When we walked out there to practice, there were about 400 kids waiting for us,” said Claggett. “It was so cool that they wanted to watch us, and I could see in the eyes of the girls watching us that they were amazed at what we could do.”
Every 20 minutes, the stands would empty and a new group of students would fill the bleachers.
The Cascades later played a short game against the St. Xavier boys team, beating them handily in a good-natured contest.
“The girls in the crowd were kind of wide-eyed,” admitted Tuchscherer. “I think it was eye-opening for them to see girls that are skilled and athletic, playing at a high level. I hope that we inspired some of them that day.”
HOW A MENTOR LEAVES HER MARK
When the Canada West regular season opens Nov. 1 in Winnipeg against the host Wesmen, Taylor Claggett will sit perched on the precipice of becoming the most productive player in program history.
Currently sitting at 1,083 points in conference play, she trails only past greats Aieisha Luyken (1,111), Kayli Sartori (1,243) and Sarah Wierks (1,336) for most UFV points scored in Canada West conference play.
To take over first place, Claggett would need to average 12.6 ppg over the course of the 20-game CW schedule. Last season, she averaged 18.4 ppg.
As well, Claggett has already risen to No. 1 career-wise at UFV for free throw attempts (571) and scoring average (13.9 ppg), while sitting second in defensive rebounds (473) and total rebounds (686).
As UFV’s only returning senior, it goes without saying that Claggett features prominently on its figurative team canvas, with the final few brushstrokes illustrating the Cascades’ promising class of incoming freshmen.
As Tuchscherer studied its composition over the off-season, he has liked all the elements present.
Yet he knew that if he could help Claggett carry an even deeper sense of purpose into her senior campaign, that the team canvas would achieve a much more dynamic sense of realism.
Thus a trip to India which benefitted an entire team, could also not have been better timed from an individual development standpoint.
“I knew the trip would test her, and really get her out of her comfort zone,” Tuchscherer said. “She’s a homebody, so traveling around the world, to a culture she knew nothing about, that made her nervous. Once we got there, however, she embraced it.”
Adds Claggett: “When it comes to that kind of stuff, I’ve always been more of a trip-to-the-beach kind of person. But Al kept telling me that I needed to be challenged off the court because it was something that I could bring back to my team. I’m so glad I changed my mindset because I learned so much. It’s a trip I will remember forever. And next year, I’d love to get the chance to play (professionally) overseas, so I think the experience will really help me in that regard, too.”
It's been an incredible journey. What an experience! Although we are all looking forward to going back home to our comfort zone, India has given us a lifetime of memories. pic.twitter.com/I5JzdvdART— Coach Dan (@DanNayebzadeh) September 7, 2019
Claggett, an English major with a minor in business, put her writing skills to good use over the duration of the tour, blogging about her team’s adventures, including a memorable trip-ending visit to the Taj Mahal.
(You can read her entire trip blog here)
And now, with the countdown on to the start of her final season of university basketball, she has assumed the position of the worldly veteran, the likes of which she herself marvelled at over her rookie 2015-16 freshman campaign.
In fact that season, the wide-eyed Claggett actually got to play with Sartori, who had returned to the Cascades after taking a one year sabbatical after her third season (2014-15).
That fall, when forward Katie Brink suffered an early-season injury, Claggett was thrown right into the U Sports’ fire.
Ever since, she has savoured the mentorship she received as a rookie, and that’s why this season, the simple act of lacing up her shoes at the team’s veteran leader will be so personally impactful.
“I remember thinking ‘Wow, she is so old,’” Claggett laughs good-naturedly in her recollection of Sartori. “But she set the tone for me on how hard you need to practice, how hard you have to compete in games. It’s a whole new mindset, something that high school doesn’t compare to. At this level, every time you practice, you are competing for your spot. Everything is a competition and Kayli is the one who set my competitive mindset.”
And it’s something that UFV’s Fab Five freshmen — Deanna Tuchscherer, Maddy Gobeil, Jessica Parker, Nikki Cabuco and Lauryn Walker — despite all of their elite-level experience, will also have to adjust to this season.
“I look at Kayli and she averaged four points-a-game her first year,” coach Tuchscherer says. “It takes time to figure out the speed, the physicality and the sophistication of the game. Taylor has been so steady for us for four years, but now it’s time for her to not only produce, but to be a mentor to the next generation of players.”
If all Taylor Claggett does is mind her own game the way she has over the course of her career, she will leave her time in U Sports as the most decorated player in Fraser Valley Cascades women’s hoops history.
Yet it’s clear that she wants to impart so much more.
“Those five coming in,” she begins of the frosh class, “they love basketball so much. And when I say love, I mean love. There’s another level, where you want it so badly, and they love basketball. That makes me happy. They have such a great future ahead of them, and I hope I can teach them what it’s going to take.”
Of course she can.
Of all the steps she has taken along her basketball journey, perhaps the biggest ones are those which have taken her outside of her comfort zone.
In the end, they’ve helped her see more clearly what the big picture really looks like.
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