ABBOTSFORD — It was a basketball migration along a flight path neither could have ever anticipated just a handful of months ago.
Yet this past Thursday, as both U SPORTS and its conference affiliate, Canada West, announced the official cancellation of the remainder of the 2020-21 university sports season (including basketball) due to the ongoing virulence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a pair of Fraser Valley Cascades’ women’s players, some nine time zones away, were each keeping their dribble alive during what has evolved into a most inventive hoops journey, and one that truly stands as a sign of our strange and unpredictable times.
UFV roommates Deanna Tuchscherer and Maddy Gobeil, both still teenagers at 19, and both with four more years of playing eligibility remaining, have each landed over the past month in separate European locales, each with signed contracts and set to spend the 2020-21 season as professionals before returning back to their Abbotsford digs for what each hopes will be a non-shuttered 2021-22 university campaign. Both are taking advantage of redshirt opportunities which will not impact their eligibility status.
And while professional options have long been available to those women’s players exhausting their collegiate eligibility, the uniqueness of seeking a professional opportunity overseas this early in a post-secondary career, with the full ability and intent to return, likely has no comparable.
“It’s always been a thing I have wanted to do after university, so it’s been a goal of mine for a long time,” explained Tuchscherer late last month, just ahead of leaving home after inking a contract in Hungary’s top league with ZTE NKK in Zalaegerszeg.
“It’s all happened super quick, it hasn’t quite sunk in yet and its been a lot to process,” continued the 6-foot-1 forward, who after starring at Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Secondary, exploded on the Canada West scene a season ago by averaging 15.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game en route to becoming the first Cascade to be honoured as the conference’s Rookie of the Year. “But I think it’s the best decision this year for me, and for the development of my (UFV) team.”
Gobeil, the 5-foot-7 point guard who came to Fraser Valley in the same recruiting class as Tuchscherer, is likely still fighting off her jet lag, having just signed last week in France’s top Nationale Féminine 1 league with US Poinçonnet Basket, located a three-hour drive south of Paris in the nation’s heartland.
“I am just excited to go out and compete again,” Gobeil said last Sunday, just a day before she hopped plane for Paris.” It seems like forever since we played and I am too competitive to just not play.”
And so it is that these two teenaged Cascades have taken their talents to the European stage, where they will join a pair of UFV grads in Taylor Claggett and Sara Simovic, playing in Ireland and Croatia respectively.
“The moves were both made in anticipation of U SPORTS cancelling the season and the student-athletes having limited options to improve their games,” said Al Tuchscherer, Fraser Valley women’s head basketball coach and the father of Deanna Tuchscherer.
“Both Deanna and Maddy love the game and love to get better, and so they sought out those opportunities and we supported them. I think they’re both excited about re-joining our team in the spring. Hopefully we have a season here next year, and they will be better because of it.”
DEANNA’S DANDY DEBUT
As it turns out, Deanna Tuchscherer was more than ready to get a taste of professional basketball, despite her age.
While her Zalakerámia ZTE club had gotten off to an 0-3 start, Tuchscherer has started each game, and following a 20 points, six-rebound debut performance, including 7-of-12 shooting from the field and three triples, was averaging 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game entering play this weekend.
“The biggest reason I made the decision now is the opportunity to get better and to make the most of what isn’t an ideal situation (in U SPORTS),” she said before her departure. “I want to get better and ultimately bring that back to my team (at UFV) next year. And, it’s been great to have Kayli because she has been someone that I have really been able to reach out to.”
Kayli, of course, is none other than Kayli Sartori, the former W.J. Mouat star, Canada West scoring champ (2015-16), U SPORTS national championship all-star and one of the all-time greats in Cascades women’s basketball history.
Following three straight pro seasons, in Lebanon, France and Cypress, Sartori decided to give her body a break this season and had returned to Abbotsford to join the Cascades coaching staff as an assistant, and it was through her connections in Europe that both Tuchscherer and Gobeil were able to find their unique professional fits.
In addition, Sartori was able to provide Tuchscherer with a first-hand sense of the expectations all young players must very quickly grasp as they transition from the collegiate to professional setting.
“You are kind of left on your own a lot of the time,” Sartori began, “so you have to get your shots up by yourself. They don’t monitor everything, at least that was my experience. Sure, they have practices, but you also need to make sure you are putting up your numbers because they are investing in you. It’s not ‘Oh, let’s go over there and travel and play some basketball.’ She has to perform.”
With all of that said, Sartori is confident Tuchscherer has both the skill package and the mindset to make an impact despite still being a teen.
“To look at her, at that young age, and then knowing what I went through when I went over there at the tender age of 25?” chuckles Sartori. “It’s a lot for a young girl to take on. When I didn’t play well, I heard about it. If you lose it’s because of the imports. If you win it’s because of the locals. But Deanna is going to learn a lot from the moment her feet hit Hungarian soil.”
A JOURNEY BEYOND THE ACTUAL WORDS
Maddy Gobeil is the first to admit that although she managed a perfect 4.0 grade point average in her French 12 class back in 2018-19 at South Kamloops Secondary, the conversational skills of her second language are going to be put to the test quickly as she acclimates to a new life in France’s top-level Nationale Feminine 1 league at US Poinconnet Basket.
“I am definitely rusty and most of my sentences are pretty basic, but someone at the club has told me he will help me with my French,” Gobeil says.
Yet ask the 5-foot-7 point guard in a deeper sense of what she hopes to learn some 8,000 kilometres from home, and the answer transcends actual language.
“I will have to find my voice when I am over there,” she added just before her departure . “I can’t shy away from this opportunity and be scared, even if there is a language barrier.”
After earning back-to-back B.C. Double A championship MVP awards in 2018 and ’19 as the engine behind consecutive provincial titles for the South Kamloops Titans, Gobeil began to dial that inner volume up a season ago after she cracked the UFV roster as a freshman, averaging 27 minutes and almost nine points per game.
Now, with an opportunity to join France’s NF-1 league at 19, her steep learning curve will gets its stiffest challenge yet.
And Sartori knows that Gobeil will relish the opportunity to get better.
“When I first saw Maddy play, she reminded me of a young Aieisha Luyken,” began Sartori of the ex-Cascades point guard and her former teammate on the Fraser Valley team which finished third at the 2014 U SPORTS nationals.
“She has that brute force, the ability to post and to shoot, to be versatile passing the ball and she has a very high IQ,” assessed Sartori, who recommended Gobeil so highly to Poinconnet team director Bertrand Masson that he recommended her to club brass over a number of other older and more experienced players being considered as the team sought to fortify itself at the point guard position.
“To be frank,” added Sartori, “I am a little jealous of (Gobeil’s) skill level. “At that age, if I was sent overseas, I would have crumbled and failed and never wanted to go back again. I believe in Maddy’s skills.”
In the end, Gobeil’s journey to France seems almost pre-scripted, as she happily verifies through a story about growing up as an elementary school student-athlete in Kamloops who dreamed about one day visiting the City of Light.
“When I was younger, I just had this big idea of Paris and wanting to go there when I was older,” Gobeil laughs. “So my room was Paris-themed. I had a ‘Paris’ sign above my bed and a photo of the Eiffel Tower on the wall.”
“…JUST BE A GOOD CANADIAN”
Fingers remain figuratively crossed that all of B.C.’s high school and post-secondary athletic sports, conferences and leagues will be able to gain a much greater sense of normalcy one year from now.
Perhaps then, we will be able to look back collectively with both admiration and a feeling of inspiration for the level of perseverance and positivity our tight-knit community of coaches and student-athletes displayed in the face of unexpected challenge.
In the meantime, Al Tuchscherer takes off his UFV head coaching cap for a moment and speak for all parents, proud of his daughter’s accomplishment, but like any of us, concerned for their safety.
“As a parent, it’s a little terrifying sending your daughter around the world,” he said. “These are kind of unsure times, so we really had to do our homework to make sure safety was the No. 1 concern, but all the boxes checked off.”
Then, with that coaching cap back on, he added: “From a coaching perspective, we had to ask ourselves how we were going to challenge our players this year. We didn’t know if we were going to have a season, and if we did, what would it look like? Our mission is to keep players engaged, getting better and having an enjoyable experience. Those are all going to be different for different players. This was just a good fit for Deanna.”
And a good sign that B.C.’s top women’s players are, more than ever, able to look at basketball careers which extend beyond their university careers.
“Just be a good Canadian,” Sartori says with pride when asked for the best advice she can give to those looking to forge professional opportunities overseas. “Go over their with the mindset that you are going to kick some butt, but also be ready to roll with the punches.
“My first month in Lebanon, I got moved to three or four different apartments,” she added. “You have to roll with it, and realize at the end of the day that you are there to play basketball and have an experience.”
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