Nicole Vander Helm is enjoying a happy homecoming with the Simon Fraser Clan, having found a place where she can play her total game. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)
Feature University Women's Basketball

From Santa Clara to Simon Fraser: How a true north return helped Nicole Vander Helm re-discover her basketball joy

BURNABY — Nicole Vander Helm admits to have taken a pretty circuitous path in order to re-discover her version of basketball happiness.

Yet now that she’s found it at the top of Burnaby Mountain as a starter with the Simon Fraser Clan, she wouldn’t mind in the least if a nagging wrist injury would subside long enough to let her play with the same kind of stat-stuffing prowess she showed over her high school career with Surrey’s Holy Cross Crusaders.

On Tuesday, Clan head coach Bruce Langford strongly suggested that the 6-foot redshirt sophomore transfer via Div. 1 Santa Clara would make her return to the lineup as numbers-challenged SFU (4-8) returns to the cozy confines of the West Gym to host Portland’s Concordia Cavaliers (5-7) on Thursday (7 p.m., Clan TV), beginning a stretch which sees the team play six of its final eight Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season games on its home hardwood.

SFU is part of a four-team pack battling for the conference’s sixth-and-final playoff berth, bringing a playoff atmosphere into the gym for its ‘Celebrate Diversity’ weekend, a student-athlete driven initiative celebrating the differences of age, race, culture and religion.

While she may not start and will likely be held to a reduced number of minutes, just getting Vander Helm back into the lineup provides a breath of relief for a Clan team which played with a two-person bench en route to gaining a split last week during its annual two-game Alaska road swing.

After a challenging start to her collegiate career at Santa Clara, Holy Cross grad Nicole Vander Helm has discovered SFU is the place where she can let her hair down. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)

That’s because a healthy and a happy Vander Helm has been as productive an offensive player as there has been in this season in the GNAC.

In fact in the Clan’s two most impressive conference wins this season, you could confidently say she was the team’s best player, with 30 points and 10 rebounds in an 81-67 win at Western Oregon on Jan. 4, then 24 points and eight rebounds in a 71-52 win Jan. 11 against visiting St. Martin’s.

“What I got from my experience (at Santa Clara) was that you have to be happy with what you’re doing,” said Vander Helm, who spent a season-and-a-half playing for the Broncos, a span in which the team went through a coaching change and she found herself being groomed in ways she felt were outside of her positional comfort zone.

“I am that do-everything kind of player who gets boards, likes to shoot and drive and just be a blue-collar athlete,” Vander Helm continued. “But they didn’t see me as the kind of player I was back home.”

Vander Helm was just beginning to rediscover her former self with the Clan when she suffered an injury to her left wrist in that high-scoring win against Western Oregon, coincidentally the same team the Clan will host Saturday (7 p.m.) to wrap up their two-game weekend home stand.

Her wrist was starting to come around when she hit four triples and made all five of her free throws in the win over St. Martin’s, but she re-aggravated it in a 77-71 road loss on Jan. 18 to Central Washington and it’s been tough sledding ever since.

Despite the Clan’s already-short eight-person bench, Langford took the measure of holding her out of both games last weekend as the Clan won 77-61 at Alaska-Fairbanks, but lost 82-68 to Alaska-Anchorage.

Simon Fraser head coach Bruce Langford says the challenge for transfer Nicole Vander Helm will come in her second go-round against the GNAC. (Varsity Letters photo by Howard Tsumura)

“If this was a playoff game, we would likely start her,” said Langford on Tuesday of Vander Helm, whose 12.9 ppg average is second on the team behind senior forward Sophie Swant (14.5 ppg). “She has a lot of offensive talent, and we have some talent around her, too, but she is also a bit of an unknown (in the GNAC). 

“She’s had a couple of good games, and because of it, she is going to start seeing better defence played against her,” Langford continued. “How she handles that is going to be her challenge.”

Getting her into the SFU lineup this season, given the season-ending knee injury suffered by GNAC Freshman of the Year Ozi Nwabuko, and by the departure of a host of key veterans, has been huge.

And while her health is beginning to return, ask Vander Helm about her initial southern migration and her eventual northern return, and she makes it sound like fate.

“It’s kind of funny, but (Santa Clara) didn’t have a health sciences program,” says Vander Helm, who prior to her 2015 graduation ceremonies at Holy Cross said that she was considering a career in pediatric nursing. “I was taking random classes. I took a class in ballet, even though I am not at all flexible and not graceful whatsoever. It was pretty funny. But here, I’m in health sciences. I’ve found my passion. It’s like it was meant to be.”

The Clan women’s basketball program likes to think of it the same way.

With two more years of eligibility remaining, Vander Helm looks like an invaluable piece of the puzzle.

As the experience factor grows around her, and as the roster’s numbers return next season to a size which will allow actual 5-on-5 practices, her self-described ‘do-everything’ skill set will help to bridge various positional groups together, providing an intangible glue throughout the line-up.

“Seeing my parents in the stands here is nice,” Vander Helm begins. “The team was so welcoming to me. It all just feels like home. Langford wants everyone to play to their strengths. He just tells me to play. He tells me to run like a deer.”

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