LANGLEY — You can’t realize your vision without first trusting your gut, and it was with that in mind that Cheryl Jean-Paul pondered everything about a unique package of talent she had suddenly found herself studying back in the summer of 2012.
“It was one of the first summers that I was in B.C.,” remembers Jean-Paul, the Winnipeg native who back then was just two seasons into her stint as head coach of the struggling women’s basketball program at Langley’s Trinity Western University.
“I was at the (Under-17) national championships looking at this kid, and she just never stopped working,” Jean-Paul continued. “The more I watched, I more noticed how difficult she could be to defend because you had to match her work ethic. But I also saw how her ability to move on the floor could open things up and really allow other players to develop their skill sets.”
Maybe not two of the most treasured traits a coach looks for on the recruiting trail, and perhaps for that reason coaches from around the country were not lining up in pursuit of a 5-foot-11 forward from Prince George’s tiny, Single-A Cedars Christian School.
Yet on that day, Jean-Paul couldn’t help but trust her gut.
Kayla Gordon, the player in question, returned to Prince George to finish her senior year of high school, and since joining the Spartans for her 2013-14 freshman season, she has come to represent nothing shy of the first big recruiting piece for a program which on Friday (6 p.m.), takes a 10-2 record onto the home floor of the Langley Events Centre for a key two-game set (also 5 p.m. Saturday) against the Calgary Dinos (8-4).
TO THE POWER OF THREE…
Ask Jean-Paul about the amazing chemistry which has this season manifested itself in the Spartans’ most successful Canada West season to date, and the head coach starts first with the synergy of her Big 3.
Before the Canada West’s month-long winter break in December, the fifth-year senior Gordon became just the third TWU women’s player to reach 1,000 career points in conference regular season action.
With eight games remaining, she sits with 1,037 points, 70 shy of second-place Taylor Stuart and 75 shy of all-time leader Holly Strom.
And while she stands a good chance of ascending to the top of the list before then, there is another reason for pointing out her prodigious point total.
Unlike past editions, this season’s team features three unique talents with the senior Gordon (12.4 ppg), as well as fourth-year stalwarts Jessie Brown (13.6 ppg) and Tessa Ratzlaff (17.1 ppg).
And like her gut told her back in 2012, Jean-Paul has seen a lot of that trio’s success built on the underpinnings of what a player like Gordon (12.4 ppg) has brought to the team.
“I have always talked about how Kayla has made those around her better and it’s funny because over next few weekends, both Tessa and Jessie will join that 1,000 point club as well,” says Jean-Paul. “They couldn’t have done it individually, but collectively they have made each other stronger.”
Brown has scored 990 career points and Ratzlaff 950, and so it seems very likely that one of them will leave the school following the 2018-19 season as TWU’s all-time leading scorer.
“It’s fun to watch Kayla play,” the coach adds, “because she has such a great motor and such a determined personality. In practices and games, she forces everyone else to match that level.”
None of this is lost on Gordon, who prepared well to seize any opportunity which might come her way, yet admits she was a little overwhelmed at the enormity of becoming a contributor in her rookie season.
Coincidentally, the majority of the nine starts she got in her freshman campaign came when Strom was knocked out of the lineup with an illness over the second half of that 2013-14 season.
The next season, the three-point shooting ace Brown arrived from Brookswood Secondary, while the rugged forward Ratzlaff arrived from Abbotsford’s MEI Secondary.
They have since become among the most versatile and effective trios in the nation, yet Gordon stresses it has been earned the hard way.
“For sure, we got to grow up together and we got pounded over our first two years by older and bigger girls,” says Gordon. “We had to fight for our looks and each of us couldn’t have done it on our own. Tessa and I have grown up in the program and you can’t create that chemistry without being with each other day-in and day-out. Jessie is just such a threat from the outside that she draws the defence and gives us extra lanes.
Also figuring large in the team’s success have been starting guards Sarah Buckingham and Julia Marshall. Ashleigh Barnes and Kianna Wiens also average double-digit minutes within the main rotation.
Says Gordon: “We’ve all done it together, and we’ve really become that (high) double-digit assists team.”
TRUST WHAT YOU SEE
Trinity Western, this season, sits third in the Canada West with an average of 15.6 assists per game, behind the leaders at Regina (18.1) and Saskatchewan (17).
And in keeping with the theme of passing and sharing, Gordon credits the support of her former teammates who helped usher her into the world of U Sports basketball during her formative years and continue to offer positive reinforcement.
“I remember when I came in how hard the older girls were always working,” begins Gordon, “and they were doing it all without experiencing the kind of success we’re having now. They’re all still around and they all send messages. That to me is an inspiring part of this program and I am excited to be a part of that alumni after this season, to be just as involved.”
One of those former players is assistant coach Chantelle Martin. Others include the likes of Kristen Ford, Luca Schmidt and Janelle Traber.
“No one really knew who I was,” admits Gordon, 22 and set to become a chartered professional accountant after graduation. “At first I wasn’t sure I deserved to be here, but my dream was always to play university basketball. I just told myself ‘Hey, you have nothing to lose’ and I have just wanted to keep getting better and better.
“For my final year to culminate the way it has to this point has been a testament to how hard we have all worked,” she concludes. “Cheryl has brought this program to a new place, and now we can all see the fruits of our labour. But her attitude, from my first year when we struggled until now, has never changed.”
That’s called trusting your gut.
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