BURNABY — Sophie Swant’s basketball heart has always ticked to the beat of a bull in a china shop, a coveted attribute to be sure, but one that can also impede the natural flow of a game built on metronomic precision.
So what’s a girl to do in her quest to find the perfect balance of tenacity and tranquility?
For the Simon Fraser Clan’s rough-and-rugged sophomore forward, it’s been all about discovering a new favourite word and living its daily tenets.
“At the beginning of the year, we had a team meeting to set expectations for the season,” the 5-foot-11 grad of North Vancouver’s Argyle Secondary explains. “We came up with five or six different ones, including one about what it means to push yourself every day.”
The covenant which Swant says “she’s fallen in love with,” is a single word: Kaizen.
Break down the Japanese word to it’s base meaning and you get ‘Kai’ for change and ‘Zen’ for good. As Swant says “It’s all about constant improvement.”
From the perspective of a player who averaged 23.7 points, 13.4 rebounds, 4.4 steals, 3.4 assists and 2.2 blocks per game over her senior year of high school, but was still considered, by university standards to be a raw prospect, her claim to kaizen has been nothing but timely.
“She is very competitive, and she is trying to learn to control that competitiveness to appropriate levels,” says Clan head coach Bruce Langford who will summon Swant in off the bench as an energy player this week as SFU plays its final two regular-season GNAC games against both Fairbanks and Anchorage, Thursday and Saturday respectively at the West Gym.
“She is strong and physical, but when she came here, she didn’t have all the physical skills that you would normally associate with a university basketball player.”
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
Taking a watch-and-learn standpoint, Swant is quick to reference not only the individual skills of her fellow teammates, but how those skills help make her a better player.
“When I got here, Langford told me that I shoot it like I’m in Grade 7, so I’ve tried to work on that a lot and find my rhythm,” Swant laughs of a jumper, which now, when taken in the flow of the offence, has gained reliability up to the three-point arc. “It’s like I want to get into a flow, like (Elisa) Homer and Ellen (Kett), or (redshirt) Jessica Jones or Taylor (Drynan). They all have that.”
And on defence, where Swant tackles all the GNAC toughies like Western Washington guard Taylor Peacocke, she says she’s learned her craft by challenging herself in practice against a bevy of talented teammates.
“Every day is an opportunity to get better, so going into a practice, if I can get a stop against a great ball-handler like Ozi (Nwabuko),” Swant begins of the Clan’s fleet rookie guard, “it really helps my confidence against any other player in our league because Ozi is lightning-quick.”
Yet if success isn’t met at every stop along the way these days, she’s OK with it.
“I would say I have a very tough inner-critic,” Swant adds. “I learned last year that you can’t make every stop and you’re not going to get every rebound. And when you don’t you can’t let it crumble your mentality.
“I’ve allowed myself to revel more and to allow myself to celebrate that I am getting better.”
That’s good change, or kaizen, personified.
A UNIQUE SIGNATURE
With two more seasons remaining after this one, Swant, like all players, expresses disbelief in how fast the four-year window of playing eligibility can pass.
“It feels like I just started,” the business major says. “But it’s a dream of mine to play (professionally) overseas because I can’t see my life without (basketball.)”
And if she could have one personal wish granted before she comes down from Burnaby Mountain, it would be to play her senior season (2018-19) alongside her younger sister Georgia, currently set to lead Argyle at the B.C. Triple-A championships.
The pair played one season together (2014-15) when Sophie was a senior with the Pipers and Georgia just a ninth grader.
Georgia Swant then made the rare move back to junior varsity last season, where she was named tournament MVP in leading Argyle to the B.C. JV title. Last weekend, the supremely talented scoring guard was named the MVP of the Lower Mainland Crehan Cup championships.
The sisters are about as stylistically different as you could imagine, yet Sophie sees one constant the siblings share.
“Where we are rooted in similarity is in our competitiveness,” she says. “But where I will lay my body on the line and garner my strength from saying ‘This is my defensive stop’, she will say ‘You think you can guard me? Well watch me.’”
Her younger sister’s biggest fan, you can watch videos of Argyle topping Walnut Grove in last season’s JV final and spot Sophie front-and-centre, leading the cheering section at the LEC.
“I got blisters from ringing my cowbell,” she laughs. “She is just so much better than I ever was in high school, and to watch her battle (Walnut Grove’s) Tavia Rowell, it looked like a game of one-on-one.
“I have never been so proud of anyone that I think I cried even more than she did after they won.”
The Clan, on its Saturday ‘Seniors Night’ against Anchorage, could well be playing a team looking to complete an undefeated season.
That will add even more to an already-emotional night, and Sophie Swant’s basketball heart may well skip a few beats in the process.
Still, she’ll throw herself into the fray with the same gusto with which she will throw those mini-souvenir SFU balls into the West Gym crowd.
And if a young, impressionable player happens to catch one of them, they will understand the meaning of its unique signature.
“I write my name on each ball, and I write ‘kaizen’, too,” Swant says, “because 100 per cent, that is what I want in basketball every day.”
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