LANGLEY — Shemaiah Abatayo, like the rest of Canada’s hard-luck Class of 2020 university freshmen recruits, will get a second chance to make a rookie impression when U Sports basketball courts flash their figurative green lights this coming fall.
Nothing could have beaten the on-court experience that a 2020-21 Canada West season would have provided Abatayo and the rest of the conference’s first-year class.
Yet in the specific case of Trinity Western’s highly-touted first-year point guard, getting a full season run-up to the real thing may actually have been a blessing given the bizarre situation both she and her family found themselves in just as the world was settling into a full global lockdown some 15 months ago.
And all of it began just days after the final game of Abatayo’s high school career, back on March 1 of 2020.
On that memorable afternoon, she scored 25 points to go along with seven assists and eight rebounds en route to being named tournament MVP in helping lead Vancouver’s Britannia Bruins to an 81-73 win over the Langley Christian Lightning in the 2020 provincial senior girls AA final at the Langley Events Centre.
About a week later, Abatayo, along with her mother, father, sister and grandmother all left YVR for what was to be a three-week trip to visit relatives in the Philippines, the family’s native country.
“I was really excited,” Abatayo, 18, remembered Wednesday of the trip to Cebu, a port city located in the centre of the Southeast Asian island nation. “I hadn’t been home in three years. But when we got there, the next day they went into lockdown.”
At that point, the family’s ability to return after three weeks was certainly in question, yet no one expected that their stay would extend to almost a full six months, forcing Abatayo to find a way to finish her high school classes remotely with less than-than-ideal wi-fi connections and an even spottier ability to feel like she was any part of the school’s graduating class.
“Initially, as we moved to on-line remote learning, we didn’t understand the impact, the trajectories and the adaptations we would need to make, especially for someone who was overseas,” related longtime Britannia coach Mitra Tshan. “Plus, I think she was 15 hours ahead of us, so navigating time zones, and her real lack of access to the internet created even more difficulties. We would get hold of her at some very random times and communication was very sporadic.”
If all of that wasn’t challenging enough, what kept Abatayo’s hopes up was the chance she could be back in her East Vancouver home by early June so that she would at least be able to prepare for whatever form Britannia’s 2020 graduation ceremony June 23 would take.
“Our first flight home got cancelled, and then they gave us a specific date, which was a week before graduation, and then it got cancelled, too,” remembers Abatayo, who had initially come to Canada from the Philippines in time for her Grade 6 year back in 2013. “For me, growing up, ever since Grade 8 I had volunteered to help out with the graduation ceremonies at Britannia, and I was so excited to be able to finally do it myself. But I just realized that I wasn’t going to make it.”
With the departure date being continually pushed back, the concern then moved to whether Abatayo would even be back in time to start her freshman year of university and basketball at Trinity Western.
Finally, after a flight home on Aug. 28, followed by two weeks of East Vancouver quarantine, her six-month wait was over.
“But when I got there everyone was a total stranger… I didn’t know anybody,” she relates of her first day at TWU.
AMIDST THE WAVES, A FINE FIRST SIP
A student-athlete’s transition from high school to university is tricky even in normal times.
Yet as Trinity Western’s head women’s basketball coach Cheryl Jean-Paul points out, that process was magnified for Abatayo, who for the past six months before the start of fall term, on a day-to-day basis, had no way to stay as sharp as she needed to be both academically and athletically.
“Shem spent six months in the Philippines, came home and quarantined, and then as soon as she got back to training, got a concussion in the first week,” began Jean-Paul, who begins her 12th season at the helm of Spartans basketball this coming season.
“At first she struggled,” Jean-Paul related of the expected cumulative effects of a compromised on-line finish to her high school career followed by the big jump into a full load of university courses amidst the pandemic’s overall restrictiveness.
“But over this last calendar year she really turned the corner,” Jean-Paul continued. “She was one of our most improved academic students from first-to-second semester.”
In part, as Jean-Paul is finally able to take a small step back retrospectively through this tight, ever-evolving pandemic window, she sees how Abatayo has taken advantage of tough circumstances.
“She has been on this incredible journey,” Jean-Paul continues of Abatayo, who followed up her provincial high school MVP honours by being named Britannia’s 2019-20 Female Athlete of the Year.
“She has been a COVID success story,” the coach added, “and I think in some ways because we were able to slow things down this year. We would have expected her to play (in 2020-21), so I think dealing with injuries, time management, her classes, commuting from Vancouver.
“She was able to take all of that in stride, as opposed to having to drink the water right from the hydrant.”
A HARDCOURT CHAMELEON
For her part, Abatayo won’t use her family’s extended stay in the Philippines, far away from her favourite East Vancouver courts, as an excuse for any part of her game.
In fact, when it was permitted, she says, she and many members of her extended family in Cebu City took advantage of a connection to a nearby gymnasium.
And according to her, once the extended Abatayo family got on that court, it was truly no-holds-barred action.
“They don’t call fouls,” Abatayo laughs. “My cousins… they all told me ‘You played in Canada, you should be able to handle all this stuff.’ But they were so aggressive and they really used their elbows.”
At some point this season, in the middle of the wars against local rivals like Fraser Valley, Victoria and UBC, those hard lessons are going to come in handy.
And so will everything else Shemaiah Abatayo has learned since she left the court as a B.C. MVP and champion in her last real game all these months ago.
“When I think of Shem, I always use the word ‘chameleon’ because this is a kid that goes with the flow, embraces everything that comes at her and then adapts,” says Tshan. “I would say her greatest strength is in how she can adapt… to different friends, surroundings, coaches. It’s a rare trait to have.”
And in these times, when epic adventures are more often times fact than fiction, the best way to get the most out of every journey.
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