BURNABY — Sophie Swant is not afraid to make a very definitive statement on the eve of her fourth-and-final college basketball season with the Simon Fraser Clan.
“This is the most bought-in we’ve been since I have been here,” the 5-foot-11 senior forward said after practice Monday as the Clan prepared to kick off the 2018-19 GNAC campaign at home Tuesday (7 p.m.) against the arch-nemesis Western Washington Vikings.
“We’re all working to make this not only the best season I have had at SFU, but that our team has had in the NCAA,” continued Swant, who last season finished fifth in conference scoring at a team-high 14.2 ppg, while shooting a GNAC-best 89.4 per cent from the free-throw line. “Our goal is to make it to the Elite 8, and we are approaching every game we play that way.”
If you can’t remember the last time anyone from the SFU’s NCAA-era women’s basketball program was willing to put her name behind such lofty goals, it’s because no one else has.
Yet coming off a 4-1 pre-season, which was capped last week by an 82-80 overtime win over Florida Tech at the D2 Coast-to-Coast Classic in Anchorage in which the Clan rallied from 18 points down, none of it appears to be false bravado.
Instead, there seems to be a palpable sense of belief within the ranks, one best exemplified by Swant’s relentless drive, that despite all that graduation, injury and unexpected player departures, this season’s edition is not spending a second feeling sorry for itself.
“It’s nice to have a voice in the room that has been here through the struggles,” said Clan head coach Bruce Langford, who is now in his 18th season at the helm atop Burnaby Mountain when asked about Swant. “She knows every team we play, and what is required for success and she is able to transmit that message to the players.”
And when you look beyond the team’s senior class, which includes just her and the recently-returned post Samantha Beauchamp, and its one-woman junior class of point guard Tayler Drynan, the ranks get very young, very quickly.
Yes, the four sophomores — Jessica Jones, Claudia Hart, Kendal Sands and 2016-17 GNAC rookie of the Year Ozi Nwabuko — aren’t really typical second-year players.
And the pedigree of the incoming freshman class — Swant’s younger sister Georgia, Sienna Lenz, Justina Chan, Emma Kramer and Sophie Klassen — are to varying degrees, getting a chance to show early what they can do.
“The sense of leadership that comes from each one of them in their own way is huge for us,” says Swant, who heading into her fourth season of play has morphed into that true leader, one who is as cognizant of what she needs to do to bring out the best in her teammates as she is at what she needs to do to have the best year of her own career. “The energy the (freshmen) bring to practice, and when they get their chance on the floor, it really resonates that they are here for a reason. Not just to play university basketball, but to stand out, and to win.”
THE INNER FIRE
Sophie Swant was not your typical Simon Fraser Clan recruit when she came out of North Vancouver’s Argyle Secondary in 2015.
She had only become serious about the game in the 11th grade, and while she lacked polished form, on a high school team which nearly folded due to lack of players, and on which she was the only player the opposition had to scheme to stop, she averaged 24 points, 13 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks per game on pure guts, energy and try.
When I reported on her at The Province newspaper late in her senior year, Langford told me he believed Swant could grow her game in university.
“But even if she never did, if she just brings what she has right now, she’d help us,” he added. “I don’t pretend to know if she will be able to step in next season and I don’t promise anything to anybody. But there is no doubt that she will change our practices from Day 1. There is no doubt that she will make everyone compete harder, just because if they don’t compete back, they are getting knocked over.”
That energy has burned a little too bright over the years, her emotion often times spilling over into frustration.
Said Langford on Monday: “She’s always had a fire. And sometimes it’s become a forest fire. But she’s learned to manage that much better than before and that just needs to continue to go forward.”
Swant doesn’t try to duck any of it. In fact, bring it up with her, and she owns it in ways which show her entire team what it means to put everything aside in pursuit of team goals.
“I can say with full confidence that I spent all summer getting ready to harness my energy in a positive way,” Swant explains. “I want to make it the most useful it can be in a team environment.”
GETTING ON THE BUS
Watch Sophie Swant play for any amount of time, and what become apparent very quickly is just how much is accomplished in this game through energy play.
You could take that as a slight in terms of a lack of silk in her game, but it’s meant as a compliment, as a way to say that style will never trump substance.
Take the Clan’s D2 Showcase opener, an 82-67 win over Hawaii Pacific in which Swant went 1-of-10 from the field but still finished with 12 points, six rebounds and five assists, largely because her motor allowed her the opportunity to go 9-of-10 from the charity stripe.
“She’s effective because she finds ways to score in adverse times,” continues Langford. “She’s not afraid to go through a brick wall. And, she has so much flexibility defensively because she will never back down from a big post.”
Swant remembers all too well how last season ended.
A spectacular three-game GNAC regular season close featured back-to-back-to-back wins over Central Washington, Western Washington and Montana State Billings.
Yet it all ended in Anchorage in the GNAC playoffs’ quarterfinal round when the Clan fell 85-59 to Seattle Pacific.
“Losing in the playoffs to Seattle Pacific was hard, and afterwards there was a sense that we were not quite finished and deserved to go a little further,” Swant says. “In our year-end meetings, Langford talked about either being on the bus or off the bus, and being on it means it wouldn’t always be enjoyable. We want to make it to the Sweet 16 and then the Elite 8 for all the players that stayed on the bus.”
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