BURNABY — Ask Sophie Klassen what was worse than the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 university basketball season, and she doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“I tore my ACL last season, in September (of 2020), just a couple of weeks into practices,” Simon Fraser’s energetic 6-foot redshirt junior forward begins. “I got surgery in November, and I wasn’t completely sure if I was even going to make it back to playing games this year.”
While her healthy teammates had lost their ability to compete in games on the court, Klassen’s level of isolation went a full step further as she put herself through the solitary paces of her rehabilitation.
Yet as the Chilliwack native and Sardis Secondary grad prepares for her team’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season finale this Saturday (5:15 p.m.) at home to the arch-rival Western Washington Vikings, it’s been Klassen’s ability to trust in her strengths as a player which have allowed her gutsy, no-holds-barred skills to once again come to the fore.
(Also on Saturday (7:30 p.m.), the Simon Fraser men’s team faces Western Washington in its regular-season conference finale, tipping off against the Vikings following its own Seniors Night ceremony)
In SFU’s last home game, a decisive 83-58 win over Alaska Fairbanks on Saturday, Klassen scored 18 points in just 23 minutes, going 8-for-12 from within the congested areas of the key, and also grabbing six rebounds, every one coming off the offensive glass.
And when she left the game, over its latter stages, it was only because she had taken a hard elbow over her right eye which left blood streaming down her face.
“I’m going to the hospital right after this,” Klassen said before getting stitched back up, blood stains all over her Simon Fraser jersey and a piece of medical tape covering the gash above her eye. “So it’s going to be a fun Saturday night.”
It was the surest sign yet that Klassen’s trademark abandon was no longer being held back as she’s worked her way back into the rotation with fellow forwards like senior Claudia Hart and freshman Gemma Cutler, as well as the team’s other top boardsmiths like Georgia Swant, Emma Kramer, Jessica Jones and Jessica Wisotzki.
“She played very tentative for a long time, she was very nervous about it,” began Simon Fraser head coach Bruce Langford. “She’s a Type A personality, so she focusses on all of the little details, so I think she did let it get in the way for a long time, but at some point, she just said ‘OK, let’s forget about this and let’s just play.’ She’s just got a competitive, burning fire in her where she just has to work hard.”
Beyond this season, the addition of more strength to her frame, coupled with that same motor will serve SFU well as it attempts to make up for the pending losses through graduation of stalwarts Jones, Hart and Kendal Sands, all of whom will be honoured as part of Seniors Night this coming Saturday.
For Klassen, the silver lining, if there can be such a thing to her ACL injury, has come in the self-discovery of pushing herself through her rehab, one which was going to offer her nothing in terms of absolute guarantees.
“I was so timid coming back,” admits Klassen, whose modest averages of 5.2 points and 4.4 rebounds over 18.5 minutes per game belies the impact she can have on the proceedings, both from establishing an inside presence and upping the pulse of her entire team. “At first, I just didn’t have the confidence to play out there in the way that makes me, me. And it was so hard not having that.”
Yet she discovered that by looking back on her rehabilitation process, that the signs of what made her herself on the court had never been lost.
“I just made it my goal to not skip a day,” she began. “I showed up every single day while my teammates practiced, and I did just my rehab and didn’t let myself give up on that because I knew it would be worth it in the long run, that I was setting my future self up for success.”
From her mentorship under Hart her freshman year, to watching the now-senior captain do her thing on a regular basis, Klassen knows she will shoulder that level of responsibility in 2022-23 ,when she, along with fellow rising-seniors Swant and Kramer play their final seasons with the team.
“I said to her after her first shift ‘Your talk and your communication are so loud, so intense and so effective that everyone on the floor is invigorated,” Langford related of what he said to Klassen during an early time-out in last Saturday’s win over Alaska Fairbanks. “I said to her that no one could be asleep out there… that they all had to be listening to her.”
For those branded as so-called ‘energy players’ it’s maybe the highest compliments you can receive.
As she made her way back from ACL surgery, Sophie Klassen openly admits wondering if she had lost “…what makes me, me.”
Yet on nights like last Saturday, where six offensive rebounds, a career-best 18 points, a bloody jersey and a trip to the hospital for some post-game stitches tell her story, it’s clear nothing has been lost in translation.
“I don’t know if anyone ever comes back from an ACL surgery and says ‘Oh, the knee is just like it was before,’” she philosophizes. “But I can’t complain. I’m out there working hard, and my body is working.”
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