VANCOUVER —As Gabrielle Laguerta has gone about playing her role in the strangest year of our lives, UBC’s fifth-year senior guard has so often felt like an actor rehearsing her lines for a Broadway production she knows will never see the light of opening night.
“I’ll come off a good practice where I’ve tried out this new move that really works, but then I’ll think to myself ‘I’ll never get to show this,’” lamented Laguerta last week of the fall-out from a U SPORTS season cancelled due to the global pandemic.
While the clock which measures every student-athlete’s eligibility has been put on pause over this unprecedented season of play, the one which ticks to the bigger picture has not.
Degrees within their academic specialities have been, or are on the verge of being attained, and with that has come the opportunity to begin forging a professional identity separate from the athletic one which had seemed forever joined in lockstep.
And thus the passing of real-world time has brought about a most unceremonious final chapter to the university sports careers of countless seniors across the country.
Instead of a competitive schedule played at home in front of family, friends and fans, as well as on the road en route to potential conference and national championship tournaments, there is only the anonymity of practice.
Exit, Stage Left never felt so lonely.
Yet thankfully, that is not the theme of Laguerta’s final season as a UBC student-athlete.
“I’m not going to lie and say it has been easy to come to every practice… especially for the fifth-years,” the 5-foot-10 grad of Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Collegiate begins.
“For us, this is a year that still matters,” continues Laguerta, a Sauder School of Business student who will begin professional life with a major Vancouver accounting firm in the fall. “I am a competitive athlete and a player who takes pride in her work ethic. That is just how I approach basketball.
“So I didn’t want this year to be any different. Knowing how important fifth-year players are to a team, I knew it was important to set the example on how to approach adversity, even while going through a little of my own. But sometimes it’s been hard. Sometimes I’ve asked myself ‘What am I getting better for?’”
DOWN TO THE CROSSROADS
A little adversity of her own?
Jog your memory, and perhaps you will recall the plot line which accompanied Gabrielle Laguerta’s story as The Province newspaper’s 2016 Head of the Class Adversity Award winner.
Her’s is one of those all-time comeback tales, losing her entire Grade 10 season to a simultaneous tibia break and ACL tear in her left leg, then losing her entire Grade 11 season to complications from the initial injury.
“The second time was a re-do of my ACL, but I also got the holy trinity with a torn meniscus and a torn MCL,” recalls Laguerta, who not only came back from the depths of two straight seasons of inactivity at perhaps the most vital stage of development in a basketball player’s career, but opened the eyes of university recruiters by helping leading her Knights to the 2016 B.C. senior girls Double-A Final Four at the Langley Events Centre.
UBC head coach Deb Huband, now in her 26th season at the helm of the ‘Birds, clearly recognizes the crossroads at which Laguerta currently stands, a junction at which the tang of bittersweet hangs in the air.
“I think she is really at that place where it’s like‘Wow, I really love the game. I have had my share of hurdles and setbacks and challenges, and now I am going to have to transition away from this to accept my opportunities in the business world and advance my career,’” observes Huband, the Canada West’s all-time winningest coach.
“You’re sort of at a crossroads of excitement for the future but sadness for the passing of your time as a university athlete, particularly with COVID and not having the year you envisioned for yourself.”
It’s a place where her fellow fifth-year seniors Keylyn Filewich, Ali Norris and Marcie Schlick also reside, each facing their own personal decisions regarding their future with the Blue and Gold.
“I don’t even know if I have fully accepted it,” Laguerta admits of a university career that is now just a handful of months shy of completion.
GABBY: TREY MAGNIFIQUE
Ask Gabrielle Laguerta about the state of health of her formerly battered left leg and she doesn’t shy away from what has been a legacy of pain.
“At the end of third year, I started to get more knee pain, and I went to see the doctor,” she begins. “I was starting to get some degenerative damage from all the trauma my knee has faced and then playing on it for years. I was told that a knee replacement could be coming in 15 years or so… in my thirties, so that was hard.”
A cold does of reality to be sure, and just another fact to consider as she stood at that figurative crossroads contemplating her future.
And yet upon final analysis, with perspective fully unfurled, she knows that she has wasted not a second of her journey.
“In my first and second years here, I couldn’t get by anybody,” Laguerta chuckles, recalling just where she was physically coming off her high school injuries. “I would just get killed in practice.
“I had some friends on the guys team that knew how to get into the gym, even when it was late at night,” continued Laguerta with a laugh. “It’s just been ingrained in me since I started playing that to get better you just have to keep working.”
And if you’re wondering just how that work ethic manifested itself in the seasons that would follow, all you had to do was take a seat at War Memorial Gymnasium.
In fact, if you happened to be at the opening game of the 2019-20 season, a loss suffered at the hands of the visiting Alabama Crimson Tide, you would have witnessed a little history.
Laguerta, in just 25 minutes of play, produced a career-best 24 points by shooting 8-of-11 from three-point range, those eight triples equaling the school record set way back in 1993 by Lisa Nickle.
“She is one of the purest shooters around,” said Huband of Laguerta, “and as she grew, she just got more and more comfortable with it, and she needed less and less time and space to fire it off. Some of the shots she made, they were remarkable and she had earned a larger role on the court. It’s been unfortunate because we were really looking forward to this year to see what she could really do.”
None of that is hyperbole.
In the stretch drive to UBC’s 2019-20 season, as the Thunderbirds went 9-1 out of the holiday break, including eight straight to end the Canada West regular season, Laguerta showed herself to be the kind of player perhaps only she envisioned she could become while sitting in the depth of her two injury-riddled seasons.
Over that span, she shot 50 per cent from beyond the arc (20-of-40) while bringing a veteran’s poise to the fore.
Laguerta is quick to credit Huband for propping her up at her lowest moments and imbuing her with a sense of belief.
“I can remember having a very poor shooting season early in my career, and Deb would bring me into the gym and do nothing but try to keep building my confidence,” Laguerta remembers.
“She would tell me I had great form, and she said ‘We hope you see that we have confidence in you to take those shots. We don’t want you second-guessing yourself.’ That is where my confidence came. From the confidence she showed in me.”
THE POWER OF NO REGRETS
Push the re-set button on the cliche of ‘Playing for the Love of the Game.’
Now, apply it to the way Gabrielle Laguerta is finishing out her university basketball career.
Within our current vacuum of unique circumstance, the words gain a new power.
“She is a fifth-year who is finding the silver lining in there… finding a way to have closure for herself while excelling in the classroom and with her athletic leadership,” says Huband.
“I think when you come to university, you’re excited about the opportunity and the challenge, and everything inherent in that,” the coach continues. “Then as you get towards the end of it, you realize what a special time it is for a thousand different reasons, and it’s then that you have an epiphany of just how impactful those four or five years has been in terms of learning, growth, preparation for the future, relationship building and being a part of something bigger than yourself.”
It’s what has brought Laguerta to where she stands today.
“It’s taking pride in how I approach the situation,” says Laguerta, who took on the extra role of responsibility this season as the president of UBC’s Thunderbird Athletes Council. “This is something that I will carry with me moving forward, looking back on the fact that I had no regrets with the way I dealt with school, with the way I dealt basketball, and with my relationships with my teammates and coaches at a time when no one would blame you if you had a really difficult year.”
It’s a script that graduating high school student-athletes around the province would be wise to glean for both its absence of self-pity and its abundance of empowerment.
“I know exactly what you’re going through,” Laguerta says when asked to deliver an open message to the soon-to-be graduating high school student-athletes in B.C.’s Class of 2021. “The most important thing that anyone, at any age, can take away from this game… it’s not the wins and losses, it’s the people you have met through all of this. Just cherish those moments.”
Wise, inspirational and unrehearsed, they are — pandemic or no pandemic — a truism for all seasons.
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