ABBOTSFORD — Survival in the painted areas of the basketball court has often been described as a ‘sink-or-swim’ proposition.
That’s all figurative, of course.
Yet when you ask Fraser Valley Cascades’ post-forward Taylor Claggett about her path to success within that traffic jam of congested humanity, where tenacity, equilibrium and courage are constantly being put to the test against an undercurrent of undercutting, ‘sink-or-swim’ suddenly becomes a literal truth.
And that’s because when Claggett and her Cascades (7-11) take to the court at Envision Financial Athletic Centre on Friday and Saturday, fighting for their playoff lives in a Canada West regular-season weekend finale series against the Manitoba Bisons (8-10), a large part of their fortunes will hinge on the play of their pugnacious 5-foot-11 front-court dervish, who in the most authentic sense honed her hardcourt game on the survivalist’s premise of staying above water.
“So, I played water polo growing up, for five or six years, and on the (Canadian) national development team,” confirms Claggett.
It’s no coincidence that while with the Fraser Valley Water Polo Club, Claggett played the demanding hole-set position, one which most closely mimics that of basketball’s glass-cleaning, free-throw shooting post-forward.
“Water polo is the most physical game I have ever played and it translates into the way that I play (basketball) today,” begins Claggett, who donned goggles and bathing suit until the start of her Grade 11 year where she had starred concurrently on the hardwood with her hometown MEI Eagles. “People are pulling at your bathing suit, people are grabbing your legs under water. And the whole time you are doing the egg-beater so that you won’t go under.
“And because of all that, more than anything, I got a better feel for rebounding, the positioning, and learning to read where the ball comes off the boards,” continues Claggett, who didn’t start playing basketball until she got to high school.
“I started playing basketball a little bit later than most and I didn’t have the skill sets that so many other girls had,” adds Claggett, who at MEI eventually teammed with current Trinity Western standout Tessa Ratzlaff, a year her senior, to give head coach Rick Thiessen a powerhouse squad, “but I made up for it with my rebounding. I’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises to show for it.”
Those water polo teammates of hers from the Class of 2015 who stuck with the sport migrated to collegiate careers at places like Stanford, UCLA and Hawaii, yet when pressed, Claggett can’t recall a single player other than herself who doubled as a basketball-water polo dual sport athlete.
In these times of rising support for the benefits of a multi-sport upbringing, Claggett could well be the pioneer of a unique combination that remains a best-kept secret.
WHEN TO KEEP THE BULL UNDER WRAPS
Fraser Valley Cascades head coach Al Tuchscherer came to same conclusion that many purists have when it comes to figuratively unwrapping the freshman version of Claggett and throwing her out onto the court.
And that is, within that ‘sink-or-swim’ environment, she seemed, on many level, ready from Day 1.
“I think that one of the things that you have to teach kids when they get to the university level is, in the post, they need to be patient and slow down a bit in there.
“Taylor already had that,” remembers Tuchscherer. “It was natural. She never rushed under pressure. And again, that physicality she has, and the great footwork as well, it all enabled her to make great decisions despite the fact she might be a bit under-sized.”
All of it added up to Canada West all-rookie honours in 2015-16, and this season, as a third-year leader on a young UFV team, she is providing a near double-double at 12.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
As well, Claggett, who as a ninth grader once took 24 trips to the free throw line in a single game, has continued to invite contact throughout her post-secondary career.
This season, as she has added a 15-to-18 foot jumper to her repertoire, she continues to rack up her trips to the stripe, currently sitting fourth in Canada West at 6.2 free throw trips per game.
And while that combination of big-motor effort coupled with intuitive in-the-paint feel will always be the hallmark of her game, the maturation process has given her a better sense of when to keep the bull out of the china shop.
“In high school, it was like I could get to the free throw line all the time,” she begins. “Now, if I don’t, I’m thinking more about finishing with contact and getting a bucket. I’ve been working on a hook shot and even over the last two weeks it feels like my jump shot has improved. Before, I wouldn’t take it even if I was open. But at this level, there is a scouting report on everyone. You have to have two or three different weapons.”
MAKING A SPLASH THROUGH OFF-COURT OUTREACH
Multi-faceted on the court? For sure.
Yet there are just as many layers to Taylor Claggett off the court, layers that because of her humility you would likely never know existed.
Like how in the fall of 2016, she led a team shoe drive that collected 800 pairs of lightly-used sneakers for the charity Soles for Souls, which then distributed the donation to needy countries.
Or how about the high school girls basketball camp she organized this past October with her teammates, its aim to raise funds to buy basketballs for girls in an under-privileged Mexican community she had visited over the summer?
“I was in Tecate (two hours from Tijuana) this past summer and I noticed that they didn’t have any at all,” said Claggett said of the young girls she saw. “That is what I do every day and those girls didn’t even have basketballs to dribble. So we got together 50 high school girls for a camp and we’re going to order everything, and then I am going to go down and deliver it all.”
Her three seasons as a university student-athlete have been eye-opening.
Not only did Claggett discover that there was a perfect place for her to continue to play her brand of hard-nosed hoops, there was also a platform upon which she could affect positive change.
“I think my first year at UFV was kind of a wake-up call for me,” she explains. “I came from a small private school to this university and it was totally different.
“I didn’t feel fulfilled just going to school and playing basketball. I asked myself ‘What am I really doing?’ I felt I had a bigger platform now and that I needed to do something with that. It has really shown me how much of a voice and role model (student-athletes) can be with the position we’re in.”
This weekend, however, all of her focus is on helping her team to try take a pair of wins from Manitoba in games Friday (6 p.m. women, 8 p.m. men) and Saturday (5 p.m. women, 7 p.m. men).
The Cascades, currently sitting in the conference’s 12th-and-final playoff spot, can assure themselves of a post-season berth with a sweep. UFV’s women, since joining U Sports in 2006-07 have missed the playoffs just twice, and have qualified the past seven straight seasons.
“We’re all excited and we’re all nervous, but that just shows how much we care, how much we want to keep our season alive,” says Claggett.
It sound a lot like ‘sink-or-swim’ and that’s just the way she likes it.
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