ABBOTSFORD — In its most figurative sense, basketball has grudgingly given in.
For years, it had watched the unrelenting will to learn from the walk-on who refused to walk away, deciding finally that she had earned the right to be its friend and confidant.
At her core, Veronica Kobes represents so much more on the campus of Abbotsford’s University of the Fraser Valley than just a rising fourth-year forward with the Cascades’ women’s basketball team.
In pursuits which she confesses come a lot more naturally, she is set to chase a career in medicine with a stunning 4.3 grade-point-average in the sciences.
She’s also a research assistant at the school who is contributing to a study on the olfactory cells of fish.
She’s a volunteer in the emergency department at Abbotsford Regional Hospital.
She’s a gifted musician who not only plays the piano and cello, but teaches them as well.
“I have a passion to learn,” she says of her academic side, “so school has not been a super-hard thing. I enjoy it because I love it. But basketball? That does not come as easily. It just has not been as natural for me to just pick up the ball and learn. I really have to work hard at it, but all my life I’ve wanted challenges. I need something that pushes me beyond my comfort zone and forces me to get out there and learn to do something I didn’t think I could do.”
AN UNFLAPPABLE HEART
Three years ago, you could excuse Veronica Kobes for thinking she had already played the last game of her competitive basketball career.
In March of 2016, the Grade 12 had helped her hometown school, Langley’s Credo Christian High Kodiaks, to a third-place finish in Duncan at the B.C. Single-A championships.
Yet she wasn’t named a provincial all-star like her teammates Jayleen Stam and Hannah Allison, and she was not one of those who played the game 12 months of the year, like virtually every other U Sports recruit in the country.
Despite all of that, something deep inside wouldn’t let her walk away, despite the academic demands she knew she was sure to face in university.
“I just wasn’t ready for it to be over, so I went on-line, found a sign-up sheet (at UFV) and got connected with an assistant coach,” remembers Kobes. “I was asked to send in my stats but I never heard anything back. I assumed they saw my stats and just laughed.”
Undaunted, she e-mailed again, this time at the end of July.
Finally, there was a reply. Kobes discovered that the assistant coach she had earlier e-mailed had left the program.
It was late in the process, and no guarantees were being given, but Kobes didn’t care. She had been invited to try out for a real university basketball team.
“I don’t remember much except that it was crazy,” Kobes remembers of her first run on the court with her new teammates. “I didn’t know anyone and I felt out of place. What I do remember was that I had never been a part of such a high-level of basketball. It was so fluid. Then I found out later it was only their first practice of the year.”
Cascades head coach Al Tuchscherer also remembers that first day.
“It’s not too often that a 6-2 kid just walks into your gym,” he begins. “But she was 6-2 and I had no idea who she was. She had never been to camp. Never been to anything. She was unheard of.
“I remembered at that point working out Deanna and Julia at UFV,” Tuchscherer continued of a session he had held around the same time with his two daughters, the former now set to join the Cascades this coming season, and the latter one of the top rising Grade 10 talents in B.C. “At that point, they had more knowledge of how to play in the post. There was a long way to go, but we had a spot open and not a lot of size that year, so we agreed. I said to her ‘With your experience, you’re probably not going to play much, but if you want to be a part of a team and travel a bit and practice, you are more than welcome.’”
None of Kobes’ opening-day scenario is provided for any reason other than to show how big and courageous her heart needed to be that day, and how hard she had to be willing to work.
Fast forward to Jan. 12 of this past Canada West season.
The Cascades were in Victoria, trying to rebound from a 91-58 blowout loss the night before against the host Vikes.
In what may have been the most unexpectedly productive 10-minute stretch of any player in U Sports hoops all of last season, Kobes came off the bench in the second half and shot 7-of-8 from the field to total 15 of her career-high 17 points in a come-from-behind 73-71 win over Victoria.
Not only did she grab five of her six rebounds off the offensive glass, one of them led to her own game-winning shot with 1:08 remaining.
Keep in mind that prior to last season, Kobes had played a grand total of 30 minutes and scored five points over her first two seasons combined, with 24 of those minutes, and all of the points coming in her second season.
The Victoria win was her high-water mark.
In fact after that game, UFV sports information director Dan Kinvig began to refer to her as #KobesBryant on the school’s social media.
Yet taken on the whole, last season was a magnificent breakthrough for Kobes who not only appeared in all 20 games, averaging 3.2 points in nine minutes per contest, but even earned two starts.
“It’s turned out way better than I could have ever imagined,” she says. “It’s crazy how much I have learned. This year I even got to start two games. These are things I never thought would be possible. I was just hoping that maybe in my fifth year I would get to start one game.”
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Ask Dr. Lucy Lee, the Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of the Fraser Valley, just what she looks for in a research assistant and one of the first things she says is “Usually, when you give the work to a busy person, it gets done. Veronica is one of those.”
A number of years ago, Lee had gotten the opportunity to have Kobes’ older brother Kevin, just now finishing his fourth year of med school at UBC, as a research assistant.
Back in 2015, after Lee had suffered a broken leg and needed some assistance at home, Kevin Kobes recommended his Grade 11 sister Veronica for the gig.
“She was incredibly independent and had so much initiative,” Lee says in reflection of their early days together, and how all of that has manifested itself in the 20-year-old who now helps Lee prepare microscopic slides and other tasks for her research on various cell structures.
Yet Lee has a scope much wider than her microscope.
In fact she takes pride in having given Kobes a push to go try out for the basketball team at UFV, and she’s backed her pride over the years by attending games at the on-campus Envision Athletic Centre even Kobes was unlikely to see any floor time.
Yet as strange as it sounds, it’s not the first time Lee has mentored a student who played university basketball and was working towards a career in medicine.
“Thirty years ago my first honours thesis student was a varsity basketball player,” Lee says of Dr. Charles Ikejiani, who helped lead Acadia to the 1989 CIAU Final 8 nationals and is now the chief orthopedic surgeon at a Toronto-area hospital. “I love to support my student and I love basketball. I am taking Veronica back this summer for whatever hours she can give me. She is an amazing girl.”
“…ALL OF THIS, IT’S ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME”
Ask Al Tuchscherer to flash back to Veronica Kobes’ breakthrough game last season against Victoria, and he can’t help but think about her ability to get inside, to offensive rebound, and to create second chance opportunities for herself and her teammates, providing a strength which every team in the nation covets.
Yet that he’s even entertaining questions about a player for whom a full, relevant career on the court at the university level seemed far-flung just a year-a-half ago, is one of the great joys of his coaching career.
“Ron is a coach’s dream,” Tuchscherer says of Kobes. “Imagine you had a player who would do absolutely everything the right way. She’d get in the weight room. You say take this many shots, and she does it. You say to watch video and she does it. That’s who Ron is. Whatever you tell her to do to be better, she just does it. I guess calling her the ultimate walk-on is a good way to describe her.”
This past season’s Cascades, without a single fifth-year senior on the roster, went 10-10 in the Canada West.
Not only is the entire team back, but a blue-chip class of incoming freshmen labelled as one of the best in Canada, is also set to arrive.
All of that means more and more challenges ahead for every player on the roster, including Kobes.
Yet as Tuchscherer considers all of the players he has coached since moving into the head seat at UFV back in 2002, how many have drawn their inspiration to carve out a university basketball career from the same place as this formerly unknown and unheralded player?
“I wondered why she kept doing this,” Tuchscherer admits of Kobes’ Rudy-like spirit, which over the first two seasons was rewarded with virtually no floor time. “Then she told me that she needed a challenge in her life, something that was really hard for her to do. She told me she just craved that. To me that was so profound, that you have all of these other things that you really excel at, yet you seek the things that challenge you the most.”
Yes, it took years for the basketball gods to grudgingly admit that Veronica Kobes was the real deal, that she and her heart were simply not going to go away.
And through this figurative friendship, the walk-on who refused to walk away can now admit that the game has helped her not only appreciate her future, but her present as well.
“I have honestly just loved being in school,” she says, “but sometimes I have been too focused on just getting to med school. Now that I am here, and now that I am playing basketball, I am starting to realize that I need to take my time and enjoy things as they happen. All of this… it’s once in a lifetime.”
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