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Sarah Besselink ready for challenge of playing basketball at Ottawa U
Posted: April 2nd, 2013 @ 3:49pm
As the Kingston Impact basketball practice draws to a close, Sarah Besselink pauses to chat. A curious onlooker asks about the scrape on the outside of her left knee.
She shrugs. “I was playing one-on-one with my boyfriend,” she said. “He tripped me.”
“I still won.”
From the time she was old enough to bounce one, there’s been no disputing Sarah Besselink’s skill with a basketball. What sets her apart is her competitive drive, a determination that abides even in a setting as benign as a lunchtime pickup game.
“You’ll be very impressed with her calm demeanor,” says Paul Coulter, Besselink’s coach with the Kingston Impact club, but make no mistake. “She’s a tough competitor, mentally very strong.
“She’s not screaming, frothy. Some people get that kind of intensity where they’re fired up and it works for them. She’s not that. She’s very calm but has a very tough attitude.”
Her will to succeed will stand Besselink in good stead in her next endeavor. After an outstanding high school career at Holy Cross, Besselink will take her game to the University of Ottawa next year, where Gee-Gees coach Andy Sparks has no doubt she will fit in nicely.
“She’s got the inner drive that’s required,” Sparks said. “A lot of people have the talent but she’s got that extra push to be very good at something that will probably allow her to grow into that. She’s got a chance to be an outstanding CIS player.”
What leads Sparks to make such a prediction of a player who, he admits, didn’t impress him that much when he first saw her play?
“She doesn’t like to lose,” he said. “If you look at the success that’s she’s had, the teams that she’s played on do well. That’s an intangible that you can’t get all the time.
“I’d much rather recruit somebody who’s come from a program of success and expects that of themselves and the people around them. She has that characteristic. That’s a major key for us here.”
The Gee-Gees are an aspiring national power. After finishing this year atop the Ontario University Athletics East division standings with a 16-4 record, they finished sixth at the national championship tournament. The opportunity to help the Gee-Gees take the next step appealed to Besselink.
“They’re a very good program, well respected across Canada,” Besselink said. “It’s close to home, I like the coach — it just seemed like a good fit.”
Besselink ended her high school career by helping Holy Cross win the silver medal at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations AAA championship in December and she’s continued to impress in Juel, a winter league for junior elite players. Competing with and against the best players of her age in the province, Besselink ranks among the leaders in five of the eight statistical categories the league tracks: Scoring (14.6 points per game), rebounding (9.8 per game), shooting percentage (.456), three-point shooting percentage (.473) and — perhaps surprisingly for someone who shoots so well — assists.
“There’s a reason why Lakehead, Dalhousie, Acadia and Ottawa U were big time after her,” Coulter said. “She’s that good.”
Often, Coulter said, players will succeed in high school, perhaps even be all-stars in their own league, and head off to university with high expectations, only to find themselves just another face in a crowd of gifted athletes. “They don’t really do anything at university,” he said.
The exceptions, he said, are self-evident.
“Think about Jenny Wright, who’s playing at Queen’s, or Jory McDonald, who’s starting at Western,” Coulter said. “In high school, you knew those girls were 100 per cent not just going to make a CIS team, they were players who were going to get minutes. They were going to play. Sarah’s that kid. She’s going to play at the next level and not just be a role player, she’s going to be a significant part of whatever program she’s in.
“She’s an incredibly mature, smart, hard-working kid who understands the game very well.”
No doubt being part of Kingston’s royal family of basketball played a role in fostering both the work ethic and Sarah’s grasp of the game. Her father, Rob, was an outstanding player at Regiopolis Notre Dame and St. Lawrence College. Her uncle, Gerry, was the first Kingston player to get a scholarship at a Division 1 U.S. college when he went to Connecticut in 1984. He later played professionally in Europe and he will be inducted next month into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame, the first person to be so honoured solely for his basketball pursuits. An aunt, Mary Jane, graduated from the University of Hartford ranked second in rebounds and fifth in scoring in school history. She was selected to the Hartford sports hall of fame in 2004.
“Sarah’s had all kinds of good coaching along the way and the right things (were said) afterwards that keep her balanced,” Coulter said. “She’s our captain for a reason and it’s not just how she plays, but how she is with her teammates and how she handles the game.
“Mentally she’s very tough, so even though she’s going to be doubled at times and knows that coaches are going to try to shut her down with their best defender, she’ll find ways to score. She’s also incredibly unselfish. She’s not about ‘I want my numbers.’ If someone takes away the shot, if the double team comes, she will immediately find someone. There’s very few times I have to say, ‘Sarah, start distributing the ball.’ She does that on her own.”
Growing up in a Besselink household, Sarah recalled, meant having a basketball in her hands from a young age.
“On Sundays we would have skill sessions with people around the neighbourhood and that got me into it for sure,” she said. “Knowing how my aunt and my uncle progressed, going to the States and playing at UConn and Hartford and over in Europe, it was always around me. I was always excited to play, to strive for that.”
Sarah said she never felt as if she had a legacy she had to live up to.
“My dad didn’t enforce that on me," she said. "I always wanted to do it within myself, but my parents definitely helped me to be the best I can be, being positive, pushing me, reminding me, ‘You should go to the gym,’ ‘You should do this,’ helping me along the way.”
Besselink, who will be studying human kinetics next year, said she quite enjoyed the recruiting experience — “it’s a lot of attention, right?” — but she added she’s happy it’s over.
“It was a tough decision when it came down because I made a lot of connections with coaches and players on the different teams.”
She’s pleased with the way her last season of high school basketball turned out.
“If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that team would have gotten a silver medal at OFSAA I probably would have laughed,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but we worked really hard and we peaked at the right time. We played our best at OFSAA, I truly believe that, and we got some revenge on the team that beat us out last year. It was definitely a fun experience and a good way to end.”
The Juel league is a good intermediate step in the path from high school to university basketball, she said, for its pace and the physical nature of play.
“I’m becoming more comfortable in the style of play,” she said. “It’s a good stepping stone, for sure. I need to get bigger and stronger and I know that, but I’m working toward that and trying out new things playing against people my own age. Hopefully that will prepare me better for university.”
Besselink’s next coach can’t wait. Ottawa is graduating three starters from a team that ended the regular schedule ranked No. 7 in Canada, “so there should be a good opportunity for her,” Sparks said. He envisions Besselink becoming a shooting guard, helping to replace the offence to be lost by the graduation of Jenna Gilbert and Tatiana Hanlan.
“Those players have been our shooters,” Sparks said. “We’ve made shooting a recruiting (priority) this year and Sarah certainly helps to fill that role. We have high expectations for her. She has a chance to step in and play a role from the start.”
“She’s grown on me a lot,” he continued. “She’s a quality person who’s got a good overall skill set. It will just be a case of having that skill set grow into a CIS level and I think she’s got the potential to do that, for sure. She’s going to have to continue to work hard to become stronger, physically, but there’s another thing — you have to have the will to do that and she does.
“She’s a great kid. We’re looking forward to having her here.”
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