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A Sunday morning gathering of some very special Sudbury basketball talent
2024-07-04
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The odds of Sudbury native Cloe Lacasse being named to the 2024 Canadian Olympic women’s team roster were already quite high at least a year before the graduate of Ecole secondaire Macdonald-Cartier fulfilled her life’s dream earlier this week, securing her ticket to Paris later this month.

The multi-sport talent as a high-schooler back home has gradually earned the ever-increasing trust of head coach Bev Priestman dating back to her coming out party at the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia last August.

At about that same time, Syla Swords might have suggested that her Olympic dreams, when it came to the 2024 Summer Games, were little more than wistful thinking.

And yet here we are, the rising basketball star who was born in France but proudly lists Sudbury as her hometown selected on Tuesday to join Team Canada on the grandest of stages, becoming the youngest athlete ever to don the maple leaf in Olympic Games female hardcourt action when she takes to the floor in what is effectively her native land in roughly one month’s time.

It’s all happened so quickly.

Even as she and youngest sister Savannah joined long-time European pro and Sudbury native Samantha Cooper at a recent summer workout hosted at Laurentian University by Voyageurs’ head coach Jason Hurley, it was hardly a slam dunk this day would come quite this soon.

Those who know her well, however, might suggest that they are far less surprised at the new heights that Swords is conquering on a daily basis given the foundation of her game and the approach with which she tackles each new challenge.

“I am most happy with the way I have been able to find confidence in my skills and trust what I am doing, no matter what,” said the 18 year-old who has surged to the top of the of the board when it comes to the future of Canadian women’s basketball, with much of this rapid progression occurring since she joined Long Island Lutheran H-S in New York in the fall of 2022.

“I think the jump is a little easier for me because I grew up with two coaches in the house.”

And not just any coaches.

Her father, Shawn, is a well-known L.U. alumnus who starred during his post-secondary playing days in Sudbury, went on to play professionally overseas, was named to the 2000 Olympic Games team in Sydney before returning north to guide his old squad as the Voyageurs men’s basketball head coach prior to accepting an offer from the Brooklyn Nets organization two years ago.

It was at Laurentian that Shawn would meet fellow basketball star and Sudbury native Shelley Dewar, the couple now tasked with the unenviable duty of keeping their history-making eldest daughter grounded while equally talented younger sister looks to follow in her footsteps.

Based on our recent chat with the girls, it is clearly “so far, so good” in that regard for the tandem with such promising futures ahead. “I’ve always been around basketball, but even then, I find myself at times having to take a step back and take a deep breath,” said Syla, foreshadowing a scenario that quite likely played itself out in recent days.

“Stuff can get complicated. I am trying to control the intangibles, making sure I am doing my best to put our team in a good situation to win.”

When we talked on June 9th, Swords was alluding to her focus as she prepares to kickoff her NCAA career this September as one of five incoming freshmen with a highly-touted Michigan Wolverines team - though so much of her mindset carries nicely from one hardcourt environment to the next.

“Defense, that’s always something that you can control, trying your best for all 32 minutes a game. And I want to be making sure I am getting good looks for my teammates and not just worried about myself and the shots I can take. Shooting and defense is the stuff that I’m known for.”

“If I can do that and keep locked in, I should do just fine.”

Far more than fine, most would agree.

For as much as their respective skill-sets might differ, the Swords’ sisters enjoy some highly beneficial common ground. “I would say that I am more of an attacker and a big presence and she’s more of a shooter,” noted Savannah, preparing for her junior year at Lu-Hi (grade 11) with a crammed summer of basketball that (hopefully) includes cracking the Team Canada Under-17 roster that will compete in Mexico.

"But we both play with plenty of hustle and hard work - that’s probably the similarities,” added the younger sibling who has now surpassed Syla in height, by the slimmest of margins, both girls standing north of the six foot mark.

For as much as Syla is living this incredible moment, Savvy is still soaking it all in, knowing there’s a very good chance her day will come. “Getting the chance to watch so many seniors and how they prepare themselves, the confidence they have in themselves has been great,” she said.

“I feel like I kind of translated that in AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) play especially.”

The Swords siblings have long-known to tap into every asset at your disposal in terms of developing their basketball skill-sets, a pathway that was every bit as clear growing up in Sudbury as it is once their spectrum expanded notably in recent years.

“Training-wise, I would say that it’s the same thing,” said Savannah. “Work is work, whether it’s with coach Jen (coach Jennifer Bourget of the Lo-Ellen Prep Knights) or the coaches in the U.S. - but that competition that we get every single day, practicing against so many future Division I players, I feel that really helped.”

Fortunately, outstanding role models have been easily found for the girls.

On this particular morning, they are joined at the Sudbury venue they know all too well (Ben Avery Gym) by 29 year-old Samantha Cooper, a gifted athlete who is so often acknowledged as being an even better person than she is a basketball star.

Come the 2024-2025 season, Cooper will make her way to Spain, fresh off a wonderful campaign in Germany. “We played in the German league but also in the Euro Cup,” noted the graduate of Lockerby Composite. “That was a great experience, playing teams from Portugal, Belgium and London.”

“Personally, I had a very good year - very efficient - and just really enjoyed it. It was incredible because I found our practices were so intense and competitive. I was in a great position, playing about 25 minutes a game, which was a nice balance.”

“It was really the complete package.”

It is not only the basketball trajectory that Samantha Cooper has travelled that is a valuable source of knowledge to the Swords pairing, but also the wonderful perspective with which she approaches each and every step of her journey.

“As much as this is my job, it’s also a great opportunity to see a new country (Spain) and other countries,” said Cooper.

With one eye on what will be her seventh season of pro basketball since starring as a member of the NCAA Fairfield Stags in Connecticut - “they know what my skill-set is so I feel very comfortable going in, knowing what I do” - the woman who is pursuing a masters in Sports Psychology is also contemplating a potential move to coaching in the years ahead.

“I am still trying to figure out what my next step is.”

That’s a very wise move, as Syla Swords can readily attest, as that next step can sometimes occur much sooner than expected.

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