Given a choice, there are certainly worse places to be in January than California.
But Semiahmoo Secondary basketball players Izzy Forsyth, Deja Lee and Tara Wallack didn’t spend their time in the Golden State catching rays. Instead, the whirlwind four-day journey was all business.
During a brief semester break at the South Surrey school, the Grade 11 trio – all members of the Totems senior girls hoops team that would go on to win a second-straight provincial title one month later – were given a few day off from practice, so they and their families could head south to make some unofficial visits to NCAA schools that had expressed interest in signing them.
The effort paid off, with two recent scholarship announcements – in late March, Lee announced she would join the University of California Irvine for the 2021/22 season, and last week, Forsyth verbally committed to a school just a bit further south, University of California San Diego.
Wallack has yet to announce her post-secondary choice – “She’s still wading through her options,” Semiahmoo coach Allison McNeill said – though she likely has more than a few suitors south of the border.
Very excited and proud to announce that DJ has decided to continue her basketball and academic pursuits at UC Irvine! Many thanks to her coaches, teammates and friends for their support during her recruitment. Congrats, DJ! #TOGETHERWEZOT pic.twitter.com/ME3vLRpccm— Roxane Lee (@Miz_Roxy_J) March 31, 2020
Forsyth said the January trip – which she made with her dad, Bob, a former UBC basketball star – was fortuitous for all three Totems, because it wasn’t long after that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sporting world as well as cross-border travel.
Without that unofficial visit – which differs from an official NCAA-sanctioned one in that the prospective player pays their own way – she would have been left to either choose a school sight-unseen, or wait until next fall when she’d return for her Grade 12 year at Semiahmoo at which time the hope is the COVID-19 situation would be under enough control for a basketball season to be played.
“I was able to see the campus, and I met a lot of the players and the coaches, so I based my decision just off that visit,” she told Peace Arch News, adding that her verbal commitment will turn into a written one in November, during the NCAA signing period.
“I was really fortunate to have been able to go. And once everything opens up again, I can take another one – an official visit.”
Deciding where to spend four or five years of your life after high school can be a daunting task at the best of times, and Forsyth admits the current pandemic added a few unexpected wrinkles into the decision process.
“It was pretty stressful, especially in the final weeks as I figured out where I really wanted to go, and then tried to figure out a new timeline (for deciding), because I wasn’t able to go on these official visits,” she said.
In the end, she chose San Diego for a variety of reasons, from the coach and the campus to the fact that it’s on the west coast, just a short flight from the Lower Mainland.
“It’s an accumulation of all that. I really like the coach, and the team’s style of play and I think I’ll be able to contribute,” Forsyth said, adding that she plans to study communications.
When she enrolls at UC-San Diego in 2021, she’ll see a familiar face across the court on occasion, too – Lee’s UC-Irvine team plays in the same division.
“I’ve never played against her – we’ve always been together,” Forsyth said.
Over the past few months as Lee, Forsyth and Wallack – not to mention other Totem teammates who have post-secondary hoops dreams – have also leaned on McNeill, a longtime coach at Simon Fraser University and the Canadian national women’s team, for guidance.
“I didn’t push myself on them, but they called and asked for advice,” McNeill said. “I said to them both, ‘You’re going to spend the next four years with this coach, so you’d better connect with them.
“Of course, the school itself is important – that’s the base, and you aren’t going to consider any school that doesn’t have your academic program because you want to come out of there with a degree. But if basketball is important to you, then the coach and the team’s (style of play) is important.
“I’m really proud of both of them. I think both Deja and Izzy have done a really good job going through this process. They both did their due diligence and did a good job of narrowing down their options. They got advice from other people, too – like their parents – but at the end of the day, the decision was theirs and I think they’ve both made great decisions.”
Since summer ball 2019 @Hoops4Heidi and her awesome staff have been at Izzy's side celebrating her successes and challenging her to be the best version of herself as a leader & student-athlete. She is proud to commit to UC San Diego. FROM A TOTEM TO A TRITON..HOW COOL IS THAT! pic.twitter.com/eJxwyfmlB4— Linda Forsyth (@forsyth9701) April 20, 2020
McNeill also offered one more piece of advice to both teens – if you know where you want to play, then don’t wait to make a decision. It’s the same advice she gave to former Totem star Faith Dut, who helped lead Semiahmoo to a B.C. title in 2019 before graduating and heading off to the University of Florida on a basketball scholarship.
“Even without all this COVID stuff going on, it’s nice for them to be done with this decision,” McNeill said.
“You don’t want this decision hanging over your head for the whole (Grade 12) school year, so it’s a bonus for them to have this done now.”
In the meantime, the Totems – like student-athletes everywhere – are continuing to train on their own, while moving through the school curriculum online. Forsyth said the online-only education was a tough adjustment at first, “I’m getting used to it and it’s going OK.”
As for basketball, she’s lucky to have a good training partner at home – her older sister, Louise, a former B.C. high school basketball star who is in her junior year at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.
“It’s been pretty good – we have a good training routine,” Forsyth said.
The younger Forsyth was able to lean on her older sibling during the NCAA recruitment process, too.
“She went through the same thing, so she gave me lots of advice. She said to make sure I choose a place where I feel comfortable and make sure it’s a place I want to be.”