WHEN times get tough for sports teams, the common cliché is that one star player often steps in to "put the team on her back" and carry the rest of the squad to glory.
Tough times arrived for the Capilano University women's basketball team early this season when star forward Hayley Boulier, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, went down with a season-ending knee injury in the team's third game. There was another imposing, talented forward on the roster who potentially could have filled nearly every hole left by Boulier's absence but Capilano head coach Ramin Sadaghiani was very careful not to let Lauren Seabrook feel like she needed to put the team on her back.
The Blues had depth, he said. Everybody needed to step up and fill the void. Everybody needed to carry the load, not just one player.
It was important news for Seabrook - if there's one thing she needs to avoid now it's any undo stress put on a back that was not so long ago devastatingly broken.
Lauren Seabrook became a force to be reckoned with during her time at Carson Graham secondary, learning the ins and outs of low-post play from coach Vern Porter. She graduated in 2010 and, having her choice of several CIS schools, traveled to Ontario to study and play at Western. Seabrook didn't see much action in her first year but was poised to take a step forward in her second season when a giant truck halted her progress completely in July of 2011. Two trucks, actually.
Any driver who has crossed the Lions Gate Bridge more than a couple of times knows the feeling - traffic slows to a halt in front of you so you hit the brakes hard to stop in time while praying that the vehicle behind you does the same. In Seabrook's case the massive pickup truck behind her didn't stop in time and slammed into her car, bouncing her forward into truck No. 2 that had stopped in front of her.
"I got, like, sandwiched between the two of them."
Seabrook complained of a sore back but doctors in Vancouver and, later, in Ontario diagnosed her with just whiplash.
"OK, I can deal with that," Seabrook remembers thinking. She went back to basketball practice that fall but it wasn't long before everything went into what she now calls "disaster mode."
"I started training and I tried to step and my legs gave way. So I went to the hospital and they were talking about putting plates in and it was really scary for a while."
The new diagnosis: a fractured sacrum and torn ligaments in the sacroiliac joint.
"I broke my back," she says. The new diagnosis sent Seabrook reeling. She took a medical leave from school, moved back home into her parents' house and was instructed to walk for no more than 20 minutes per day for a month.
"I read a lot and watched a lot of TV. Name any season, I've probably seen it," says Seabrook, adding that her shows of choice at the time were comedies like Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. "At that point I was like, 'I need to get a laugh every once in a while.'"
Next came six weeks on crutches and day after day of physio and rehab. Seabrook slowly increased her level of physical activity and by the summer of 2012 she was feeling like she wanted to get back to playing the sport she loves. At a meeting at a coffee shop with Sadaghiani - a first-year Capilano university coach who has known Seabrook for years through his own work with North Shore high school teams and the 3D Basketball Academy - a plan was worked out to ease Seabrook back into the sport in the Pacwest league with the Blues. Seabrook says her doctors, amazed that she was even considering playing again, told her she would be in pain but she likely wouldn't do any more damage to her back if she played.
"The ligament is torn so it's never going to grow back, essentially. So I've had to work on all my other muscles to keep it so that it just doesn't 'slide around,'" she says. "It still hurts all the time. It hurts if I play, it hurts if I don't play. So it's just, like, 'let's play!'"
The Blues came out of the gate flying with Boulier, a second year forward from Windsor secondary, leading the way and Seabrook playing a supporting role off of the bench. When Boulier went down, Seabrook - still a tall, powerful and talented presence on the court - seemed the logical choice to step in and take over. She did begin to play more but both Sadaghiani and Seabrook agree that there was no added pressure on her to perform other than the pressure everyone on the team felt after losing one of their stars.
"I didn't feel any extra pressure," says Seabrook. "At that point I was still just getting back into everything. It's hard taking a year off."
Sadaghiani challenged the whole team to step up and they did - since Boulier's injury the Blues have barely missed a beat. They were 3-0 at the time and in first place and now they're 152 and still in first place.
"We have depth at every position and we're very fortunate, in our league, to have the depth that we do," says Sadaghiani. "I don't think a lot of teams could bounce back having heir leading scorer and rebounder go out in the third game of the season and still maintain first place in the league."
Seabrook may not have been forced to carry the team but she has certainly borne her share of the load. She now starts at centre and by the end of January was up to third in the league in rebounding, averaging 8.8 per game.
During a recent win over the Langara Falcons Seabrook showed off the skills that made her a sought-after CIS recruit out of high school, taking over during one short stretch of play in the fourth quarter with the Blues in the midst of blowing a big lead. The six-foot-one centre started the play by beating a much smaller player to a loose ball at her own baseline. Seconds later she had raced to the other end of the court, grabbed an
offensive rebound and scored. On the very next possession Seabrook snatched another offensive rebound and put it home, pushing the lead back to 19 with her own 4-0 run and sending the Falcons packing. She ended the game with 13 points and 18 rebounds in just 24 minutes of play.
"It's the most aggressive I've seen her in a while," says Sadaghiani as he goes over the stat sheet following the game. "Every board was getting at the peak of her jump and ripping the ball. . . . What makes Lauren good is that she's got the size but she also has the skill. She's spent time on her skill development, obviously."
Seabrook is sitting next to her coach, two packs of ice wrapped onto her back. The ice packs are a cold reminder of what her life is like now.
"I basically ice it every day," she says, adding that her injury has reached a plateau. "It's not going to get any better or worse - it's just chronic pain. I don't even notice it when I'm playing."
It wasn't always like that - Seabrook says she's overcome a lot of mental blocks to get to this point.
"Even now, still, if it's in my head, you can't really play like that. Or really do anything like that. It took a while to get past that whole thing of freaking out every time I would plant or turn the other way. Or even just walking down the street holding my backpack."
The work, however, has paid off. The Blues are frontrunners for the Pacwest title and are gunning for a trip to the national championships. CIS schools are taking an interest in the team as well, calling Sadaghiani to talk about Seabrook. She'll have three years of eligibility left after this season and hopes to move back up. Though Seabrook has been a big part of the team's success this year, Sadaghiani says he'd be happy to see her get back to the CIS level.
"I'll gladly send her off and wish her the best," he says. "I'm just proud of her. It'd be real easy (for her) to say 'I'm done playing,' (but) she obviously has the passion for the game and she's worked hard to get back to the point that she's at."
Seabrook says quitting wasn't an option. "I wanted to come back and play because I wasn't finished," she says. "I'm still not finished."
. . .
The Blues play their final home games of the season this weekend. On Friday Camosun College will visit the Sportsplex with the women's game at 6 p.m. followed by the men at 8 p.m. On Saturday Vancouver Island University will come calling, women at 1 p.m. and men at 3 p.m.