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An epic basketball journey

In modern day college basketball, rarely does a player stay in school for four years, let alone five. And at the Frontier Conference level, two-year junior college transfers are becoming more and more the norm, rather than the exception, even in the women's game.

However, for the last five years, Montana State University-Northern forward Jordan Bruursema has been the exception to the growing trend.

Montana State University-Northern senior Jordan Bruursema has grown by leaps and bounds, as a player and a person in her nearly five full years with the Skylights. Bruursema is embarking on her final two home games of her career this weekend.

Bruursema arrived at Northern in the fall of 2008 from the tiny town of Reed Point, took a red-shirt year for head coach Chris Mouat, and she's spent the last four seasons crafting her game, growing as a player and as a person, and becoming the epitome of what a student-athlete is supposed to be. In the modern world of NAIA and Frontier Conference basketball, Bruursema's journey is becoming rare, and that's what makes it all the more remarkable.

And it's a journey she wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

"A lot of our recruits, and our younger players ask me all the time if I was glad I red-shirted," the 6-0 shooting guard turned power forward, who helped Reed Point/Rapelje to back-to-back Class C state championships said. "A lot of them don't want to be in college for five years. They don't want to wait to play. But for me, it was the best decision I ever made.

Jordan Bruursema says her decision to return to Northern for her senior year is one of the best she's ever made.

"Five years in college is a really long time," she continued. "But if I hadn't of taken that red-shirt year, there's no way I'd be where I am right now. First off, coming from such a small town to Havre, and from high school to college was a huge transition and it was hard for me. So that red-shirt year really helped me get adjusted because it was really overwhelming at first. And on the court, I was not physically ready to play out of high school. I had to get stronger, and my game had to get better. And that red-shirt year helped me with that too. So it was definitely the right decision for me."

Bruursema also credits having a strong group of supportive, veteran teammates in helping her adjust to college life, and helping her start to build her game, which has ultimately led to her averaging 10 points and five rebounds through the course of her career as a Skylight.

"Coming in, I had a great group of girls who really took me under their wing," Bruursema said. "Girls like Kaylee Shaw, Samm Schermele and Stacie Barker, those girls took a 17 year-old girl from a tiny little town and really brought me in. I was very lucky, all of my teammates early on in my career were great role models on and off the court, and they really helped me become the person and the player I am."

Five years later, Bruursema is that role model, and she's returning the favor.

"Jordan is a great example of a player going through that five-year span of college basketball," Northern head coach Chris Mouat, who recruited the three-time Class C All-State star said. "She has gone from being a red-shirt, to earning playing time, to much more than that. She's become one of the top players in our league. And off the court, she's a great person, she's a leader and she's had a tremendous impact on our program and in the community. So I'm just really proud of how far she's come and what she's done for our program in her time here."

Making changes

Being in the same program for so long, changes are bound to happen, on and off the court.

For Bruursema, aside from just aging and growing up, she also went through as drastic a change on the basketball court as any player could. And it's one that came out of necessity and unselfishness.

She was recruited to Northern as a taller shooting guard, with a deadly shot. But her height, and Northern's lack of depth in the post entering her sophomore year prompted Mouat to propose a move to the interior. It wasn't a place she was too familiar with, but in an unselfish move, she welcomed the challenge with a fiery determination.

"Coming in, the 3-point line was my spot," Bruursema said. "That's what I was recruited to do, was shoot. I played all over in high school, but really, shooting is what I do.

"But in the spring before my sophomore season, coach Mouat called me in and basically told me I was going to have to play big," she continued. "I remember it so vividly, because I didn't know how I was going to do it. This league is full of great post players, big, strong girls who are really physical. But he was really supportive and he really motivated me. He told me he knew I could not only do it, but be good at it. That meant the world to me coming from him, and I also took at as a big challenge. I was determined to make it work, because I wanted to do whatever I could to help our team."

Bruursema says from that meeting on, everything about her game began to change. She went to work that summer getting stronger physically, knowing she was going to go up against the giants of the Frontier — a league noted for premier post players. She says she followed a post-player workout program every day through that summer and returned for her sophomore year a stronger and a more physical player. But, she was also unique in that, while finding out she could indeed play in the post, she also had the ability to step out and hit the three. The transition wasn't easy, and she faced many ups and downs through her sophomore season, her first as a starter.

However, things really took off in the 2011-12 season, where she helped the Skylights win 21 games, finish third in the Frontier's regular season and reach the conference semifinals, by averaging 12 points and six rebounds per game. She led Northern in double-double's and still shot better than 38 percent from beyond the arc. For her efforts, she earned Frontier Second-Team All-Conference honors, and was headed towards her senior season as one of the top post players in the Frontier.

"Jordan is all about winning," Mouat said. "She wants to do whatever it takes for her team to win. And moving from the guard to the post was a really tough transition for her. But through her desire to win, and her dedication to herself, her teammates and to this program, she really made the transition work, and I think ultimately, you saw it pay off with the season she had last year. And I'm really proud of her for the player she's become."

Mouat is one who's certainly qualified to speak on just how good Bruursema has become. So too is her older sister Elly, a former All-Conference standout at Carroll College.

"When Jordan committed to Northern, we were all so happy for her," she said. "My parents were so excited. I wanted her to come to Carroll of course, but she chose her own way.

"Honestly though, I had my doubts about if she could handle basketball at that level," she continued. "Especially moving to the post. But, as a college player, she's improved more than I ever did in my years in college. Her game has grown by leaps and bounds because she has so much passion and heart. We are all so proud of her, and I just love to watch her play. She's a really good basketball player and we couldn't be more proud of her."

"It's not where I saw myself playing when I got here," Bruursema said. "But at that time, we already had a lot of great guards with Samm, Taylor (Keller) and Laramie (Schwenke). So moving to the post has been the best thing for me. I really took improving as a player to heart, first defensively, and then the offense came too. Now, I feel like I'm a much stronger player on both ends of the floor and I'm pretty confident in my abilities. And coach Mouat is a big reason why. He's been so great encouraging me to tap into my potential. I am really fortunate he saw in me the type of player I could be become. So it's all worked out for the best."

The season that almost wasn't

Following a breakout junior year, Bruursema was being looked upon as one of the top returning players in the Frontier for the 2012-13 campaign. However, little did anyone around the league know that she wasn't planning on returning at all.

On pace to receive her degree, and feeling like she was ready to take her life in a different direction, Bruursema informed Mouat shortly after the end of the 2012 season that she wouldn't be returning for her final year. She says it was as difficult a decision as she's ever had to make, but at the time, it was the one which felt the most right for her.

"Really, even before last season ended, I was feeling overwhelmed and a little burnt out," she said. "I had to put that aside and give my team all I had for the rest of the season, but after it was over, I was really wondering if I was at a point in my life where, is this really where I want to be? So I talked it over with my family, my sisters and other people who had gone through five years of college. And I decided that it was time to go in a different direction. At that time, I could have finished school, so I told coach Mouat I wasn't going to return.

"It was a hard thing to even say, because I knew I had so many friends here, I had teammates coming back who were counting on me being there, and I felt like I was really putting (Mouat) in a bad spot because now he was going to have to go out and find another recruit that he didn't think he would have to until after my last year. I felt pretty awful about that, but at the same time, I just felt like, where I was at, it was time to move on."

And though she thought she was sure of her decision in the moment, through a chance encounter at one of the biggest women's sporting events in the world, things changed rapidly.

"I was at the (NCAA) Women's Final Four in Denver, and I ran into Jaci Heny (Former MSU-N All-American guard), and we were talking and she said she had heard I wasn't coming back for my senior year. She took me aside and just told me that I've come so far, and that I was going to really regret it. She said I'd regret not playing every day and that I could never get back the experience of playing for Northern in my senior season of college basketball. Those words really stuck with me because she was right. It is such an honor to play for the Skylights, to play with my teammates and for coach Mouat and to play for all the great Skylights of the past. It is a tremendous honor. It's an honor to play in that gym every night, to where the Skylight uniform and to be a part of such a great program and a great community, and I knew I would really miss all of that.

"So running into Jaci, plus just being at the Final Four, and seeing those women play the game I love so much, with so much passion, it really changed how I was feeling and really hit home with me," she added. "I realized how lucky I am that I get to be a Skylight and it really re-ignited my love for the game. I realized I have the rest of my life to do what I want for me, but right now, I only have one chance to play my senior season of college basketball."

Another great decision

Spending five years in college and red-shirting as a 17-year-old freshman wasn't the only good decision Bruursema has made. The one that came about at last year's Final Four has also paid off in spades.

Bruursema is having a strong senior season, averaging nearly 12 points and six boards per game, with four double-double's, while helping the Skylights stay amongst the Frontier leaders. And, while she's now in her fifth year of grinding as a college basketball player, not once has she regretted her decision to return.

"Now that I'm in my senior season, I couldn't imagine not playing," Bruursema, who's helped the Skylights win 65 games in her career said. I'm so glad I came back. Everything has worked out well and I couldn't be happier."

Her coach, sister and teammates couldn't be happier with her decision either.

"Jordan made a big, life decision to come back," Mouat said. "And we're very thankful she decided to come back. Jordan probably has never gotten the credit she deserves for what she's done on the floor. She's really become a complete basketball player. Her game has really evolved and it's been really fun to watch her grow.

"But just as important, she's continued to grow as a person," Mouat added. "She was a great person when she got here, and that comes from how she was raised. She has great parents who raised her right. They are a great family and Jordan is very family-oriented and that's just one of the many ways she's had such a big impact on our program. And we're so thankful she decided to come back because she means so much to our program, on and off the court."

"I'm so proud of her for the decision she made," an emotional Elly Bruursema added. "When she told us she wasn't coming back, my parents, my family was devastated. But we also knew it was her decision to make and we weren't going to try and force her to make a different choice. But that trip to the Final Four really changed her. The whole time we were there, I could see the wheels turning in her, and I could she was realizing what she would miss. I think she started to realize that, while she might be OK for a little while, she would eventually regret not being able to finish what she started. So that trip was really a blessing for her. I think, at certain points in life, you do have to question what you're doing. And for Jordan to do that, and then come to the decision to come back to the Skylights, that just shows what kind of mature person she's grown into, and I'm just so proud of her. We all are."

And while the end of her journey almost happened a year too soon, the complete journey really will come to an end for Bruursema. The Havre chapter will close on Saturday night as she plays her final regular season home game of her long and storied career.

It's a game she'll look forward to because it's against the nationally-ranked Westminster Griffins. But it's also one in which she'll have mixed emotions because it could very well be the final time she ever steps onto the Armory Gymnasium floor, in front of the best basketball community in the Frontier Conference.

It's a reality that's started to sink in, all the while being one she couldn't imagine five years ago.

"I'm an emotional person anyway, so it's going to be a very emotional night for me," Bruursema said. "It's going to be sad, but at the same time it will be such a celebration and I'm excited to celebrate it with Kylee (Denham) and Nikki (Tresch). But it's a hard realization that it's finally coming to an end. You think back and realize five years is a long time, but it went by so fast too. You think about all the great people you've met, all the great teammates you've had, the great friends you've made, how amazing our fans and the community are to us, and how great and important a person coach Mouat has been in my life and for my basketball, it's going to be really hard to say goodbye to all of that. So it's going to be a really hard night, but it's also going to be a great night too.

"I'm just so lucky to have been a part of this program," she continued. "And now that it's almost over, I really can say I have no regrets. I'm so happy with how everything has turned out. Starting with my decision to come to Northern in the first place. Havre has really become my home now, and this school and this program mean everything to me. And with my decision to red-shirt and my decision to come back and play my senior year, it's all worked out really well for me. I couldn't be happier with all of it, and I just feel so fortunate because there are so many girls who would love to be in my position. I really am very lucky."

Feeling lucky that she was able to experience all she's gone through over the years speaks volumes to what kind of mature person and basketball player Jordan Bruursema is. And it all started with that decision to make her journey the now-rare five-year variety.

Jordan Bruursema's journey started out as little more than a 17-year-old red-shirt trying to find her place in the confusing chaos of college athletics. But it's turned into an epic tale. And it's one she wouldn't have missed for anything in the world.


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