Nat Carkner is listed at 5-foot-5 in the Trinity Western program
Winnipeg’s Taylor Thorkelsson is 5-foot-11.
To truly understand who the Spartan guard is and what she is all about, that six-inch difference is important information.
“It looked like a football hit,” says TWU coach Cheryl Jean-Paul.
Tracking a Winnipeg pass across the top of the 3-point arc, Carkner raced towards the Wesmen’s Megan Noonan on a direct line. Carkner, who had her eyes locked on the ball, never saw Thorkelsson, who had inadvertently created a wall between the Spartans fifth-year guard and Noonan.
“I don’t even know how (Nat) got back up,” Jean-Paul adds.
Noonan drained her 3-point attempt. Thorkelsson awkwardly tumbled to the ground. Carkner found the court with more of a thud. It was a safety catching an unawares receiver in the sweet spot. Eventually, Carkner peeled herself off the ground and made her way to the bench. It hurt. Remember the six inches.
Less than eight minutes later and with still 1:36 left in the third quarter of a Saturday night tilt in Winnipeg, fellow TWU guard Jessie Brown picked up her fourth foul. Jean-Paul turned to look down the bench, hoping to find a game Carkner.
“You ready to go?” Jean-Paul asks.
Without a moment of hesitation, she was back on the floor. With 16 seconds left in the quarter, the 3-point shooting specialist knocked down a long ball to bring the Spartans within seven points of then undefeated Winnipeg. With Carkner, who averaged 8.4 points per game this season and was 10th in Canada West with 37 treys, hitting two more 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, TWU rallied to win.
“She’s been a warrior,” Jean-Paul says, recalling the incident with a bit of a grin but a whole lot of pride. “I mean she almost had her head ripped off. But that’s who she’s been this year. She’s just become such a tough competitor.”
A couple of years ago, the Port Coquitlam, B.C. product would have never experienced that collision. On the defensive end, where she has become an invaluable piece for Jean-Paul, she is playing with a confidence rarely before seen in her university career. “I get in these moments where I just get in a zone,” she says. “And especially on defence, I play really aggressive defensively.” A few years ago, Carkner wouldn’t have flown across the defensive zone with such ferocity to make a stop. A few years ago, she and Thorkelsson never meet.
“She stayed inside her comfort zone for three and half years,” Jean-Paul says. “She was only getting as far as she was risking and that’s on and off the court. Now she’s taking more risks.”
Carkner looks around the small room where an interview is set to be conducted. She instigates the conversation. She asks the interviewer questions. Just moments after she arrives, her confident demeanor is apparent.
“In previous years, I’ve come into the season with a bit more of a fear of failure,” Carkner says about her on-court approach – something that has quite obviously also permeated her off-court outlook. “This year, my mentality changed.”
Without that fear, she has the confidence to take risks she never would have previously considered. Her teammates love her for it.
As one of three fifth-year players on the team, not only has she expanded her role as a player, but she’s taken, as she says, a “motherly role” for young players on the team. “I’m protective of them,” she says. “When I see the first-years coming in, I want to make sure they don’t lose their confidence because it can be tough.” This year, the kinesiology student has frequently become a pre-practice taxi service to the Langley Events Centre.
“She’s taking more risks in getting to know her teammates and being vulnerable with the younger ones,” Jean-Paul says. “And they love her. They talk about how much they love the car rides. They’ve found that she’s very easy to talk to and genuinely interested in them, which affirmed that what she was doing was worth it.”
Heading into Game 2 of last year’s opening round playoff series with Victoria, the Spartans were still in search of their first ever post-season victory. In preparation for the game, Jean-Paul admits Victoria’s Amira Giannattasio was a concern. Early on, Jean-Paul was right. Giannattasio put up nine first-half points, helping Victoria to a 35-31 halftime lead. At the break, Jean-Paul tasked Carkner with the Giannattasio assignment for the second half. The Vikes guard tallied just four second-half points and TWU won 84-79.
“She totally shut her down,” Jean-Paul says. “And, after that, (Nat’s) walk changed.”
First with last year’s playoff win and now, more recently, with the Spartans victory over Winnipeg – a feat that only No. 2-ranked Regina has been able to duplicate this year – Carkner can see the fruit. In her first four years at TWU, Carkner’s and the Spartans had a combined record of 24-60 and had qualified for the playoffs just once. This year is different. This year, she’s playing the game with previously unseen confidence. This year has made the first four years worth it.
“When I’m in those competitive games, I kind of have amnesia,” says Carkner. “I’m shooting shots that I know I can knock down without hesitating. I am not overthinking every decision I’m making on the court. I’m just doing what I’ve been practicing and I have so much more confidence.”
That’s the word. Confidence.
“Our theme for this year is ‘be bold’ and she’s trying to embody what that means for her as a basketball player,” Jean-Paul says.
Midway through the second half of a recent Saturday night contest with the Vikes, Carkner took a short pass at the top of the TWU key. With Victoria’s defence scrambling to recover after a TWU defensive rebound, Carkner rushed up the floor with the ball. And, she just kept going. She didn’t look to dish and she didn’t slow down in search of help. With the Vikes defence on its back foot, she came in straight down main street and sunk an uncontested teardrop.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her do that before,” Jean-Paul says, recalling Carkner’s coast-to-coast effort. “I don’t think she would have done that last year. I don’t even know if she would have done that in the first semester.”
These days, that’s just Carkner – on and off the court.
“She’s growing as a basketball player,” Jean-Paul says. “She’s growing as a student. She’s growing as a teammate. And she’s growing in her faith.”
As it turns out, six inches doesn’t seem to matter one bit.
SPARTAN SPOTLIGHT | WOMEN'S BASKETBALL'S NAT CARKNER
Nat Carkner is listed at 5-foot-5 in the Trinity Western program