Words by Aaron Boettcher
On March 3, 201, the Trinity Western women's basketball team was making their final push for their goal: the U SPORTS championship tournament. They hosted the University of Calgary Dinos in a one-game, winner-take-all matchup with the victor punching its ticket to the national tournament.
However, with 4:48 left in the fourth quarter the Spartans trailed 61-49.
Their hopes of making history and attending the national championship for the first time ever were looking razor thin. A last gasp surge from the Spartans brought the Langley Events Centre to life, but it wasn't quite enough, as TWU lost 65-63. The Dinos moved on. The Spartans did not.
A devastated Ratzlaff was greeted by friends and family on the side of the court after the heartbreaking loss. Tears streamed down Tessa's cheeks as she was met by a plethora of fans. The tears dried up for a few moments as she discussed the game with those around her.
Then, she looked at Kayla Gordon. The final buzzer had just sounded on Gordon's last game as a Spartan. Four years of playing basketball together had come to an end. Emotion overtook both of them.
"Me and Kayla hugged and cried in each other's arms because it was her last game," Ratzlaff says. "In that moment I'm thinking 'I'm never playing with her again. What am I going to do without her?'"
The combination of her teammate stepping off the floor for good and not making nationals crushed Ratzlaff.
"I was devastated," says the now fifth-year forward from Abbotsford, B.C. "I'm not a super emotional person, but I wanted it so bad. It took me a long time and I still think about it to this day. We were two points away from nationals."
Ratzlaff's sports career could have gone three different directions. As a youngster, she excelled at volleyball, hockey and basketball.
"Grade 10 was probably my busiest year because I had volleyball in the morning, basketball after school and then a hockey game in the evening," she says. "After starting at 6 a.m., I'd finish at about 10 p.m."
In her latter years of high school, Ratzlaff realized she needed to narrow her sporting focus if she wanted to earn a spot with a post-secondary program. While she had offers to play both hockey and volleyball, Ratzlaff chose basketball.
"The physical aspect really appealed to me."
Then, after choosing her sport, she had to choose her school.
TWU coach Cheryl Jean-Paul remembers the first time she saw the young phenom in a high school gym.
"I mean she was in Grade 9 and she looked like a third-year university student already," Jean-Paul says. "You can't walk into a gym and not notice Tessa Ratzlaff."
From that moment on, Jean-Paul worked to bring Ratzlaff to TWU.
It was a Saturday on the last day of February in 2015. Ratzlaff had just finished her first season of university basketball at TWU.
She was helping her dad, Bill, with some chores around their five-acre property in Aldergrove, B.C. She was working to pay off the new iPhone 6 her parents had bought for her. Tessa and her dad were removing a tree from the ground on the Saturday afternoon. The tree had been cut down and was being held up in the air by the limbs, which were resting against the ground. A tractor held the rest of the tree's weight. The two worked together, with Bill cutting off the branches with a chainsaw and Tessa picking up the branches and taking them to a pile at the front of the property.
"I was minding my own business picking up these branches when I heard screams for help," Tessa recalls. "I turned, and I couldn't see my dad. I sprinted over and my dad was pinned under a 2000-pound tree."
At first Tessa wasn't sure what to do and tried to push the tree off of her dad. With short breath, Bill muttered: "Tractor."
Tessa sprung into rescue mode, sprinting for the tractor while yelling for help to her two brothers and their two friends, who were working on the other side of the property in the workshop.
"I drove the tractor to the trunk of the tree and for some crazy reason it lined up perfectly on the first try and I lifted the bucket and the tree lifted a foot off of him to release the pressure."
Tessa sprinted to him and used her four years of life guarding to treat her dad for shock, repeatedly reassuring him that he would be okay. Throughout the whole situation, a certain calm overtook Tessa.
"I ran and got my brothers and they were freaking out and crying," Tessa says. "I was the calm one and talked to 911 on the phone and drove with him to the trauma center at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster."
Bill's injuries consisted of a broken pelvis in three places, a broken arm and internal bleeding.
"It was the scariest thing of my entire life," she says.
Yet, under pressure, she was calm and calculated and, quite likely, saved her dad's life.
In her five years at TWU, Ratzlaff has helped turn the Spartans women's basketball program around.
In her first year, 2014-15, her team finished with a 4-16 record. But it was only a year later that Ratzlaff helped the Spartans win their first ever playoff game. From there, history continued to be broken. In Ratzlaff's third year, TWU won its first-ever playoff series, which was followed by last year, when she helped lead to the team to the Canada West semifinals and the bronze medal game against Calgary.
At the same time, Ratzlaff has continually expanded both her leadership and scoring roles within the team. Yet, despite all the success, both individually and as a team, her main goal remains elusive. She wants to play in the national championship tournament.
"Every time we would time about a game or talk about the season, the goal of nationals is always on her mind," says teammate and friend Sarah Buckingham, who will also graduate from the program this year. "She is always talking about nationals and encouraging other teammates that this goal can be done."
It's not just talk either. On the court, Ratzlaff is leading her teammates through her actions.
"I never have to convince Tessa to do the things that will help her become a better basketball player," Jean-Paul says. "Two or three summer ago I encouraged the team to coach in the offseason, to help grow their basketball IQ."
So, Ratzlaff started coaching.
Then, this past summer, Jean-Paul challenged her team to train alongside guys in the summer.
So, Ratzlaff did just that.
All of this has undoubtedly helped her this year, as she finished the 2018-19 regular seaosn leading TWU (12-8) with 16.8 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game while helping the Spartans earn a home playoff date for the third year in a row. Her impressive final year also saw her finish her TWU career as the Spartans all-time career leader in points (1,438) and rebounds (660).
Yet, apart from Ratzlaff's growth as a leader on the team and as a scorer, there is consensus that the largest area of growth over her five years at TWU is in her spiritual journey. Faith in Ratzlaff's life has always been there, but being at TWU pushed it to a new level.
"When coming to TWU, I always knew I wanted to strengthen my relationship with God and I feel like over the last few years it has been one of my main focuses," she says.
"Tessa wants other non-Christian teammates to look at her life and say, 'That's how Christ intended us to live our lives.'"
Buckingham has seen the growth first hand.
"The biggest place I see change over the past five years is her faith and her willingness to share with her teammates and how she applies her faith to sport."
Through her time as a Spartan, Ratzlaff has been diligent with depending her faith, giving a lot of credit for the recent growth to the National Training Camp through Athletes in Action. This is weeklong event directed towards integrating sport and faith teaches that there is more to life that sport. Through her NTC experience, her team's Bible studies and her own devotion, Ratzlaff's life has changed.
"In Grade 10, my main focus was basketball," Ratzlaff says. "Now, that's changed to faith."
However, with the playoffs looming Friday and a do-or-die elimination contest on home court (tip-off against UNBC is at 7 p.m. at the Langley Events Centre), Ratzlaff is set to take one more swing at her on-court dream.
Yet, no matter what happens, when it's all over, it won't be about her departure. It'll be about her legacy.
"Tessa has allowed our program to become competitive and she helped us put the most competitive group out on the floor," Jean-Paul says.
Buckingham echoes this.
"She has a passion for basketball that is very contagious."
Ratzlaff has a fire to win, but at the same time, her leadership usually comes with a bit of a laugh.
"We always make fun of Tessa for doing silly things and she says 'If I can make people laugh then I think I have done my job,'" Buckingham says. "But honestly, she has been really awesome since Kayla left –sharing what she knows with the new posts, while also learning from them despite them being younger. It's been cool to see her helping the new girls become better players."
Indeed she's competitive, but at the same time she does it all with a smile – something that most certainly is also a little contagious. .