AKRON — Tippecanoe Valley’s Sophie Bussard can probably beat you on one leg.
If you don’t believe that’s true, then just take a look at the junior swing player’s performance in a game against Warsaw early at the start of the 2017-18 season. Nursing a badly injured ankle and coming off of her only missed game of the year, the tough-minded Bussard still made an impact. Although the final score didn’t go the Lady Vikings’ way, the 2018 Ink Free News Player of the Year managed team-highs of 10 points and three steals to go along with three rebounds and an assist in a game that head coach Chris Kindig didn’t even think she’d be able to play.
“On Saturday we were in here practicing, and she hurt her ankle and it was pretty bad. I thought she’d be out for an extended period of time; her ankle was huge,” recalled Kindig. “We roll around to about Wednesday and we had our trainer out there and she was doing stuff, but I thought there was no way she was going to be playing Friday against Warsaw because she could hardly move.
“It was important for her to play, and she fought through that. Most girls would not have been able to play in that game, and although she was only 50, 60 percent, she helped a bunch. There were still things that she can do on one leg that a lot of girls can’t do with two.”
Kindig probably shouldn’t have been surprised by Bussard’s will to play in that Warsaw game. She doesn’t take many breaks.
The 5-8 combo player sets the pace in practice and splits time in the offseason working on her game with the Lady Vikings coaching staff and Valley boys basketball assistant Trey Eaton and playing with her AAU team out of Fort Wayne. That AAU club’s name — Always 100 — could serve as Bussard’s personal motto.
“I’d say, in my opinion, I’m nowhere near where I want to be. But I think that as long as I continue to better myself each year and put in that extra time, I’ll get there eventually,” she said.
“I’m a pretty motivated kid, and I love to put in work. If you’re not going to do it to the best of your ability, then I guess why are you doing it is my question. I always try and go as hard as I can in the offseason and put in as much time as I can.”
Bussard’s dedication to her craft is evident in the stat lines for her junior season.
She led a very good Valley team — one that was ranked in the top 10 of the Class 3-A rankings thoughout the season and finished with 20 wins — in most major statistical categories this year. Her 16.8 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals an outing were all team-bests, and she collected those nearly 17 points a night with 47-percent efficiency from the field, creating off the dribble, knocking down 3-pointers at a 40-percent conversion rate and even posting up at times. Bussard has steadily improved her game through each of her three varsity seasons so far, and you can track her progress in her season scoring totals — from 186 as a freshman to 221 last year to 387 this season. But she’s also a standout on the other end of the floor, drawing the toughest assignments as the Vikings’ designated defensive stopper.
“What makes her such a good basketball player is she’s very versatile in every category and really she has improved a bunch from last year, but I think a lot of it has to do with her role,” explained Kindig. “Obviously, with the senior group that we had last year, you could really see toward the end of last year that she was really starting to gain the confidence and understanding that she could probably do a little bit more offensively. This year I think she’s really understood that she has that role of being that scorer for us, but also she’s our best defender and she always gets assigned the best offensive player on the other team when we’re playing man.”
Bussard’s role has evolved considerably since last year, when Valley bid goodbye to a strong senior class that included Meredith Brouyette, Hannah Dunn and program all-time leading scorer Anne Secrest, a class that helped the Lady Vikings reach the state finals in 2015 and rattle off 28 straight wins in the Three Rivers Conference. With that trio departing, Bussard knew her coach was looking at some very big leadership gaps to fill. And the then-still sophomore thought to herself “Why not me?”
She asked her coach for a bigger role. Then she worked to earn it.
“After the season was over last year, she made it very clear to me — which I appreciated — that she expected and wanted the leadership role on the team, even though she was going to be a junior,” said Kindig. “She had certain goals that she wanted to achieve and things that she wanted to do, and she basically indicated to me that she was willing to do those over the summer. And she did them, and I think it’s obvious by the things that she’s been able to accomplish this year that she did the work and put the time in.”
“I think after Hannah and Anne and Meredith were all leaving, I kind of took that initiative as OK, somebody has got to step up and fill those leadership roles because those are big shoes to fill,” Bussard said. “And I was like ‘You know what? I can do that. They’ve taught me a lot of stuff. My coaches have taught me a lot of stuff on how to be a good leader.’ I was just excited to take on that role, I guess.”
If Bussard was playing in the shadow of some very good players in her first two high school seasons, she still has some good players around her.
Both she and senior guard Addy Miller were selected for the IFN top five, and with Emily Peterson’s second-team nomination, three of the area’s top 10 players all wore Valley uniforms in ’17-18. Asia O’Connor was chosen for IFN Honorable Mention, and senior Olivia Trippiedi was solid in her role at the point, too. Add to that a pair of pretty good reserves in sophomores Makenzie Woodcox and Jillian Walls, and the Vikings could be a very balanced bunch.
And all of the talent around her made Bussard’s job a little easier. If she was her team’s only scoring option, after all, the Vikings would have seen a whole lot more junk defense, which would’ve given her a whole lot less room to work. If those other players weren’t knocking down their shots, Bussard wouldn’t have registered those 69 assists this season.
“It’s truly a blessing to have the teammates that I have. They’re awesome teammates; I don’t think that there’s one player out there that a team can just count out,” said Bussard. “Emily, Addy, Olivia, Asia, Makenzie, Jill — they’re all coming in and they’re putting in these great minutes. They’re knocking down shots. They’re finding me when I’m open, and I do my best to find them when they’re open. So it’s just a real blessing to be able to play with teammates like that that you don’t have to do everything for because they already know how to do it, and they’re putting in time as well.”
But a surplus of talent can also sometimes lead to a clash of personalities. Not so with Valley this season, and it probably says as much about Sophie Bussard as her stat lines that those other players were willing to follow the junior’s lead.
“She leads by example. She, by far, is our hardest worker in practice, and the other kids kind of feed of that,” Kindig said. “I think it’s just natural that somebody that goes the hardest in practice, everybody has to kind of follow that lead. And she does it in such a way that it doesn’t turn girls off. I think she really understands how to put different personalities and talents together, and she does an excellent job of that. She’s a leader in a lot of different ways for us.”
As good as Bussard was in ’17-18, Kindig believes her best is yet to come. The junior is already drawing plenty of interest at the college level, but her coach thinks she still has a lot of ceiling left. With her work ethic, Kindig says he fully expects her to continue to find new levels to her game. And if she does, look out.
“I don’t think that we’ve seen the best of her. I don’t think that she’s peaked in her junior year,” he said. “There are areas that she’s going to continue to work on. We’ve talked about those things, and she understands those things. I fully expect her to come back next year — believe it or not — to be a better player than she is this year. And that’s a credit to her. I think she’s not satisfied with the status quo. She hasn’t been since she was a freshman, and every year she’s made progress. If she makes another leap like she did last year — she’s awfully good right now, so it’s kind of scary.”