AKRON — Cape Girardeau, Missouri is a long way from Akron, Indiana, but it still feels a lot like home to Sophie Bussard. It should; it will be soon enough.
The Tippecanoe Valley basketball star announced her commitment to Southeast Missouri State Thursday, in advance of her senior season with the Lady Vikings. While her NCAA Division I destination may be hundreds of miles away from where Bussard currently calls home, the campus felt familiar, and her new team made her feel welcome.
“The area has a lot of agriculture with it. That just makes me feel right at home because my family is a farm family, so just being surrounded by things that I would have at home just made it seem like that school was home for me,” she explained.
“The coaching staff there told me ‘This is going to be like your family, and we’re going to make sure that you’re OK.’ My parents and grandparents are so supportive, and they want to come down and see me. They want to make sure I’m doing OK, so I think that’ll make my transition a lot easier on me.”
Coach Rheka Patterson’s Redhawks have had their eye on the versatile combo player for some time.
Bussard first made an informal visit to the SEMO campus a year ago before returning to play in an elite basketball camp this summer. That second trip to Cape Girardeau clinched the decision for Bussard, who was entertaining offers from several schools. If she was willing to commit early, it’s partly because of the level of commitment the program had already shown to her.
“SEMO has been in contact with me for awhile. They were just very consistent in making sure that I knew that they were very interested in me,” she said. “They would always text me and check in, not even about basketball, just to see how I’m doing, how my family is doing, what I’ve been up to. That was something that I really, really liked.”
If the program and the atmosphere at SEMO both played major roles in Bussard’s decision, the availability of her intended major in speech pathology was another big factor. Inspired both by her great grandfather’s work with a speech pathologist following a stroke, as well as by the experiences of assistant coach and former Valley basketball great Trey Eaton, Bussard was drawn to a somewhat rare field, one that isn’t offered as a major at many colleges. After completing undergrad and post-graduate work, Bussard hopes to return to her school corporation to help young students with speech disabilities.
“My great grandpa, when I was early in high school and middle school, he had a stroke. Because of that stroke, he couldn’t really talk. It’s just so much of a turnaround because of the speech pathologist helping him speak again. I’m around my grandparents all the time, and if he wouldn’t have been able to talk again, that would’ve just devastated me,” she said.
“Then my trainer — I call him that but he’s kind of a second dad to me honestly — Trey Eaton, when he was a kid, he struggled with speech. He’s just been such an inspiration to me now because he was such a great basketball player, but nobody ever would have known that he struggled with speaking.”
Bussard’s early announcement should help take a little pressure off in her final year of high school basketball. With a month of steady AAU ball remaining and a final season at Valley, the 2017-18 Ink Free News Player of the Year — who averaged team-bests of 16.8 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals an outing while leading the Vikings to a 20-4 finish last season — can eliminate some of the off-court distractions, and she says it helps give her senior season an added purpose, too.
“It’s a relief for me right now. I have a whole month of July in AAU where I’ll be playing nonstop. Just going into that makes me feel relieved because I can just kind of go out there and play for myself and play for my teammates who haven’t yet committed on my team and just make sure that they’re getting their looks,” she said. “Going into season for high school, it’s just nice knowing that you kind of have more of a purpose. You’re not just playing for offers; you’re playing for your school that you’ve already committed for. So you’re representing them, and that makes me proud to be able to represent SEMO. It’s just so much of a relief, and I can just go in and have fun and keep improving myself for them.”
The Redhawks finished last season with a 14-17 record in Patterson’s second year at the helm, including an even 9-9 finish in the Ohio Valley Conference.