The Western Mustangs may have entered the Melanie Cloutier sweepstakes a little late, but when they did, they created one heck of an impression.
First approaching the pending College Notre-Dame graduate following the most recent March break, Western University became the destination of choice for the long-time local basketball talent, creating an immediate and lasting impression.
"I went for a visit in late March," said Cloutier. "In a half hour of working with him (head coach Brian Cheng), I could see major improvements. I was really curious to see what we could do working together for a year or more."
Certainly, the path to post-secondary competition is one that Cloutier had visualized at various times in her youth, following in the footsteps of her older sister Emily, who suited up with the women's basketball teams at both Laurentian and Cambrian.
"When I was coming into high school, I just thought that it was natural that all of the girls on our club team would play after high school," said Cloutier. "By grade ten, I realized that only some of the players moved on."
Thankfully, hers had been a natural progression over the years, very gradually working her way into a leadership role on a local level. "For club (Sudbury Jam), I was always younger than the others, playing with Megan Desormeaux and other girls her age," said Cloutier.
"She was leading us. When she graduated, I started playing with my own age, and then I became more of a leader."
At the same time, she was constantly developing her game, spending hours in the gymnasium at CND with Alouettes' basketball coach Martin Nadeau, evolving her game to slide in at either of the guard positions.
"As a point guard, I think the hardest part is that you really have to know all of your teammates' abilities, because you have to create for them. You have to know what they can do, what they can do with the ball, to be able to give them the proper opportunities to score. It's different on every team."
Through her last couple of years of club basketball, however, she would give way to Ariane Saumure as primary point guard, morphing over as more of a shooting guard. Thankfully, that is also the slot in which the Western staff project her future growth.
"They already have lots of point guards, and I'm more comfortable being a shooting guard," suggested Cloutier. "My natural habit is to shoot. Because I'm tall, my natural dribble is high, so my ball-handling is less comfortable than my shooting. With my shooting, I can get in more, follow-up my shots, and help out with rebounds."
Make no mistake, the opening of the door to Western has been the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of the 17 year old Sudbury native. With the help of Nadeau, Cloutier would make a point of attending basketball camps out of country, as well as twice working her way through to the final 50 at the provincial U17 tryouts.
But even with that, more obstacles would arise. "I hurt my ankle in October, so I was really late in making my decision," said Cloutier. "I got a call from Western quite late, and I didn't know anything about the university. I hadn't even applied there, and they hadn't seen me play."
The reach-out to the Mustangs would occur through her club coaches, ensuring that they were aware of some interest also coming by way of the University of Ottawa Gee Gees. "I went to where I felt most comfortable," said Cloutier. "I had to picture myself with where I was going to be most comfortable."
It didn't hurt that Lasalle graduate Laura Graham was already engrained on the Western roster, and that the two had played together many years ago. Nor did a workout session with members of the Mustangs during her visit to London dampen her enthusiasm.
"I didn't feel intimidated, well, maybe just a little - but it worked for me," said Cloutier. "Westerm was the better fit for me."
Within a week and a half or so, her application to the Kinesiology program was accepted. With all of this out of the way, she can now focus on the next task at hand.
"I've talked with the head coach," she said. "He doesn't believe in red-shirts, it's about earning the playing time. They only have two graduates, and they have six new recruits. My playing time might be minimal, but my goal for my first year is really to improve as a player for years to come, and really just experience a whole new environment.
"Even if I am not on the court, I still think I can continue developing a lot as a player."