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Rising star Sophia Zulich, signs with the University of Denver

After three years of hard work, the Sudbury Jam prodigy will get to showcase her basketball skills as a 'Pioneer'
Local athlete Sophia Zulich, presented with the opportunity to play basketball with the University of Denver Pioneers in the fall of 2019. (Supplied)

Three years ago, almost to the day, Sophia Zulich appeared to have the basketball world at her feet.

With less than three years experience in the sport, the rapidly-rising local talent had managed to crack the provincial team roster, competing at nationals that summer in Regina.

Looking to further her career, she had committed to attend The RISE Centre (TRC) in Brantford, a prep school style environment aimed to combine academics and elite athletics under a single roof.

There, Zulich would join some of the top female hardcourt players in Ontario. An eventual NCAA Division I scholarship seemed nothing more than a foregone conclusion.

But as anyone who has ever worked with elite athletics understands all too well, these journeys seldom follow a consistent upward trajectory. Challenges will arise, hurdles will be encountered, potential pitfalls are forever looming.

Thankfully, showcasing the same dogged determination that makes her such a tough matchup in the paint, Zulich would both persevere and prevail, rewarded just last week with the official notification that she would join the University of Denver Pioneers come the fall of 2019.

While the road, at times, was tough, the 6'1" sharp-shooting daughter of Paul and Lenaya Zulich feels that her past only serves to better prepare her for the next four years in Colorado, building a resilient foundation that dated back to her first extended venture away from home.

"The first year (at TRC) was pretty rough, I faced a lot of adversity," acknowledged the 17 year old hardcourt star. "I didn't really have a profile when I went there, and I'm playing with girls who have played on the national team, who had international exposure and had been in the system for a long time."

"I pushed through it," Zulich continued. "I didn't get the minutes I wanted to, but I used that year to understand that if this was the level that I wanted to play, then I had to grit my teeth and bear it."

"That year was an eye opener."

Already quite independent by nature, Zulich would find sanctuary in the weight room, devoting herself to closing a gap with the best of the best. "I struggled a little with the basketball development side of things," she said.

"I had really only been playing for a year and a half, and some of these girls had been playing since they were four years old. I had a lot of catching up to do, and I still do."

To her credit, the inner toughness that had become a trademark of her game on the court also provided the motivation to forge ahead. That summer, Zulich was a permanent fixture at the Laurentian Voyageurs men's basketball workouts, joining coaches Shawn Swords and Jason Hurley (L.U. women's basketball head coach) at every available opportunity.

"We would do scrimmages, workouts, lifts, training with Cal (McGibbon)," she said. "I committed my whole summer to that." Despite some tough stretches in year one, Zulich returned to TRC, greeted by a new coaching staff.

Things were starting to look up, even moreso when her new bench boss would introduce the northern girl to the Sisters Keeper Basketball Club, a Toronto-based spring/summer team that competed on the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) circuit, exposing athletes to high-end tournament play where U.S. based collegiate coaches would gather in droves.

"I had never talked to these girls, never experienced them before," said Zulich. "But their style was run and gun and I fit their profile pretty well. The girls were super different than what I had experienced before."

Through her contacts with Sisters Keeper, the Sudbury standout would make a switch for her final year of secondary schooling, transferring to Crestwood Prepatory College in Toronto, a school that competes in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, the very same league that Lo-Ellen Park Prep entered for the first time last year.

"I had a great season, the best I've had to date," said Zulich. More than anything else, the local product saw her game continue to evolve, refining the components that are likely to become even more critical as she begins play in the Summit League next winter.

"I was doing my ball-handling drills, I was getting my handling tight, but I wasn't using it during a game," she stated. "I remember one game, near the end of the season, when I had a breakout game and I pulled up, crossed someone into a layup and thought to myself, "I can do this in a game". That was really when the switch when on."

At 6'1", Zulich would have been pressed into the inside game in her youth. Not so much at the NCAA level. "I've always had the ability to shoot the three point shot, but it's grown to be such a big part of my game in the past year and a bit."

"I think that my defence has really developed over the years. Because I lifted a ton at TRC, I had gotten too big, a little stiff. I used to be slower. Now, my foot speed is faster and I'm more agile."

Though coach Jim Turgeon and the Pioneers had followed Zulich closely, from a distance, for some time, it was only in recent months that the move towards a scholarship offer accelerated quickly. Coming on the heels of a very interesting three year period, the offer provided some wonderful perspective for a very candid young woman.

"I had my ups and downs, I feel," said Zulich. "I've always vowed that if ever you feel that you want to quit, then stop doing it. And I never came close to feeling like that. But when you play Team Ontario in grade nine, you have that idea in your head that you need to get to the States."

"If I don't, how is it going to look, which is really super silly. There is absolutely nothing wrong with CIS (now U Sport), but I personally felt that I did not want to take that pathway, I wanted to play in the United States."

So Denver it is, a fit that Zulich is more than just slightly excited about. "I love their style of play," she said. "Their style of play translates well for me, run and gun, versatile players. They have very few players who play just one solid position."

And given the adaptability that the one-time Sudbury Jam club member has demonstrated since she first exploded on to the provincial scene, Sophia Zulich is nothing if not well equipped to roll with the punches, even those that come at an altitude that is a "Mile High".