More than an athlete: women’s basketball

By Jordyn Matez
Sports Editor
The newest members of the FGCU women’s basketball team want the world to know that they are so much more than just a player on a court.
19-year-old Tanner Bryant is a bioengineering major who one day hopes to change the lives of countless children as a speech pathologist. She is a devout Christian, remaining faithful to God on and off the court, as well as being a member of the ABS (Athlete Bible Study) and FGCU’s Ignite.
18-year-old Ashley Panem proudly wears the number 23 on the court as a tribute to her lifelong role model, Michael Jordan. You may find her in the locker room before a game putting on her right sock before her left, and her right shoe before her left, because she knows that this is the key to performing well on the court. She hopes to use her skills as a software engineering major to eventually advance future technology and provide for her family and parents, who face the hardships of money scarcity.
Both girls have felt society’s pressure of not only being a woman in the STEM industry, but also a female athlete in a traditionally male-centered sport. Luckily for them, both Panem and Bryant know that FGCU is the perfect school for college athletes who are so much more than the sport they play.
“My goal was always to go to a high academic school and I had the opportunity, but I just knew I wouldn’t be happy,” Panem said. “I know I made the right decision [choosing FGCU] because I’m happy.”
As for Bryant, FGCU has been the final destination since the moment she started playing competitive ball. According to Bryant, she grew up watching then FGCU basketball athlete and current assistant coach Jenna Cobb thrive on the court as an Eagle. From her, Byrant knew FGCU was where she would eventually belong.
Regardless of the fact that both girls found their way to FGCU through different paths, the coaching expertise seen in FGCU’s basketball program was definitely a major factor in their commitment to becoming an Eagle. FGCU women’s basketball head coach Karl Smesko is entering his 17th season with the Eagles and is widely respected in the college basketball community for his coaching on and off the court.
Smesko has a compiled a 496-114 overall record in his career as a basketball coach, ranking him the third winningest active Division-I head coach in the NCAA. Most recently, Smesko became the fifth winningest head coach of all time at the end of last season.
“This school was always in the back of my mind because of coach Smesko,” Bryant said. “I hope I can be a part of a team that makes history here because I think he has the ability to do that.”
Bryant and Panem are not only two of just three true freshmen on the team, but roommates as well. According to the players, this makes the adjustment to college life that much easier. While Bryant makes Panem breakfast before early morning practices, Panem makes sure that Bryant takes a moment at the end of the day to stop and rest.
This isn’t either teammates first time living among teammates, however. Bryant grew up with three older sisters as teammates, whereas Panem played alongside her one older sister, so the relationship between the friendship and sisterhood provides a similar experience.
“One of my sisters was my junior varsity coach when I was in high school and I didn’t like it at first,” Bryant said with a laugh. “But I ended up loving having her there because she was very honest with me.”
Thankfully for the girls, the transition to FGCU from high school has been an easy one, but the overall experience hasn’t come without hardships. For Panem, this came in the form of the pressure to please she felt growing up as a child of parents who pushed her to be the best player she could be. Having two immigrant parents who sometimes missed out on the opportunity to enjoy competitive sports, Panem’s parents did their best to ensure that their children grew up with the ability to be a part of a team.
While Panem knows this is in no way a bad quality, it did prove to be an obstacle when building up to a collegiate career.
“Growing up my parents were always tough on me about basketball because they always wanted me to get to the next level,” Panem said. “But now I know it was worth it, because I’m here”
Bryant’s obstacles came internally in the beginning of her high school career, stating that, in high school, she was extremely hard on herself. Bryant explained that she felt the pressure of being a starter right out of middle school due to the scarcity of girls in her high school basketball program, and the insecurities that came with it carried over to later years.
“I felt like I was very immature in the sense of how to handle all of that,” Bryant said of the pressure she felt. “My sophomore and junior year I was always like, ‘okay, I have to do everything perfect, the team’s relying on me’”.
Thankfully for Bryant, she had a support system of coaches, teammates and family around her that reminded her to simply be the best she could be on and off the court. Bryant knows that the experiences shaped her into the leader she is today, and that she sees a 100% difference from her high school freshman self to her current college freshman self.
Hardships and triumphs aside, both girls know that their faith and religious beliefs play the biggest factor into where they are today.
Panem, who practices Catholicism, says that one of her favorite parts of the week is going to church on Sundays with a fellow teammate and talking to God about life. Bryant has a similar connection to her faith as a Christian who attends on-campus bible study programs twice a week. If there is anything the girls are sure of, it’s the fact that their faith has gotten them to where they are today.
Bryant also touched on the fact that her faith has given her the opportunity to connect with other student athletes, which is extremely helpful coming in as a new student and athlete.
“That’s the one thing that’s gotten me to where I am,” Bryant said of her relationship to God. “I would not be here without God and without him guiding me in everything that I’ve done.”
No matter how they found the inspiration to perform on the court, both girls have certainly delivered in their pursuit to be the best they can be.
Panem is a four-time All-Front Range League selection in her hometown of Broomfield, Colorado. She was named’s Player of the Year as a junior due to her average of 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals per game. She also helped lead her team to the Class 5A Sweet 16 and participated in The Show All-Star Game.
Bryant currently holds the title of the third-leading scorer in her high school Miami Trace’s history, averaging 14 points per game as a senior and earning a Second Team All-Ohio recognition. Her other awards include being named to the First Team All-South-Central Ohio League, Frontier Conference Player of the year and District Player of the Year.
While the statistics show that both girls certainly shine as basketball players, their lives off the court are just as bright. Bryant and Panem both agree that playing basketball is not only something that they wouldn’t be the same without, they also know that their hard work and determination is the reason they have a place as a collegiate athlete at FGCU.
“I think that we’ve grown up being taught that if you work hard enough and you’re willing to put the time and effort in, nobody’s going to get in your way,” said Bryant. “Because you’re the only person that can stop yourself.”