Western Nebraska Community College's Zeynep Canbaz' road to the Division I level has been a learning one.
Canbaz and her two sophomore teammates are now at the Division I level playing basketball after she signed to play at Middle Tennessee State. Sladjana Rakovic was the first Cougar to ink, signing with the University of Wyoming in November and then Bree Paulson just signed with St. Bonaventure University on Tuesday.
"Like many teenagers living overseas, I have always been dreaming about an opportunity for an education in the United States and I am happy to accomplish that," Canbaz, from Istanbul, Turkey, said. "Before coming to the states, I was planning to play division one basketball but my English was not good enough, so, I decided to take another path and go to a community college. That's how I ended up in Scottsbluff.
"Now, I understand that I was extremely lucky. Spending two years here at WNCC helped me to adapt myself to a different culture, to learn more details about the life in the United States, and to improve my language. Besides, living in a smaller city and meeting new friends from different nations in the school was a real treasure. Everything worked as it was planned and WNCC became a real milestone in my life and in my education. It taught me a lot and definitely prepared me for the next level."
When Canbaz signed with Middle Tennessee State in April, she picked that school because of the basketball program and academics. Middle Tennessee also started to show interest in her after WNCC's trip to the NJCAA national tournament.
"All my research about Middle Tennessee State was pointing that this is one of the best schools I could go to," she said in June. "Talking with head coach Rick Insell and listening to his expectations from me was clear and promising. I learned that MTSU had a very consistent and prestigious program for more than a decade. It was a great honor for me to be offered a scholarship by such a school and I'm looking forward to being a part of their team. I will be the first international player in their program. I can't tell you how excited I am."
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell was impressed with Canbaz when she visited.
"The young lady came in and made quite an impression during her visit," Insell said in a press release. "I was impressed with her attitude and work ethic, on and off the court. She will fit in well with our team. (Canbaz) brings a wealth of knowledge and ability. She has International experience and, by playing for the Turkish National Team, she brings the understanding of playing at a high level, a professional level. We look forward to her becoming a Lady Raider."
Last year in helping the Cougars to a 28-5 record and a Region IX championship, Canbaz averaged 9.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. WNCC put together a 16-game win streak during the second semester.
Canbaz knows that she will have to keep working when she goes to a Middle Tennessee State program that has made 18 NCAA tournament appearances, 14 consecutive postseason appearance and four WNBA draft picks. Last season the Blue Raiders went 23-11 and made a trip to the WNIT, topping Wake Forest 73-66 before falling to Georgia Tech 70-57. Middle Tennessee State plays in the Conference USA conference.
"I know I will have to work harder and get accustomed to the basketball style in division one … a new team, new coach, new teammates, totally different environment," she said. "I can imagine that it won't be easy. I want to improve myself as a guard and I will try to learn maximum from my coaches to do that. As a team, I'm sure everybody will be aiming to win Conference USA and go to the NCAA Tournament."
Canbaz will take a lot from her two years at WNCC. Her biggest memory is winning the Region IX title.
"Needless to say, winning the regional championship stands out," she said. "Whenever I think about that day, I still feel the same way, extremely happy and proud. The moment we hoisted the trophy, it was priceless. I will never forget that."
Canbaz said the people in Scottsbluff, too, definitely made her feel welcomed and will always know she will have a home in Nebraska.
"At the beginning, it was difficult for me to leave everybody in my hometown; my parents, my sisters, my friends back in Istanbul. But as time passed by, I felt at home in Scottsbluff," she said. "Although the winter was bitterly cold, people in WNCC were warm. For two years, everybody made me feel like this was my home. Right now, I'm going to Tennessee but I'm sure that in today's smaller world, we will always be in good communication with each other. I love all the people from Scottsbluff, all my instructors, friends, families, fans. I learned a lot here and I wouldn't change those days for anything. My dorm families Heidi, Dave, Paige, Landen, Dylan, Missy, and Gene; I will always be grateful to them because they were always there for me whenever I needed. Also, I am thankful for Coach [Chad] Gibney and Coach Ped [Jennifer Pedersen]. They took care of us and did the best job that they could do. They were always believing in us and encouraging. I can't say enough positive things about them. I wish, one day, I will be back in Cougar Palace again and cheer for the new Cougars."