'I love everything about CBU'
MacKenzee Ryan shines as Caper, on and off the court
by Corey LeBlanc
It seems fitting that MacKenzee Ryan majors in biology at Cape Breton University (CBU) – a science that includes dissections – because she also performs them on the hardwood as a student-athlete with the Caper women's basketball program.
The Glace Bay native – an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) first-team all-star selection last season – is preparing for her senior campaign, one that will be focused on collecting her first conference crown.
Perennial contenders, the Capers have not won an AUS title since 2017, the season prior to the point guard donning CBU orange as a freshman.
"I want that [AUS] championship. It is something that I am always striving for," she says.
Ryan, who posted stellar stats last season - 17.6 points, 4.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game – notes those numbers only mean something if her performance helps the Capers succeed.
"I have never really cared about stats – it is about winning," she says.
Ryan adds she and her teammates are "looking forward" to the AUS regular season, which is scheduled to start later than usual – in early 2021 – due to the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic.
"It is a challenging time, but we are doing the best that we can," she says.
Although there continue to be "a lot of unknowns," when it comes to how an abbreviated conference campaign might unfold – if it even takes place as planned, Ryan explains she and her teammates remain focused on thriving, both athletically and academically.
As for dealing with a university year like no other, she offers it is about "weathering the storm," a mantra she notes her head coach Fabian McKenzie often uses.
"He always tells us to roll with the punches – take things day-to-day – and do the best we can with what we have," she adds.
When it comes to getting her start on the court, Ryan says she can't remember a time when she hasn't had a basketball in her hands.
"It has always been there," she says, with a laugh.
Ryan notes her father, John – an All-Canadian guard with the then-UCCB men's program in the early 1990s, and now CBU director of athletics and student life – helped nurture her love for the sport.
She adds her 'passion' for basketball really took hold during junior high school.
"I really liked soccer as well," she says of her early years as a two-sport athlete.
Ryan adds spending summers playing with Basketball Nova Scotia cemented her decision to focus solely on basketball.
"I really, really loved it," she notes of her experience with the provincial program.
After starring for the Glace Bay Panthers of the Cape Breton High School Division 1 Basketball League, Ryan decided to join the Caper women's program.
"My Dad never pressured me," she says of her decision to play for his alma mater, adding many people "just assumed" she would attend CBU.
Even though her ties to Caper Nation were strong, Ryan explains selecting what university to attend is never easy.
"It is always a tough decision," she says.
Ryan notes her strong family ties in Cape Breton probably served as the clincher in the decision-making process.
"I am really family-oriented – I wanted to be able to see them all the time," she explains.
Ryan adds she "couldn't pass up the chance to play in front of them all the time."
Her familiarity and deep relationship with the Caper program, including McKenzie and long-time assistant coach Doug Connors – not to mention several players, were also crucial factors.
"There was a tremendous level of comfort," she offers.
'Always looking to get better'
As for her transition to playing at the university level, Ryan says "there was a learning curve."
After making adjustments during most of her first two AUS seasons, she notes she "grew more and more comfortable" during her third campaign.
"That doesn't mean there weren't curve balls; there are always curveballs, and you have to be able to adjust," Ryan adds.
Despite that breakout season, she wasn't satisfied – a reflection of how competitive she is, both athletically and academically.
"I struggled with my shooting percentage [last season]," she says of areas that require improvement.
When asked to outline the strengths, Ryan starts with her basketball IQ.
"That is something I have always been proud of," she says, noting taking on the "challenge" to improve is an attribute she inherited from her father.
When it comes to being a 'student of the game,' Ryan adds he has "always challenged me to take it a step further."
Most importantly, she says she is "always looking to get better, in every aspect of the game."
Her head coach, who describes Ryan as a "multi-talented player," agrees.
"She is deceptively quick and uses her speed well to get defenders off-balance," McKenzie explains.
He notes Ryan shoots "very well" from the perimeter while describing her passing as "clever."
"MacKenzee is very competitive and is a very unselfish point guard who controls the offence well," he says.
When she joined the Caper program, McKenzie adds Ryan possessed a pair of "very important" skills that are a key for any young player.
"She had her eyes and ears open all the time," he remembers.
McKenzie notes she learned how to be a "successful student-athlete at this level" from veteran players, such as All-Canadian forward Alison Keough.
"MacKenzee has worked hard to build on the lessons she learned and is now using her skills to give back to the younger players," he adds.
Ryan, who is now one of the Caper veterans, says she "feels comfortable" with taking on a leadership role.
"I am really excited about it," she says.
Ryan credits not only Keough, but also Hannah Brown and Toni Bianchini – a couple of other former Capers and Cape Breton products – for their mentorship. There have also been countless lessons learned from teammates hailing from across Canada, the United States, and around the world.
"I want to do the same for our younger players," she adds.
Star in the classroom
Ryan not only wants to be a team leader on the court, but also in the classroom, where she also excels.
"I really take pride in my academics – I always have," the Academic All-Canadian says.
Noting she believes she has a Type 'A' personality, Ryan adds she "puts her all into everything that she does."
She notes – both academically and athletically – time management is crucial to success as a student-athlete.
"Being organized is also a huge factor," Ryan says.
McKenzie says having that ability is just one of the qualities that "when you think of what any coach would want their student-athletes to be, MacKenzee fits the mold perfectly."
Describing her as a proud Cape Bretoner and outstanding representative of its university, the Caper bench boss notes someone only has to be around Ryan for a short time to realize she reflects the key words for the CBU Athletics' culture: proud, fierce and strong.
"She is incredibly proud of who she is, where she comes from, and the program she represents," McKenzie says.
"She is not only fierce in her competitive desire on the court, but also for our basketball program to be more than just a team but more of a family."
McKenzie adds Ryan is "incredibly strong in character," who displays great resiliency in bouncing back from adversity.
"She is not only a strong student and player, but also a tremendous human being," he says, one with a "bright future."
As for that 'bright future,' Ryan – a fourth-year Bachelor of Science student – says she plans to take a master's degree after graduating from CBU, as part of her goal to become a professor.
"That's what I want to do right now," she says.
Whatever upcoming life decisions Ryan makes, she agrees she hopes they are as positive as the one she made to become a Caper.
"I am really happy – I love everything about CBU," she says.