Suzuki shines for South Georgia Tech

April 11, 2017
Kanna Suzuki
Kanna Suzuki

By Ed Odeven

The South Georgia Technical College women’s basketball team has quietly built a stellar program in recent years. With a vision and purposeful planning, coach James Frey, in his fifth season at the helm, and his staff have recruited smartly and found players, from near and far, including Japan, who fit in well with the Lady Jets’ style of play and overall goals.

Freshman point guard Kanna Suzuki, who hails from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, played a pivotal role in the team’s success this season.

SGT, a two-year school that belongs to the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association, competed in the 24-team NJCAA Division I women’s national tournament in Lubbock, Texas. The Lady Jets advanced to the second round of the tournament, falling 58-44 to Odessa (Texas) College on March 21 to end their special season.

Suzuki, the GCAA’s Freshman of the Year, appeared in 35 games for the Lady Jets (30-5), making 32 starts and averaging 9.1 points, a team-best 4.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals.

Revealing what it meant to her to receive the GCAA freshman accolade, the 19-year-old Suzuki told Hoop Scoop that it “really encourages me, but I still have a lot of things to work on.”

Successful people in all walks of life share a common trait: a belief in the value of hard work as a path to success. And the 157-cm Suzuki recognizes this.

“Kanna is a bit undersized at 5-2 and probably 100 pounds (about 45 kg),” Frey said. “She has had to adapt to the physicality of play in college.

“Often times bigger, stronger players will try to take advantage of the smaller guards physically, but that wasn’t easy to do with Kanna. She is very competitive and has a desire to be the best. She doesn’t allow herself to be pushed around.”

While the past few weeks provided some remarkable story lines on the biggest stage during the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — capped by titles for North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively — SGT stayed focused on its target of being one of the nation’s elite junior-college teams this season. And Suzuki stepped in and helped make that happen.

“We had very high expectations for Kanna coming in,” Frey, whose roster also included players from France, Spain, Canada and Nigeria, told Hoop Scoop. “We knew she was very smart and a fantastic shooter. We were pleasantly surprised at her work ethic. She is in the gym daily working to improve.”

He added: “Kanna is a wonderful young lady on and off the floor. She’s an excellent student in the classroom and also on the court. She is a very intelligent player who works very hard to improve her games…”

“We lost our two leading scorers (both sophomores) to injuries in January and both were guards. Kanna stepped her game up and assumed a more aggressive role as a scorer and leader from then on.”

Frey, who has guided SGT to 20-12, 30-5, 29-7, 27-6 and 30-5 records during his tenure, described Suzuki as “a major contributor and leader of our team” and noted that she served as “a coach on the floor.”

Understandably so, it took some time for Suzuki to emerge as a vocal on-court leader. But, the coach noted, “Kanna’s overall leadership is what improved the most this year.”

Frey cited an example from the Lady Jets’ first-round game against Motlow (Tennessee) State in the NJCAA tourney on March 20. He said: “We were losing at halftime and Kanna had missed a couple open shots and was down on herself. We challenged her to put the first half behind her and focus on the second half. She did just that as she made three clutch 3-point shots in the second half and led us in scoring with 15 points and a (64-56) win.”

For Suzuki to be comfortable in those pressure-packed moments, I asked her how Frey’s influence helped.

“He teaches me to have confidence in my shooting,” commented Suzuki, who said winning the GCAA championship was her favorite part of the season, citing the enjoyment of living in a college dorm and the camaraderie she shared being around her teammates “all the time.”

“This season,” she added, “he made me develop a lot as a point guard and gave the opportunity for me to put in extra work.”

Suzuki’s journey from Hamamatsu to the South Georgia Tech campus in Americus, Georgia (pop: 17,000, according to 2010 U.S. census figures, and home of Habitat for Humanity’s international headquarters), isn’t your everyday recruiting tale.

Happenstance played a part, as did the kindness of an American who became a close friend and mentor.

Jerone Amari Bey Dodd Jr., a former Morehouse College, bj-league and JBL player, first met Suzuki during a basketball camp in Hamamatsu in 2009, along with local high school coach Masahisa Yada, who set up annual clinics that he taught.

During those clinics, Dodd discovered that Suzuki stood out because of her natural abilities.

“I noticed immediately that she was very coordinated and faster than the other girls her age,” Dodd said. “She was always first in the ball-handling drills and could run faster with the ball than the others could without the ball.”

Two years later, he recalled, it had become clear that Suzuki was progressing as a potential college athlete. Which led to an invitation from Dodd for her to take part in a 10-day tour/training trip in Atlanta during the summer of 2012.

“I realized that Kanna was special and really had a chance to play at a high level in the U.S.,” Dodd told Hoop Scoop. “Pretty much everyone who saw her had nothing but good things to say, from college to pro players. I was impressed with the courage of her to come to the U.S. in the first place…”

Suzuki’s family developed a close bond with Dodd.

“We talked to him about my aspirations because I really wanted to try to succeed in America,” recalled Suzuki, who admires and emulates diminutive Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, her favorite player.

Said Dodd: “During her stay in Atlanta, we had a chance to really talk with her mother and pitched the idea of her coming to school in the U.S. She was quite excited and her mother agreed to let her come.”

When she was 15, Suzuki moved to Georgia to live with the Dodd family (she called it “a perfect opportunity for me,” but admits her parents were “extra worried,” because she was the first person in her family to go to school in the U.S.). She attended Brandon Hall School in Dunwoody, Georgia, a northern suburb of Atlanta, as a junior and senior. During her junior season (2014-15), she averaged 24-plus points per game and earned all-state accolades.

What convinced Dodd to help Suzuki? And looking back, how did that decision impact their lives and their common goals?

“I had recently moved back to the U.S. from Japan due to the tsunami, so I was in position to help and I remembered back to my journey of going to Japan for the first time with a dream,” he told Hoop Scoop. “I saw it as an opportunity to help Kanna and also continue to expand the opportunity for others to come to the U.S.

“Kanna’s success built a bridge and proved what was possible to other young players in Japan. It also provided an opportunity for her to be in a leadership and mentor role for many young Japanese student-athletes.

“She was also getting training with (my training partner) Dorian (Lee) from time to time. Watching her develop as a person was perhaps even more rewarding. My daughter was 2 years old at the time, so going from a small child to a teenager was a challenge but worth every minute. She prepared me for my daughter growing up and taught me some things as well. I consider her like my daughter and we talk frequently…”

Dodd views Suzuki’s journey as a story that can inspire other Japanese athletes.

“Watching her excel at pretty much every step on the path was amazing and a testament to her family, her own determination/hard work, having a good path to follow and quality basketball people around her,” Dodd said. “I know we both worked hard and all the training, practices, games and AAU took a lot of time, but seeing her now confirms that it was worth it.

“She definitely has inspired others in Japan and in fact has been a guide for other student-athletes from Japan who have come to the US after her. She set the bar high, so I know others look up to her…”

Despite her eye-opening performances as a junior, Suzuki tore her ACL later that school year, forcing her to miss her senior season. After recovering from her knee injury, she returned to the game and played for the Amateur Athletic Union’s Georgia Red Storm, a club team.

SGT assistant coach Kezia Conyers watched the AAU squad’s games, leading to an invitation for Suzuki to visit the campus.

Asked why the Lady Jets were interested in recruiting Suzuki, Frey offered this insight: “Kanna’s tenacity stuck out to me when watching her play. She played hard every minute she was on the floor and never backed down. I loved that and knew it would help our team.”

This year’s Lady Jets team blended well, with American talent meshing with the foreign-born players to form a high-caliber unit.

Or as Frey put it: “This year’s success has shined a new light on the program because we had great success with five international student-athletes.

“In the past we had one or two. There have been stories written about our international young ladies and our community and campus has embraced them. Our conference opponents have certainly paid close attention to our success with international students.”

Nicknamed “Zoom,” the speedy Suzuki relishes the opportunity to help her teammates shine. She acknowledged, however, with humility that improving her communication skills will make her a better playmaker.

“Yes, I enjoy getting my teammates the ball, but I felt I could have dome some things better,” said Suzuki, who lists her grandfather, Shuji Suzuki, who passed away last summer, as her inspiration.

“One of the biggest challenges for me is to communicate with teammates in English on the court and off the court because I am still learning English.”

What made her grandfather a special part of her life?

“He was the closest family member to me and he always encouraged me and what I was doing all the time,” Suzuki said.

“When he decided to do something he would do it. Everybody loved him and I know he loved me very much.”

Suzuki wants to extend her college basketball career beyond next season, hoping to transfer to a four-year university and major in athletic training or sports management.

Being a role model for Japanese youth is also one of Kanna Suzuki’s objectives.

“Yes, of course I am happy (to be a role model),” she admitted, “and if I can prove that I am 5-2, Japanese and can still play basketball at a high level in the U.S., I will be even happier.”

Many others will be, too.