It is no easy task finding a basketball player who can, quite literally, do everything well on the court. It is even more rare to find a player who can do everything, while setting an example and creating a culture along the way. From day one of training camp prior to her first season in green and gold, to the final game of her senior season, Mercedes VanKoughnett was a game changer for UNBC Athletics. For those reasons, VanKoughnett is well-deserving of a place in the Timberwolves Wall of Honour inaugural class.
A standout player for Duchess Park Secondary School, VanKoughnett committed to the Timberwolves prior to the 2009-2010 season. She joined a program, led by Loralyn Murdoch, that had gone 14-4 and lost in the BCCAA Provincial championship game. However, that team was graduating all-stars Jaclyn Nazareno and Laurel Wallace, and was facing the prospect of a step backwards in the standings. Adding VanKoughnett would prove to be an injection of a do-everything athlete who would fill in any role for the TWolves.
“Mercedes grew up in Prince George and always aspired to be a Timberwolf, wear green and gold, and represent UNBC at the highest level possible,” said Murdoch. “What was unique was her desire. She was so self-driven. She didn’t rely on external factors for motivation. She grew as a player from high school to college, and then throughout her career, because she wanted it more than anything.”
The Timberwolves went 17-1 in VanKoughnett’s rookie campaign, where she averaged 7.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. She was named Timberwolves Rookie of the year, and her all-around game earned her a spot on the BCCAA All-Rookie team.
Her fellow freshman that season, Jen Bruce, went on to play all five seasons at UNBC with VanKoughnett. She points to her poise and competitiveness as the reason the TWolves never felt out of a game.
“She carried herself with such purpose, no matter the court or campus. Mercedes had a presence of confidence, and it really helped keep all of us centred. Whether it was with rookies, or veterans, when she was a first year of a fifth year, she made that effort. I am so grateful to have played alongside her.”
The following season, VanKoughnett took another step forward at both ends of the floor. UNBC went 13-5 in the regular season, and the second-year guard finished with 10.2 points, 5.7 boards, and 2.4 assists per game. In the playoffs, however, she continued to establish herself as one of the premier players in the province, leading the Timberwolves to a bronze medal in the BCCAA postseason.
Year three, something clicked for the five-foot-eight playmaker. MVK took on the role of getting her teammates involved, and did so at an elite level, leading the entire province in assists. The other UNBC four starters all finished top-25 in league scoring, while VanKoughnett’s 7.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, and 4.8 APG led the TWolves to a 15-1 record.
In the postseason, the Timberwolves made good on their regular season success, beating Vancouver Island University in the championship game, led by VanKoughnett, who named MVP of the tournament. UNBC would finish 5th at the National Championships, and following the year, their lead guard was named team Most Valuable Player and a BCCAA First Team All-Star.
Prior to the 2012-2013 campaign, UNBC made the jump from the collegiate level to Canada West, where they would compete with the biggest and best university programs in the country. Unsurprisingly, Mercedes VanKoughnett would lead the way. The Prince George product led the Timberwolves in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, and steals, earning her team MVP honours and the inaugural UNBC Female Athlete of the Year award. Among the best and brightest in the conference, VanKoughnett finished top 20 in scoring and blocks, top ten in assists and rebounds, and top five in steals.
According to Loralyn Murdoch, having VanKoughnett in the lineup in the first Canada West season was a major factor in the Timberwolves establishing a benchmark for success moving forward.
“Mercedes continued to build our locker room culture as we transitioned from the CCAA to CIS (U SPORTS). She led by example, and her ability to understand the game as it was unfolding was outstanding. She was our floor general, and really like an extension of the coaching staff. She is such a special woman.”
The legend of Mercedes VanKoughnett had grown in Northern BC, as she served as an example of a local athlete reaching tremendous heights at the highest level of sport. It certainly made an impression on local guard Hannah Pudlas, who was in high school during VanKoughnett’s rise, and went on to play three years for the Timberwolves.
“I looked up to Mercedes so much. She was my Junior Timberwolves coach. You could see she loved the game, and her work ethic and drive were so inspiring to me. Her joy for the game was something I look back on the most. She is truly a legend, and I am so thankful for her mentorship.”
For an encore, VanKoughnett saved the best for last. In her final year in Timberwolves colours, she broke the UNBC single-season records for points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. She averaged 17.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 3.1 steals per game, earning her third consecutive TWolves Most Valuable Player award. She was also named the UNBC Female Athlete of the Year at the conclusion of the season.
When all was said and done, Mercedes VanKoughnett had altered the Timberolves program forever, as evidenced by the program record book when her career concluded. Her 1080 points were the most in program history, and her 350 assists were nearly 100 more than the next closest TWolf. She also sat tops in career boards with 654, and finished as the program’s all-time leader in blocks and steals at the Canada West level. Additionally, no Timberwolf had made more three-pointers or free throws in their green and gold career.
But beyond all the numbers, what perhaps will best stand the test of time was her leadership and willingness to do whatever it took to make her team better. Perhaps her coach for all five seasons, Loralyn Murdoch, sums it up best.
“Mercedes was truly a player who could do it all. She played every position. She competed. She truly understood the game better than any player I coached my entire career. And, she always played to win.”