By Thomas Becker
She may not be the best scorer or the best rebounder, but what Karla Yepez brings in intangibles outweighs all that.
On a team brimming with talent – with guards Jenna Mae Ellsworth and Reese Baxendale carrying the scoring load, Carolina Del Santo commanding the defence and a rejuvenated bench – it's easy to forget just how important the Quito, Ecuador native is to the Panthers basketball team.
Look no further than the Jan. 5th game against the Cape Breton Capers – the Panthers biggest game to date. Yepez posted a modest 12 points and eight rebounds (neither were team highs), but it was her ability to guard multiple positions that truly made the difference in a thrilling 70-64 win. Yepez played out of position on almost half the defensive possessions and was tasked at containing MVP candidate Hannah Brown, who eats teams alive in the post.
Yepez finished with three steals and a block and helped force six turnovers on the dominant centre. It was an impressive showcase to say the least and she was rewarded with Player of the Game honours.
"The best way to describe her as a basketball player is versatile because she can do a lot of things on both ends of the floor," said Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin.
SPORTS IS IN MY DNA
Yepez grew up surrounded by activity. She comes from a family of athletes with both parents playing sports.
She recalls going to basketball camps when she was younger, but at the time, it wasn't the sport for her.
"I used to think basketball wasn't my thing. I was in love with soccer for the longest time," she said.
However, it was her older sister, Alejandra, who eventually guided Yepez toward the hardwood. The two of them always competed against one another in everything and basketball was no different.
"She had a big influence on me choosing basketball because she was so good at it."
By the time she reached eighth grade she transferred to the school her sister attended – Unidad Educativa Andino – and the shift from field to court began.
"My sister was going to this school where around 40 per cent of the students played ball, so once I started there, that was it for me."
In her youth, Yepez often stood taller than the rest of the kids her age, so coaches gravitated toward her even though she had "no idea" what she was doing on the court. But her love of the game overshadowed her raw ability.
"What I love about basketball compared to soccer is that there's always something happening at all times… The pace is different, and in basketball everyone plays offence and defence."
PLAYING FOR NATIONAL PRIDE
Yepez was a quick study and it didn't take long before she got the call to join Ecuador's national team. Her first international appearance came in 2011 with the under-15 squad, which was followed by a stint with the under-17 team in 2013.
Later that year, Yepez finally got called to her first training camp with the senior national team. In November of 2014 she made her debut in Mexico, playing two games to qualify for the 2015 FIBA Americas Women's Championship held in Edmonton – a qualifier tournament for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil.
It was an experience unlike anything she ever felt. She was the youngest player on the roster at the time and she said she learned a lot about herself having to fight for a spot with players who had three or more years on her.
"When I finally made the team it was so special," she said. "As an athlete that's what you dream about. It's crazy to think that I'm one of those lucky athletes who gets to represent their country."
Ecuador's starting point guard, Doris Perez, has played alongside Yepez since 2013 and has seen the 21-year-old develop into the player the Panthers have come to rely on.
"She has a great understanding of the game," said Perez, who plays professionally with the Argentinian club Quimsa. "She thinks team first and is always motivating others on the court."
It's that type of attitude and commitment to team that has garnered respect across borders.
"She's just a good friend and someone you want to be around," Perez added. "She's always available to listen and she's always there when you need her."
WELCOME TO CANADA
Yepez always had an interest in expanding her cultural horizons, but admittedly let opportunities to do so slide by. But another opportunity presented itself in May of 2016.
That's when former Panthers head coach Greg Gould – who had connections in South America – reached out to Yepez via email, pitching her on UPEI and what their basketball program had to offer.
"Coming here was a great decision, it took me out of my comfort zone and made me grow up so much," Yepez said.
It was a shock to the system at first, coming from Quito, a city with two million people, compared to Charlottetown with a population just under 40,000.
"You could imagine how big a change that was for me," she explained.
Her teammates were a big reason why she felt welcome and credits them for making the transition easier. She also became good friends with other athletes, who've since become roommates and an extension of her family.
In short time, Yepez quickly acclimated herself to the tranquil setting of Prince Edward Island and now considers it her second home.
"It's nice here because people around campus and the community acknowledge the fact that you're a student athlete at UPEI and are genuinely interested in you."
From a basketball perspective, Yepez was an easy fit for the up-and-coming Panthers. In just her second season, the Gould-helmed Panthers earned a spot in the championship game before being upended by the Acadia Axewomen. It was a heartbreaking end to a memorable 2017-18 campaign.
"It's hard to play three games in less than 72 hours, but those are excuses now," she said. "I wish we could've done better in that final game, but that feeling has stuck in our minds and we've been working hard not to feel like that again."
She did a little bit of everything, including taking turns guarding a powerful Hannah Brown in the post!— UPEI Women's Basketball (@UPEIWBasketball) January 6, 2019
With 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals in a big 70-64 win, KARLA YEPEZ is your @AUS_SUA @SubwayAtlantic Player of the Game!��#GoPanthersGo #SubwayFuel pic.twitter.com/Bu9DrOhse3
A NEW ERA
Following Gould's retirement that summer, UPEI went in a new direction and brought in coach Gamblin – who had just come off an ACAA championship with the Mount Allison Mounties – to take this talented team to new heights. So far, it's been a smooth transition as the 9-1 Panthers sit tied for first with the aforementioned Capers.
Yepez, in particular, benefitted from Gamblin's methodical approach to the game.
"He's a scholar of basketball, and he's always teaching us new things," she said. "The style he likes to play is similar to the one I used to play before coming here, so adapting to the game plan this year has been easier for me."
The two of them have worked well in their short time together, as Gamblin has put Yepez's versatility to good use and has trusted her to do whatever he asks of her – whether it's guarding a back to the basket centre or a speedy guard out on the perimeter.
"She's extremely team-first and trustworthy. She's what you look for in a student-athlete," Gamblin said. "When you talk to basketball people, they don't forget about Karla. Her well-roundedness can't get overlooked."
That unique skillset and ability to mix and match depending on the matchup may be the key to capturing that elusive championship once and for all.
"He has given me so much confidence. He challenges me often, and he puts me in spots where I can perform my best," Yepez said. "All that has made me feel empowered on the court this season."
Despite all the hype and excitement building around the Panthers, Yepez hasn't forgotten the roots that got her here in the first place.
Her talent has given her opportunities few get to experience like playing alongside and against WNBA players Yvonne Turner, Nadia Colhado, Iziane Castro and others. And she intends on using that insight to help lead this team, in the small city of Charlottetown, to their first title in 20 years.
"I have been lucky to be apart of teams with great players and coaches that have contributed to what I know about the game. Now I want to apply that knowledge here and share it with my teammates."