Santa Barbara Sports Figure of the Month: Westmont’s Tugce Canitez

Each Month, Presidio Sports recognizes a local sports figure for their extraordinary contribution to the Santa Barbara athletic community.

It is our way to recognize those who are making a lasting impact in the sports community, whether it is an outstanding athletic performance, a lifetime achievement award, or perhaps a great example of leadership. This award is made possible by American Riviera Bank.

“Since I came to Westmont as a player in 1985, I’ve been involved in sports at the college. There is no doubt that (Tugce Canitez) is the most dominant basketball player we’ve ever had. In fact, I would say that Tooch is the best player we’ve had in any sport (relative to that sport) over the last 30 years.”

—Dave Odell, Westmont College Athletic Director

Westmont's Tugce Canitez is the reigning NAIA National Player of the Year and competed in last year's Olympic Games.

Westmont’s Tugce Canitez is the reigning NAIA National Player of the Year and competed in last year’s Olympic Games.

As her two years of excellence on the Westmont basketball court comes to a close at the NAIA National Championship Tournament, Tugce Canitez (pronounced too-ch zhan-a-tez – “Tooch” for short), a senior forward from Izmir, Turkey, has been named Presidio Sports’ Santa Barbara Sports Figure of the Month.

Not only is her playing style solid, unselfish and often spectacular, but Canitez’s stats are staggering: she averages a double-double  (21.5 PPG/12.3RPG), has had a Westmont record-shattering, 42-point outburst in one game, and a young Shaq-like 27 points, 20 ‘bounds in another, and they certainly do not tell anywhere near the full story.

During the nine-week regular season, she was named Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) Player of the Week (five times), National Player of the Week (four times), and was recently announced as the repeating GSAC Player of the Year. She will most likely be named as NAIA National Player of the Year for the second straight year.

In her two years at Westmont, Tugce has re-written the Warrior record books, says Ron Smith, the college’s sports information director. “What is even more impressive to me is that she is a team player who cares deeply about her teammates and helps to elevate their performance on the court.”

“She is the most unselfish team player I have ever seen or coached,” states Kirsten Moore, in her eighth season as Westmont’s women’s head basketball coach.

“It’s not about herself,” adds Moore. “Tooch will do whatever it takes to win and make her team better. And that’s why she’s a winner.”

And win she has – starting with her very first team.

Westmont head coach Kirsten Moore and Canitez.

Westmont head coach Kirsten Moore and Canitez.

“When I was in the fifth grade, my trainer said, ‘You are very tall. Would you like to play basketball?’ I said, ‘No’,” shares Canitez, now 22.

“The next year, he asked me again. My parents said that they would support me, so I said yes. I was awful at first but I loved it! The other girls helped me. We won the league championship.”

Canitez continued to grow and improve her game.

By high school, she was 6’2″ and the tallest girl in her class.

“I didn’t like it then but I love I now,” she offers with a killer smile.

With help from her trainer, she came over to play college b-ball in America.

First stop: North Idaho JC

“That first year was really hard with a different language and culture. And it was very cold. I thought I was crazy! But I just loved playing basketball,” she told Presidio Sports.

She led her Lady Cardinal team to the NJCAA Tournament in her first year. In her second year, they were NJCAA champs! Tooch had a ‘double-double’ (15 points/12 rebounds) in the title game.

After JC, the lure to play immediately in a warmer climate ultimately led her to Westmont.

“I thought California would be a pretty cool place. Warmer too!” she adds.

And she hasn’t looked back.

In fact, it has been an amazing year for Canitez starting last summer with playing on the London Olympics world stage for Turkey’s National Women’s Team.

She was the youngest player on that team by, at least, two years. She could now be considered as the future of women’s basketball in her country,” says Coach Kirsten.

Watch for Canitez in the Brazil 2016 Olympics!!

“I’m taking my daughter Alexis so we can watch her!” smiles Coach Kirsten.

And these Warriors will again bank on Canitez’s worldly basketball experience in this week’s NAIA National Tournament.

The team (25-4 overall; 14-0 in league) is ranked #4 in the country and is currently in Kentucky where, as the #1 seed in their bracket, they will play the University of Cumberlands (#8 seed from Kentucky) in their tournament opener on Thursday.

“What I love about Tooch is her consistency – one of the things we talk about as coaches,” said Westmont men’s basketball coach John Moore. “Plus her talent, nose for the ball and her all around play. And she is the best rebounding women’s player I’ve ever seen in the NAIA.”

And as Canitez wraps up her celebrated collegiate hoops career, she also finishes strong in the classroom.

She has applied this same grit, determination and incredible work effort to her studies. In May, she’ll walk to receive her bachelor’s degree in Social Science.

“The fact that she will graduate on time is amazing and we are so excited for her. She has been so committed to getting her degree that she even chose to take independent study classes during the Olympics,” shares Moore. “Westmont is such a tough school academically, and she has had to work ten times as hard as a normal student because of the language barrier.”

Next Stop: WNBA

Canitez hanging with the Westmont coaching staff, Selena Ho, Emily Johnson, and Kirsten Moore, in the athletic offices. (Randy Weiss Photo)

Canitez hanging with the Westmont coaching staff, Selena Ho, Emilie Johnson, and Kirsten Moore, in the athletic offices. (Randy Weiss Photo)

While Canitez has a very bright international basketball future, on April 15 she will learn if her pro dreams come true with the WNBA Draft.

“I’ve always wanted to play in the WNBA,” she shares.

“Very humble, kind and compassionate. Just an amazing young woman is how we would describe her,” Kim and John Schuck chime on Canitez (they’re her “American parents” as she calls them). “We love her like our own daughter.”

She has already left her imprint on Westmont’s idyllic campus, on the sports community and all those Tooch has touched.

“Tugce is a phenomenal athlete and an even better person,” exclaims Westmont President Gayle Beebe. “She exhibits a profound love for humanity and a respect for all whom she encounters. The Westmont community has been greatly enriched by her presence and will be forever impacted by the time she has spent on our campus and becoming a part of the rich fabric of our lives.”

It’s safe to say that on the basketball court, in the classroom and in life itself, our Sports Figure of the Month, Tugce Canitez (also named one of “The 45 Hottest Basketball Stars in the World”) has been “doing the work.”

And especially right here in the warm California sun.

The best way she sums up her Santa Barbara experience?

“I’m glad I’m here. I have great teammates and coaches… It’s home.”

American Riviera Bank

This award is made possible by American Riviera Bank