Across the Atlantic Ocean in Damascus, Syria, nearly ten thousand kilometres away, a 14-year-old Jiana Alnajjar began her basketball journey. Alnajjar is a fifth-year Mathematics and Statistics student at UTM and plays guard/forward for UTM’s women’s varsity basketball team.

Alnajjar, who wears the number 14, says her love of the sport began when she was a little girl. Her family used to live near an outdoor basketball club, and sometimes her father would lift her up, so she could dunk the ball into one of the nets. The love of the game began with father-daughter bonding moments, but the inspiration to play and compete in the game comes from watching an older female cousin play.

“She was older and a lot taller than me. I wanted to be just like her, to play like her,” she says. This sparked Alnajjar’s passion for the game. She started playing basketball casually before being recruited to play in a girl’s club, which is similar to a representative team here in Canada, that competed against the various cities across Syria. She later became a practice player on a women’s team, in hopes of learning from them. Alnajjar even had an opportunity to play at an international level, for Team Syria, but made the move to Canada.

At 18-years-old, Alnajjar’s basketball story came to a painful halt, when she fully tore two major ligaments in her knee—the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL). It was an all too common basketball injury that would require two surgeries, four months apart, and a painful year and a half recovery before she could return to the game she’d fallen in love with. And when she did, she needed an awkward metal knee brace. For not only her physical protection, but also her own peace of mind. Despite her fear of becoming re-injured, Alnajjar wouldn’t be stopped.

She started playing for UTM on the women’s d-league basketball team as a first-year student, where she began the first semester as a practice player before becoming a member of the team in the second year. She made the transition with the team into varsity, to their inaugural season in the OCAA last year, which was a tough learning curve for all.

“It’s very normal, in the first year for varsity, that everyone is learning. from players to coaches. Everyone’s learned, so I think that’s why we’ve had such a great start to our second year. You have to have a test drive,” says Alnajjar.

Now in their second season, the team is off to a great start, having won their first two games, both of which were played on UTM’s home court. The hot start currently ranks UTM within the top-ten in the league, third in the West Division.

“I’m especially proud of Janella, as a first year stepping up,” Alnajjar praises number 6 on her team, Janella Viado, a first-year point guard who signed with UTM this past summer in the off-season.

Alnajjar loves the sometimes-aggressive nature of the game of basketball. Which continually provides her with a healthy outlet for the stress she experiences as a student athlete, who also works part-time. She says balance, organization, and sacrifice are extremely important to her, so she plans days off work months in advance to be available for games. You won’t find her at many social events, but she can be found regularly staying as late as midnight at UTM to study.

Alnajjar loves the sometimes-aggressive nature of the game of basketball. Which continually provides her with a healthy outlet for the stress she experiences as a student athlete, who also works part-time. She says balance, organization, and sacrifice are extremely important to her, so she plans days off work months in advance to be available for games. You won’t find her at many social events, but she can be found regularly staying as late as midnight at UTM to study.

Alnajjar is known for her great overall physical fitness and aggressive play on the court, despite her history with injury. Usually the smallest one the hardwood, she is fearless in her competition against taller players. To start the season, she plays nearly 35 minutes a game, averaging a combined 18 rebounds a game, of offensive and defensive rebounds.

When asked what she thinks she brings to her team, Alnajjar says it’s her passion for the game. “I put all that I have into diving for loose balls. And I trust my team to do the same. I trust that they will feed off my energy, especially defensively. I might not be the most offensive player, but I think my defensive and offensive rebounds can make up for that, giving my teammates more opportunities to keep scoring the ball.”

She attributes her toughness not just physically, but mentally as well. “When your body is physically tired in the fourth quarter, you have to mentally tell yourself [and your body] to keep going. I can’t tell you how many times in the fourth quarter [Head Coach] Sal looks at me and asks ‘Ji, you good?’ and I tell her ‘Yup’ while I’m dying inside,” Alnajjar jokes.

In looking to the future, Alnajjar, who most don’t know is also a twin, loves helping and educating others. Especially her twin sister, who struggles with math. She’s not sure if she would be a good teacher, and is considering getting into insurance or something else related.

Alnajjar feels really good about her team, and is loving the team’s still growing chemistry from individual connections all the way up to the relationship with the coaching staff. She believes you learn from every coach you play for, and Head Coach, Salee Johnson-Edwards, is no exception. After five years under Johnson-Edwards, Alnajjar believes she’s learned a lot. But still considers herself a student of the game of basketball, with much more to learn.