By Jake Tiger
WITH a hole in the starting lineup ahead of the Rider women’s basketball’s biggest game of the season, Head Coach Lynn Milligan turned to her biggest player for the first time ever.
“For me, it was really a no-brainer,” said Milligan. “It’s really about the player’s mindset, and I just felt like she was in a really good place for what was coming that week.”
Junior forward Raphaela Toussaint had been a staple in the Broncs’ starting lineup all season, being a driving force behind their late-season resurgence. She ranked first for Rider in rebounding by far with 5.3 rebounds per game, and second in scoring with 12.3 points per game.
But on March 7, due to a non-COVID-19 illness, the Broncs were without Toussaint for the first time in over two years, just moments before a do-or-die meeting with Marist in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament.
Mere minutes before Rider had to take the floor of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, Milligan called upon her 6-foot-5-inch junior from Zwolles, Netherlands, who had yet to register a start in her collegiate career.
“It was, literally, probably 20 minutes before the warmup started,” said junior forward Sofie Bruintjes. “I thought Raphie [Toussaint] was going to show up eventually, and then right before warmups started, Coach [Milligan] grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, I need you to step up today.’”
During the 2022-23 regular season, Bruintjes spent most of her time on the bench, making spotty contributions as needed with an average of 6.8 minutes per game.
Still, Bruintjes always made her presence known to everyone in attendance, often seen dancing and cheering on her teammates from the sideline with unparalleled effervescence.
“If I’m not the one that can do it on the court, I have to make sure that I’m still celebrating the people that are,” said Bruintjes. “Basketball is a team sport, and I know I signed up for a team sport. There’s going to be games and days where it’s not me in the spotlight.”
But for the first time in her career, Bruintjes found herself — rather abruptly — thrusted into the brightest spotlight MAAC basketball has to offer.
After a zealous entrance during introductions, Bruintjes got her first run with the starters. The junior simply held her own for most of the first half, but soon drew the arena’s attention with a sequence of plays only she could make.
With about five minutes left in the second quarter against Marist, Bruintjes flashed her guard-like versatility, sinking a catch-and-shoot three from the top of the arc to give Rider a 22-15 lead.
On defense 20 seconds later, Bruintjes stepped into the paint and swallowed up a rushing Red Fox, burying them with a vicious rejection.
“I was waiting for an opportunity, and it came on a pretty big stage, and I think I was just very lucky to be able to do that,” said Bruintjes. “I wasn’t nervous at all. It was actually very fun.”
Players of Bruintjes’ size are often forced into a mold, only being asked to score below the basket, rebound and protect the rim, but the 6-foot-5-inch forward is not one for being shoved into a box.
“In my high school program, we didn’t have positions. We all played one through five,” said Bruintjes, who went to high school in Amsterdam. “We did guard workouts, we did post workouts with everybody. I think, luckily for me, being in those programs really set me up to be a super all-around player.”
Through cerebral passing and outside shooting, Bruintjes’ floor-stretching skill set breaks the traditional center’s mold in a way that is uniquely valuable to the Broncs.
In 21 minutes against Marist, Bruintjes tied her career high in points with six, along with six rebounds, two blocks and two assists in a stellar starting debut. Bruintjes logged all of her points and rebounds in the first half alone.
“It was a lot of fun,” said senior center Victoria Toomey after starting next to Bruintjes for the first time. “Sofie was ready to get the start and she played really well.”
After helping her team to a 63-50 win over Marist, Milligan awarded Bruintjes the starting spot again in the Broncs’ quarterfinal matchup with Niagara, in which she contributed five points and two blocks in 21 minutes.
Across 129 minutes during the regular season, Bruintjes didn’t register a single block. In her 42 minutes during the MAAC Tournament, her rock-solid rim protection provided four.
“There wasn’t like this extra pressure she was putting on herself to be something that she wasn’t,” said Milligan. “She didn’t need to be Raphie; she just needed to be Sofie.”
Bruintjes’ six-point and five-point performances were her highest marks of the season, and while neither display matched up to Toussaint statistically, the budding Bronc believes she merely offered a peak into her full potential.
“I think what I showed in those two starts was only a glimpse of what I’m used to doing as a basketball player,” said Bruintjes. “I think that I finally felt confident enough to actually show everybody.”
On April 3, Toomey announced that she had transferred to Scranton for her graduate year, leaving Rider’s starting center spot wide open.
Bruintjes has the tools and tenacity to not only claim a spot in the starting lineup next season, but excel in her role in a way that very few can.
She is still unrefined and has a ways to go in terms of maximizing her skill set, but if anyone on the Broncs can reach their ceiling, it’s Bruintjes.