HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
When Zack Pelehos walked onto the University of Ottawa football field in August for the start of the 2021 training camp, the long wait was finally over for him.
He was a football player, again.
Academic ineligibility kept him from playing his right tackle position on the offensive line in 2019. The persistent COVID-19 pandemic kept every Canadian university football player off the field in 2020.
Pelehos, a graduate of the Gananoque Secondary School and Kingston Grenadiers football programs, was thrilled to start his second year of football in his fourth year of general studies.
In his freshman 2018 season, he showed plenty of promise as a 6-6, 300-pound lineman. Playing all eight OUA regular-season games and one playoff match, which included eight starts, Pelehos was named to the OUA all-rookie team and the conference’s second all-star team.
But academics threw a flag on the playbook, after his first year as a student-athlete in sociology.
“I did all the work at the beginning, but I couldn’t get it done. But in my second year, I pushed through the barriers and used all the amenities the University of Ottawa had to offer,” he said proudly.
Pelehos carried that same strategy and intensity onto the football field this fall, helping the Gee-Gees to a 3-3 regular-season record for third place in the East Division, a quarter-final win and a berth in the semi-finals as well as earning a huge personal honour.
At the team’s recent football awards night, Pelehos won the unthinkable – the Gee-Gees’ MVP award. That’s an award usually reserved for the offensive stars.
“Honestly, I was shocked,” Pelehos said in a Zoom interview on Thursday. “Offensive linemen don’t usually win an award like that. I was proud and shocked.”
He thought he might have a chance to win the offensive lineman award, but when that opportunity came and went and he didn’t hear his name called, he sat back and watched the rest of the awards.
The Gee-Gees ran 370 offensive plays – 197 passing and 173 rushing – in six regular-season games and Pelehos was on the field for every one of those snaps, providing pass protection or opening holes for the running backs.
“On the ground, we really were a good running team. Most of the games, we had 200 yards rushing or just under 200. And it wasn’t just me. I wouldn’t get this award unless I had the other four (linemen). They definitely contributed in a huge way,” he added.
When Pelehos looked down the offensive line, which averaged almost 6-3½ and 301 pounds, he saw right guard Bryan Latouche of Quebec City, centre Brett Jelley of Ottawa, left guard Julian Iamundo of Marlbank, ON., and left tackle James du Manoir of Cobourg, ON. Latouche and du Manoir also were award winners.
“We had the (right) chemistry right from the get-go,” Pelehos said. “Once we were established in camp, we started to bond on and off the field. It helped us in the long run.”
Pelehos is grateful he was able to return to football, after having to sit out what would have been his second season. He knows not all players who miss a year for academic ineligibility return to the gridiron.
“It was definitely a little bit of a weird feeling,” he said about getting back into the game. “I felt I was below some athletes, but at the same time thankful that I got back on the field.”
He added the start of his season was somewhat rough, but as the season progressed, he “got into a groove.”
Pelehos is eligible for the 2022 CFL and NFL drafts, but he’s unaware if any teams might be interested in him. But he hopes to be invited to regional and/or national combines to showcase his football skills.
The other Gee-Gees’ football award winners were:
YVES LECLERC AWARD (top student-athlete): Francis Perron, defensive tackle, passed away after the Gee-Gees’ opening OUA game against the University of Toronto; Perron was nominated by the Gee-Gees for a second time for the Russ Jackson Award for academic achievement, football skills and citizenship, and won the award at the OUA and U Sports levels this season;
OFFENSIVE MVP AWARD: J-P Cimankinda, running back, ranked fifth in OUA rushing with 437 yards on 71 carries for a 5.8-yard average and one touchdown in six regular-season games;
DEFENSIVE MVP AWARD: Luke Griese, safety, ranked fourth in the OUA passes defended category, four breakups and one interception;
MATT ANTHONY AWARD: (rookie of the year): Rodney Estime, receiver, ranked sixth in OUA pass receiving, 282 yards on 20 catches in four games, for a 14.1-yard average;
RAY PERRAS 46TH MAN AWARD: Jacob Roussel, defensive lineman, a third-year player recognized for all of his contributions to the team;
OUTSTANDING DEFENSIVE LINEMAN AWARD: Frednick Eveillard, defensive lineman, for his final season he moved to the Gee-Gees’ defensive squad after being an offensive receiver, recorded one sack and three assisted sacks for losses of 16 yards, three solo tackles and one assisted tackle for losses, and one forced fumble;
DR. ROBERT PELLETIER AWARD (most improved player): James Peter, linebacker, ranked eighth in OUA tackles with 27 solo and 17 assisted as well as one sack;
DON LEWICKI AWARD (skill, courage and overall will to win): Bryan Latouche, offensive lineman, final-year player, Gee-Gees’ offensive lineman of the year in 2019;
LUMSDEN-AVERY AWARD (sportsmanship and dedication): Tramayne Stephen, defensive tackle, final-year player, Gee-Gees’ defensive lineman of the year in 2019, OUA all-rookie team in 2016;
MILES GORRELL CUP (outstanding offensive lineman): James du Manoir, offensive lineman, Gee-Gees’ offensive lineman of the year (co-winner) in 2019;
CHRIS EVRAIRE AWARD (special teams player of the year): Dylan Mattatall, linebacker, 2021 U Sports Academic All-Canadian.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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