HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
In universities and colleges across Canada, student-athletes are a highly visible sector of the population.
Not only do they attend classes to pursue a degree in their chosen field, but also their non-academic time is filled with training, practices, travel and games in their journey of athletic excellence. It’s a double, full-time job reserved only for talented, disciplined and organized individuals.
Just as there are A-plus students in the classroom, there also are athletes who excel, lead and outperform others on the court, the field or on the ice. Sometimes you find student-athletes at the top of the list in both academics and athletics.
At yet another level up, you’ll find an exceptional student-athlete who’s also a meaningful contributor to the community.
In a season when five Ottawa and area student-athletes won major U Sports individual awards, Brigitte Lefebvre-Okankwu of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees women’s basketball team rose to the head of her class as she was a standout student, athlete and volunteer.
Last month, Lefebvre-Okankwu was named to the U Sports honour roll as a Top 8 Academic All-Canadian for excellence on and off the competitive field. One female and one male student-athlete is selected in each of the four Canadian university conferences – Atlantic University Sport, Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec, Ontario University Athletics and Canada West Universities Athletic Association.
On the basketball court, the fluently-bilingual Lefebvre-Okankwu, 24, completed her basketball eligibility with a host of honours as a 6-1 forward. She was named the OUA East MVP, making her a conference nominee for the national award, and also claimed the OUA East Joy Bellinger Award and U Sports Sylvia Sweeney Award for her student-athlete community service.
Registering her 1,000th career point and 500th career rebound for regular-season play this year, Lefebvre-Okankwu had career highs in points-per-game at 16.4 (first in the OUA East Division), rebounds-per-game at 9.7 and steals-per-game at 1.8. She was selected as an OUA East Division first-team all-star and a first-team U Sports All-Canadian.
Lefebvre-Okankwu also was a third-team OUA all-star in 2019, an OUA and U Sports rookie team member in 2018, and an OUA silver medallist and U Sports bronze medallist in 2019.
As a student, the Gatineau native has been a U Sports Academic All-Canadian in each of her first four years, which led to her receiving an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical science with a minor in psychology. She also was the valedictorian for the Faculty of Science in 2020.
Lefebvre-Okankwu is completing her work on an honours Bachelor of Science in psychology degree this year. For the last four consecutive terms, she has posted a grade-point average of 10.0 out of 10.0.
“I put pressure on myself because that’s just who I am,” she said in a University of Ottawa press release. “I can never go into a project or an exam with an attitude of not caring because I like to perform in everything I take on. I also don’t want to look back and regret not doing the most I can and then think that I could have had better opportunities.
“Succeeding at school has always been very important to me. It’s a part of the values that my mom instilled in me. My mom has always worked hard and gave me strong values that are sticking with me.”
As much as she loves basketball and academics, Lefebvre-Okankwu also enjoys taking a stand and making her community a better place. She is a co-founder of the Black Student-Athletes Advocacy Council at the University of Ottawa and holds the position of secretary on its executive committee.
She led a fund raising and awareness campaign for Black Lives Matter in 2020 by organizing a virtual run of 1,666 kilometres to Minneapolis. It raised $3,200 and the Gee-Gee women’s basketball team shared it with Black History Ottawa, The Odawa Native Friendship Centre, The Congress of Black Women of Canada, Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario and Colour of Change.
Earlier in her Gee-Gees’ career, she travelled with teammates to Togo and Haiti to improve basketball in those countries by helping to build basketball courts for community sports programs. She also thrives on being part of different causes, including Underdog Mixtape in Gatineau, which promotes underestimated sports, music and artistic talent.
Later this month, Lefebvre-Okankwu will resume her professional basketball career, when she joins the Eastern Mavericks, a second-division team in Australia’s National Basketball League, along with Gee-Gees teammate Oksana Gouchie-Provencher. In 2020-21, Lefebvre-Okankwu made her pro debut with the Sharjah Sports Basketball Club in Dubai, where she was the team’s top scorer and rebounder and played in the championship final.
“She puts everything – her heart, her mind, everything – into what she does and she absolutely deserves the honours she has received as a result,” said Gee-Gees women’s basketball head coach Rose-Anne Joly in the release.
“She is a leader within our team on the court and off, and she has grown so much over the last four years in terms of using her voice. Her ability to excel in the classroom, on the court and in the community is a big inspiration to many people.”
RAVENS’ LLOYD PANDI NAMED U SPORTS MEN’S BASKETBALL MVP
Carleton University Ravens forward Lloyd Pandi won the OUA East Division MVP award and captured the Mike Moser Memorial Trophy as the U Sports men’s basketball player of the year. He also was an OUA first-team all-star and a U Sports first-team All-Canadian.
A steady and versatile player, Pandi came off the cancelled 2020-21 campaign with OUA top-10 showings this season in field-goal percentage (No. 1 at 57 per cent), free-throw percentage (No. 3 at 83.8 per cent) and rebounds (No. 9 at 8.1). In 11 of his 14 regular-season games, he had double-digit point production.
In the U Sports national championship tournament, where Carleton won its 16th Canadian university title since 2003, Pandi scored 43 points in three games, connected on 20 of his 32 field-goal attempts, pulled down 30 rebounds and was named to the tournament all-star team.
Ottawa’s Ali Sow of Wilfrid Laurier University was one of the top scorers in the OUA and was named a second-team U Sports all-Canadian. Sow scored the OUA’s most points at 670 in 18 regular-season games for a 25.1 point-per-game average, which was second best in the OUA.
GEE-GEES’ NICOLAS MATTINEN SELECTED TOP DEFENCEMAN IN U SPORTS MEN’S HOCKEY
Imposing rearguard Nicolas Mattinen captured two OUA East/Far East awards as the most valuable player and the top defenceman and went on to win the U Sports defenceman-of-the-year honour.
An all-around defender, the former two-time Ontario Hockey League champion with London and Hamilton was second in scoring for the Gee-Gees with 13 points in 18 games and tied for the lead in goals with six. His height and long reach also helped him shut down the opposing forwards.
Averaging 24 minutes a game, the Ottawa-born Mattinen played on the Gee-Gees’ power-play and penalty-kill special teams. The Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick (179th overall, sixth round) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has completed his two seasons with the Gee-Gees and has since played five games for the AHL’s Laval Rocket.
ST. FRANCIS XAVIER’S ABBY LEWIS, LIAM HAWEL NAMED TOP ROOKIES IN U SPORTS HOCKEY
Despite being a first-year left-winger, Abby Lewis of Kanata played on the top line for St. Francis Xavier X-Women and her points production was a significant factor to her being selected the AUS and U Sports women’s hockey rookie of the year. She also was named to the U Sports and AUS all-rookie teams.
In 21 regular-season games, Lewis recorded nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points to finish eighth overall in conference scoring and 13th on the U Sports list. She also had two game-winning goals and a plus/minus rating of +7 as the X-Women finished third in the regular-season standings at 15-6-0.
“Abby Lewis has been an impact player for us this year. Abby is a dominant player, who is a threat to score every time she is on the ice. She has a real nose for the net and, if the puck is on her stick in tight, has the ability to do good things,” said X-Women head coach Ben Berthiaume in a press release.
Liam Hawel of Arnprior was a major offensive threat in his first season with the X-Men, which allowed him to win the AUS and U Sports men’s rookie of the year awards. He was third overall in U Sports scoring and first in the AUS with a balanced presentation of 18 goals and 19 assists for 37 points along with the third-best plus/minus rating of +16.
He scored five power-play goals and four game-winning markers for the second-place X-Men. At the U Sports national championship, he helped the X-Men win the bronze medal by assisting on the game-winning goal in the first minute of overtime in a 3-2 decision over Ryerson Rams. He finished with five assists in the three national championship games.
“Liam has been an outstanding addition to our program. He was a key part of our regular-season success and is a fierce competitor with elite-level skill and hockey sense with the ability to take over games. Liam certainly established himself as one of the premier players in the nation in only his first season,” said X-Men men’s hockey head coach Brad Peddle.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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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