By Dan Plouffe
Capital Courts Academy coach Fabienne Blizzard took home a silver medal with Team Canada this summer, and she brought one of her players from the FIBA Americas U16 Women’s Basketball Championship back home too.
Rachael Okokoh debuted with CCA last Thursday for the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association’s 2023-2024 season opener at Louis-Riel high school, returning to her hometown after playing at the Royal Crown private school in Scarborough.
“I wanted to try something new, try being away from family, because when you go to college, that’s what you’re going to be doing,” explains Okokoh, whose younger brother Godson (also a FIBA Americas silver medallist for Canada) plays at Royal Crown as well.
“It wasn’t for me personally, but I did learn a lot from that experience,” adds Okokoh, listing independence and time management with a very busy schedule as principal lessons from her time at Royal Crown.
Okokoh says she loved getting the chance to play international basketball at the June FIBA Americas tournament in Yucatán, Mexico, though one aspect of international travel was less pleasant – food poisoning.
Most of Team Canada got hit a little and some were considerably worse.
“I feel so bad for Rachael. She was one of them,” recounts Blizzard, who figures that water used during food prep for one of the meals served to the team was to blame.
“We had five of them like that,” she notes. “They’d get one minute in and they’d be giving us the sign” that they needed to be subbed off the court during games.
Okokoh wound up averaging a team-low 8.1 minutes per match while scoring five points and collecting 11 rebounds in five contests.
“She was sad about not playing as much because of what was happening,” indicates Blizzard. “But she was really just focused on making it about the team and I loved that positive attitude.”
The Canadians handled each of their opponents by at least 27 points in five wins over Brazil, Dominican Republic, Argentina, Mexico and Puerto Rico to reach the tournament final, where they took silver behind USA with a 79-59 defeat.
CCA’s Jahda Denis of Terrebonne, QC was also part of the Canadian team and averaged 17.9 minutes and six points per game.
All three would like to get the chance to wear the maple leaf again for next July’s FIBA U-17 Women’s Basketball World Cup back in Mexico.
“Worlds is a different one, but I’m crossing my fingers that we’re able to take a similar group of people and that we’re able to give it another try,” says Blizzard, who hopes to again be called on to lead Canada.
“The team was amazing. The staff was amazing,” she adds. “You couldn’t ask for anything better than that, except for the food poisoning.”
For Okokoh, being ready for worlds next summer is a big focus of hers this season.
“Getting to represent your country is a great honour,” underlines the 6’3″ forward.
Okokoh played with the Gloucester-Cumberland Basketball Association growing up, though she didn’t really cross paths with Blizzard until they both met on Team Canada.
Strong coaching provided a big attraction for Okokoh to join CCA, along with the program’s successful record, and she also heard it was a “great environment” from other players on the team.
“Coach Fab is a great coach,” signals the Grade 11 student, noting that Blizzard explains concepts very well even when they can be tough to grasp, and is very detailed. “Her main goal is to help you get better.”
New CCA squad looks to replicate past success
CCA, which won its first OSBA championship in 2022, lost a hard-fought 67-63 semi-final last season to Crestwood, which went on to win the OSBA crown 79-48 over Niagara Prep.
Though she collected bronze and silver medals earlier this year, an OSBA gold isn’t necessarily Blizzard’s next objective.
“I can’t prepare [players] for us to just win a championship because that means I’m not developing them as a global player. You have to be able to do different things, because I’m not sure how their next coach is going to use them,” highlights Blizzard. “Their goals are to play at the university level. We’ve got to prepare them for that – that’s the main thing. And after that, the rest is gravy.”
CCA saw seven players graduate last season, including four who joined NCAA teams. The Cairine Wilson Secondary School-based program welcomed seven new arrivals this year – Sierra Patricio and Cyanne John from the Toronto area, Patricia Hillary-Augustin from Montreal, Gabby Morash from Halifax, Sarah Litrico from Kelowna, B.C. and local players Gabrièla Uyanze and Okokoh.
“It’s a group of amazing human beings,” Blizzard details. “They’re so nice. I gotta say kudos to their parents. They’re super polite and friendly. They’ll come in and ask me, ‘how’s your day today?’
“It’s amazing to have student-athletes that think about people outside of themselves. I just feel very blessed and I’m going to enjoy this group.”
Building chemistry and trust are CCA’s big objectives at present, outlines Blizzard, who also wants her players to understand that they may fail at times, but that they need to be able to reset and focus on what they can do to rebound and contribute.
“They’re learning so quickly and they want to be great,” she states. “But it’s baby steps. I tell them it’s a process. This is the first step to the process, and there’s work to be done.”
First encounter for east-end foes in 4 years
The OSBA season tipped off with a rare all-Ottawa matchup last week between the league’s lone local entries. Neither team let up during the match even though final scoreline wasn’t close, 83-41 for CCA over the Louis-Riel Rebelles.
Ottawa’s Megan Hollingsworth led the way with 22 points, while Hillary-Augustin and John hit double-digits in their CCA debuts with 15 and 12 respectively.
Okokoh scored five while facing constant double and triple-team pressure from the Rebelles, whose top scorer was Inès Essoussi with nine points.
It was the first meeting between the two teams since 2019 due to COVID interruptions and Louis-Riel playing in a lower division last season. The Rebelles won their way up to the eight-team top tier with a strong playoff performance last season, propelled by six players who graduated in June.
“We have a young team, and we’re a new team playing together too, so we’re going to be building, which we’re excited to do,” signals Louis-Riel coach André Desjardins. “It’s exciting to play the top teams. The kids get to see some really good talent, and realize that they’re human, just like you. If you work on stuff, then you can get there as well.”
Desjardins was glad to see “a big Ottawa crowd here from both sides” on hand for the season opener.
“They pushed hard, they were aggressive and you could see the talent from their young players as well,” Blizzard says of the Rebelles. “It’s nice that we get to play in Ottawa. We have two good programs and that means we get to compete and showcase the talent we have here.”
Desjardins was pleased to see that his team could hold their own with CCA at moments when they played together and battled. It’s hard for Louis-Riel, which draws mostly Francophone players from Ottawa’s east end, to compete with the CCA juggernaut, he adds.
“They’re a veteran team with some great national team players and some very talented players from all over the country,” Desjardins highlights. “They’re really hard-working too, you’ve got to give them credit. They’ll be competing for a championship, so good on them.”
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