by Michael Sun, The Charlatan
LONDON, Ont. — Elizabeth Leblanc was going to teacher’s college. She knew that last summer. What she didn’t know was that she would be playing basketball again – and enjoying it.
Leblanc – known as Becky – finished off an illustrious four-year career at Carleton University in 2018. She was an OUA and U Sports Defensive Player of the Year. She graduated from Carleton a year later and was headed for Western University’s teacher’s college program in her hometown of London. Leblanc was done with basketball.
Then, new Western coach Nate McKibbon contacted her. McKibbon coached Leblanc for two years with Hamilton Transway in JUEL when Leblanc was in high school. They talked about the possibility of playing for Western.
“It was more just working through, ‘okay, what does this look like, sound like, feel like,’” McKibbon recalled. “How is it going to be for me playing for someone other than [Carleton]…I had never thought about playing basketball again.’ But it didn’t take too many meetings.”
Leblanc said the idea of playing for Western was scary at first but exciting. It was also about enjoying the sport as well.
“I can go and play another year and leave it all on the court and there’s not really any pressure. It’s just about having fun,” she said.
Western sits atop the OUA (with Ottawa). Leblanc is enjoying her final U Sports season. She’s also found a new passion through teaching and coaching. She’s back home as well. She’s found her happiness but the path there was full of ups and downs.
Growing up in London, Leblanc’s basketball career started in grade five. She grew up competing against her older brother – former Carleton Ravens and Brock Badgers guard Clinton Springer-Williams – in the driveway. It fueled her competitive drive.
Her competitive fire is a key part of who she is as a basketball player. Western forward Rachel Fradgley, who knew Leblanc from growing up in London, notices it even more as her teammate.
“When she’s determined to do something, she’s so focused on doing a certain thing. She takes a lot of pride in her defence,” Fradgley noted. “So if she’s really competitive, she blocks shots, [is] all over you defensively. So much effort comes up when she’s super competitive.”
By the time Leblanc reached high school, she decided to play her club basketball in Hamilton for Transway to take her development to “the next level.” She won championships with teammates such as Kia Nurse, Christina Buttenham and Hilary Hanaka.
Leblanc called the experience a big reason for her university success. It caused a mentality shift towards consistently working hard, adding to her competitive spirit even more. “Just like working hard for everything, whether it be defence or if a ball is rolling out of bounds,” she noted.
It was also about being able to turn the competitive side off once outside the court. Leblanc and her teammates hung out and went on plenty of road trips. “It was always fun,” she said.
As her Transway career came to an end, her university decision was coming up. Western didn’t really recruit her, according to her. Meanwhile, she became familiar with Carleton given that Clinton played there for two seasons.
“I was just comfortable with Carleton,” she recalled. “Obviously Clinton went there so I kind of knew what was going on there and I liked the girls. It just seemed like it was going to be a good fit for me because I was comfortable with everything.”
She and her family would watch all of Clinton’s games – online or in person. In March 2014, they drove to Ottawa to watch Clinton play in his final U Sports National Championships. They watched as he won his second national championship with a 79-67 victory over the Ottawa Gee-Gees at the then-Scotiabank Centre.
Clinton’s Carleton career ended with another championship, just as Leblanc’s was about to start.
“It was a huge change,” Leblanc said of her first year at Carleton. She was part of a large rookie class, which made the transition easier, but the challenges were immense, balancing school, basketball and social life.
“You don’t have time for a social life,” Leblanc noted. “This is your social life, is basketball.”
She also learned to be more independent living away from home. She learned to become a better communicator on and off the court. “Just more sure in myself if that makes sense,” Leblanc said. “Saying how I feel, sharing, just communicating better with people.”
Building her confidence was also a challenge over time. It was about not letting mistakes on the court dent her confidence going forward.
She engaged in mental training techniques such as self-talk. “It was more just like, ‘move onto the next play, repeating that stuff to me,” she said. Leblanc also relied on her defence for confidence, an aspect of the game she felt in control of. “I think by translating my defensive confidence, it helps me build off of it and get past those barriers and really move onto the next play,” she said.
She started to gain a better understanding of the game in her second year but it wasn’t until the start of the third year where the confidence started to “click.” Her game continued to develop as well.
The timing was key as well as Carleton would take the next step forward towards national championship contention, bringing in forward Catherine Traer (from Ottawa) and point guard Jenjen Abella (Mohawk College).
The team had a bond and togetherness between them. It also helped Leblanc better understand the team goals.
“I think it helps to motivate [me] because we have a goal, we want to reach that goal,” she said. “You know that you’re doing this with your team, you’re doing this for your team, you’re helping each other. It’s understanding it’s not all about you and nothing really is just all about you.”
She was motivated to work hard – as her teammates were – by not wanting to let each other down.
One by one, the team started reaching their goals. They won their first-ever Critelli Cup in 2017, beating Queen’s in a tightly-contested match in Kingston. “It was surreal,” Leblanc said. The team also had its eyes on a bigger prize – the national championships.
However, they were stopped by McGill in the semi-finals. Leblanc called the loss tough but the team managed to compose itself and come away with the bronze – their first ever U Sports medal.
With most of the squad returning for Leblanc’s fourth season, the 2017-18 campaign would be a significant one. It would also be Leblanc’s last at Carleton.
The drive to win a national championship continued to motivate Leblanc and her teammates. They built off the confidence of having won the Critelli Cup and reaching the national semi-finals. They built off of urgency as well.
“Let’s not take anything for granted,” Leblanc said of the mindset. “This is our last chance to do it because almost all the starting lineup was leaving. So it was like, ‘this is our chance, let’s just leave it all out on the court’.”
Leblanc said early on, she knew she might not play five seasons at Carleton. By senior’s night, she already decided the season would be her last. She wanted to go to teacher’s college in the future and leave basketball behind. “It was just time,” she said.
“I started to not really have fun with basketball anymore for different reasons,” she added. “I didn’t want to get to the point where I didn’t like basketball and I didn’t want to do anything about it or be around it…I still like basketball but don’t want to be around it. I just can’t. I didn’t want to play anymore. I just needed to move on.”
Basketball at times felt like a chore, according to her, but she continued to push on due to her competitiveness and wanting to do it for her teammates. “I’m still there and showing up but in practices for instance, mentally, I wasn’t always there in practice just because I just didn’t necessarily always want to be there,” she noted.
She was able to talk about her concerns with then-assistant coach Dave Malowski. “He was always super supportive and always giving you the alternative viewpoints,” she said. “He understand why I was wanting to move away.”
Part of her concerns was regarding the environment – parts of which she didn’t agree with.
“Understanding certain things that I’m like, ‘I don’t necessarily agree with that,’” she said. “Obviously it’s a lot harder to do things when you don’t agree with certain things. There’s times where it’s like ‘yeah, whatever for the good of the team, let’s just do this’ but other times it’s like ‘okay, no. I just can’t. I have my own values’.”
Leblanc declined to go into detail about it. “It is what it is,” she said. “I was playing for my team so it doesn’t matter, all the extra stuff doesn’t matter.”
There was also the pressure she put on herself to succeed, along with the pressure of trying to win a national championship. “The personal pressure is because I wanted to do well,” she noted. “It’s part of the Carleton mentality: wanting to be perfect and wanting to do everything well.”
Leblanc said her teammates all supported each other, helping each other balance the pressure. For her, the decision to leave wasn’t at all about her teammates. She knew she always had – and would have – that strong relationship with them, regardless of her decision. “My teammates, they’re like family,” she said. There was an unbreakable bond.
Leblanc won OUA and U Sports Defensive Player of the Year while Carleton went undefeated in the regular season and OUA playoffs. Nationals in Regina and a last chance at glory awaited.
After beating Calgary in the quarter-finals, Carleton was once again matched up against McGill in the semi-finals. The Ravens trailed for most of the game. She remembers “trying to stay out of my head but being in my head. I was like ‘keep playing’ but I couldn’t stop thinking about ‘I don’t want this to happen again’.”
Carleton battled back to tie it and with both teams in a deadlock, Traer hit a floater off glass that went in, giving the Ravens the lead with one second left and eventually the win. “Catherine hit that shot and I couldn’t believe that it happened. Like, there’s no way that just went in,” Leblanc said. “It was crazy. I don’t even have words to describe [it] because I couldn’t believe that happened.”
One night later, Leblanc and teammates reached their final goal of being national champions with a 69-48 victory over Saskatchewan. She also won Tournament MVP. The realization that she was a National Champion took a few days to sink in for her. It was also a moment that she would share with her teammates.
“I wanted to be able to do that together and just have that moment forever that we’re always going to remember,” she said. She also shared that moment with her parents as well, who made the journey over to Regina.
“It’s just nice that all of our parents and friends [were there] too,” she said. “It just made it so much more special.” She Facetimed Clinton as well, who couldn’t be there for nationals. Just like him, she ended her Carleton career as a national champion.
Leblanc ended up finishing her Carleton degree back in London, taking online classes. She got to see her friends back home again.
“It was nice to have that mental break and still focus on myself and be able to figure out those things that I enjoy,” she said.
Leblanc said not playing basketball wasn’t a big deal as she still followed her former Carleton teammates’ progress. She played volleyball and explored other interests as well. “I was doing stuff that I enjoy doing,” she said. “I think that was the most important thing for me.” She said she was much happier being at home.
Leblanc also got to spend more time with her baby nephew.
“There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for him,” she said. Clinton brought her nephew to the 2018 OUA finals in Hamilton. “Being able to share that moment with [her nephew] and having him wear my hat and wear the [OUA gold] medal there,” she said. “Sharing that moment, it was so important to me, so it’s amazing being in it.”
Leblanc started thinking about teacher’s college back at Carleton but it was her year off that solidified that choice for her. She helped out coaching basketball with her old elementary and high school.
When she worked an office job the summer before she left Carleton, she realized she needed something more exciting. “I just want to be able to have an impact and positively impact people,” she said. Coaching provided that outlet of working with kids. She realized the impact she could have on them.
She applied for Western and other schools and, once accepted, she decided to stay home for teacher’s college.
For her, teaching was about the chance to help others. “You have such an opportunity to make some kids life better,” she said. “I just think that’s super important to help them in life, even just provide opportunities to do things that they want to do.”
She did a placement in a grade five class last semester. It was eye-opening experience for her to work with kids with different personalities and learning styles. She realized the joy of seeing somebody understand a concept or learn a skill. While helping others, the experience helped her as well.
“I think I’m a relatively happy person but it’s really helped me be happier and just more grateful for my life and my experiences because not everybody gets to have these opportunities in basketball or even just in schooling,” she said.
Leblanc’s transition back into basketball at Western has provided happiness on the court as well.
“When I first decided I was going to play again, I really was not sure of it and then, second scrimmage in, it was so much fun,” she noted. “I was dying because I didn’t run all summer – like breath – but it was so much fun.”
Fun and enjoyment is at the centre of her experience. “Obviously, we’re doing well in our season but we’re doing well in our season because we’re having fun,” she said.
McKibbon adds extra enjoyment into practices through competitions and incentives. “Random little fun things,” Leblanc calls it.
“There’s no pressure,” she added. “The sole purpose is to have fun so I think [McKibbon] does a good job of balancing that and making sure everybody’s still enjoying themselves. Even though there’s a time to work hard, you can still have fun with it.”
Leblanc still has the competitive drive and push to do well but also the love for the game back as well without the pressure.
She played her first Western game – their preseason opener – against Fanshawe College on Sept. 27 in London, in front of friends and family.
“It was definitely weird putting on the Western jersey,” she said with a laugh. Teammate Madison Horst told her it was weird seeing Leblanc in Western colours. The two OUA veterans had gone up against each other numerous times over the years.
“It was odd but once we just got out there, it didn’t matter. It was about who you’re playing with. It wasn’t about the journey,” Leblanc added. “Once I got out there, I was comfortable and we played fine.”
Leblanc’s second senior’s night and finale of her university basketball career is around the corner – again.
“I’m definitely going to be very, very sad because I really like this group of girls and they’re all just such good people and I’m just so grateful to be able to have the opportunity to go play with all of them,” she said.
Leblanc said she’s “forever grateful” for her Carleton experience.
Since then, Leblanc has found her passion in teaching and coaching. She’s continued her university basketball career as it will come full circle this year at Western. Nationals is also in Ottawa, so a chance to return to Carleton awaits as well.
She’s rediscovered her happiness with the sport. “Having this experience, it really just helped me find my passion for basketball again,” she said.
In the short term, she plans to keep having fun playing basketball and finish teacher’s college. In the long term, Leblanc said it’d be exciting to play professionally or go into coaching.
“I definitely want basketball to be a part of my life, regardless of where I’m at,” she said. “Just to be able to have basketball as some aspect of my life is important to me because obviously, it’s a part of my happiness among other things and I think it’d be great.”
– Michael Sun