ETOBICOKE, Ont. — If you’re reading this, it’s not too late.
While we’re still looking back on an incredible 2019-20 season, one that had no shortage of excitement across both U Sports and the CCAA, it’s also the perfect time to look ahead.
The 2020-21 season is going to be one for the history books. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the season has been pushed back until at least January 2021 for most leagues, with Quebec as the exception. The RSEQ has yet to make a decision on whether or not to delay sports until the Winter semester.
To get fans across the country ready for the new season, we’ve taken on a challenge that hasn’t been done before. In the coming weeks, we will preview every team from coast to coast ahead of the 2020-21 season.
That’s 112 different programs, if you’re keeping a tally at home.
We are attempting to preview each and every team from coast to coast ahead of the new season. Challenges have emerged in each of the last two seasons as we’ve attempted this feat before, but we’re going to give it another run.
As they say, third time’s the charm. Right?
For institutions that have both men’s and women’s basketball, a separate preview piece will be done for each team.
Rosters will be dissected and a look back at the year that was will help us determine what the team looks like this time around as every team begins with a blank slate in the standings.
Without further adieu, here is today’s preview for the Humber Hawks women’s basketball program.
2019-20 in Review
The Humber Hawks are no strangers when it comes to success in the OCAA, especially in recent years.
At the beginning of the decade, the Algonquin Thunder reigned supreme in the league, winning four straight provincial titles. Then, when the 2014-15 season came around, the Hawks rose to the top and matched the Thunder’s run of four straight league championships.
From the 2014-15 season through to the 2017-18 campaign, the Hawks were the team to beat, not only in the OCAA, but the CCAA as a whole.
Over the four-year stretch, Humber had four OCAA Championships and two CCAA National Championships to their name. Led by Ceejay Nofuente, one of the greatest players to ever suit up in CCAA history, the Hawks were the premier team in Canada over that four-year stretch.
As is the case with everything in life, all good things must come to an end at some point. Humber’s run of OCAA Championships came to a halt in 2018-19 when the Fanshawe Falcons brought home the Gold Medal. In fact, Humber didn’t bring home a medal that season, which added more fuel to the fire for the 2019-20 season.
This past season, led by a core group of veterans and an up-and-coming star in the back court, the Hawks continued their regular season dominance in the OCAA West Division. Humber finished tied with Fanshawe atop the standings with a 17-1 record, but took home the West Division title thanks to the tiebreaker.
Their lone losses came against one another. Humber knocked off the Falcons at home back on November 6th, 2019, 86-81. Fanshawe returned the favour, picking up a 101-98 overtime win on their home floor on January 25th, 2020, in what could have been the Game of the Year (if that was an award).
Humber closed the regular season with a thrilling 64-63 win over the Sheridan Bruins, on a buzzer-beating layup from Amber Bechard (Tecumseh, Ont.) to send the Humber players and fans into a frenzy. It helped secure their West Division Championship, and it gave them an extra boost of momentum as they set their sights on the post-season and making another run at the OCAA Championship.
After rolling in the OCAA Crossover Game, the Hawks made their way to St. Clair College for the 2020 OCAA Women’s Basketball Championship. They opened up the tournament with another win over the Bruins, this time by a more comfortable margin. The Hawks outscored Sheridan by a 45-23 margin in the first half, and they rode that momentum to an 85-66 victory.
In the semifinals, the Hawks had their hands full with the host St. Clair Saints. It was a back-and-forth game from the start, with neither team gaining much separation on the scoreboard. Tied at 49-all after three quarters, it was truly anyone’s game to win.
For the Hawks, it wasn’t their day to come out on top.
Logan Kucera completed an and-one play with 1:15 left on the clock to give the Saints a three-point lead, and the Hawks weren’t able to take the lead in the final minute. St. Clair advanced back to the Gold Medal Game for the second year in a row with a hard-fought 66-65 win over the Hawks, sending Humber to the Bronze Medal game.
After being held without a medal the previous year, the Hawks were determined to come away with the Bronze this time around. It was a match-up of two programs who dominated the OCAA landscape for most of the decade, as Humber squared off with Algonquin in a battle of first-place teams in their respective divisions.
Humber led by 11 at the break, 41-30. The Thunder proved that they could hang with the best in the West, erasing the 11-point halftime deficit to take their own one-point lead into the final frame. However, the Hawks wouldn’t be held without a medal for the second year in a row. Humber outscored Algonquin by a 19-10 margin down the stretch, bringing home the Bronze Medal with a 68-60 victory over the Thunder.
For the Hawks, the Bronze Medal gives them six OCAA medals in the last eight years (four Gold, two Bronze).
Head Coach Ajay Sharma looked back on the season that was, and said that given how everything played out over the course of the year, the year helped put things into focus for the Hawks moving forward.
“I feel last season helped us re-frame our goals and what we need to do to be able to get back to what a Championship team needs to do,” said Sharma, who completed his ninth season at the helm for the Hawks. “Coming in as a young team, we knew that we had to develop sustainability as a team through a long season.”
The Hawks had a pair of first-year student-athletes on their roster, and three players who were in their second year of eligibility. Even with their core group of veterans, there was still some growth to be had within the program, even though the results on the outside may have said otherwise.
Eleven of Humber’s 18 wins were by at least 10 points. They had to work down the stretch, as each of their last three wins were by seven points or less. Humber took down the Lambton Lions by five, St. Clair by seven, and Sheridan by just a single point to close the regular season. Chalk it up to some tired legs down the stretch, which is where that sustainability piece comes in from Coach Sharma.
However, they found a way to get the job done against three of the top teams in the West Division, and that momentum helped carry them to the Bronze Medal.
Looking ahead to the 2020-21 season, the Hawks will be without some familiar faces in the lineup whenever the season gets underway. There will be some new faces, and some old faces in new places on the Hawks’ roster and in the rotation, but you can bet that they’ll be ready to make another run at the OCAA Championship.
With the ever-changing situation surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic, and its effect on school enrollment for the Fall semester and beyond, speculating what the 2020-21 roster could look like for the Hawks is about the best we can do at this point.
We know for sure that two players will not be back with the program in 2020-21 due to graduating at the end of last season. The Hawks will be without the services of Jahnae Gyles (Mississauga, Ont.) and the aforementioned Amber Bechard.
“Both of these players were fundamental to our team’s success as a program,” added Sharma when asked about their impact on the program. “Their talents will be missed, and their leadership.”
Gyles capped off her Humber career with an all-star calibre season in 2019-20. She was named an OCAA West Division Second Team All-Star after averaging 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 42.3% from the field, 35.5% from three-point range, and 75.0% from the free throw line in 18 regular season games.
The Hawks will be in tough to replace Gyles moving forward. On offense, she was about as steady and effective as they come. She recorded double-digit points in 16 of her 18 regular season contests this past season, but Gyles brings far more to the table than just a steady offensive approach.
Known as a high-energy guard and a leader in the locker room and on the court, those are the things that the Hawks will have a challenge replacing. Anything that shows up on the box score can be replaced much easier than the traits and habits that make players who they are.
Amber Bechard made her return to the Hawks in 2019-20 after a two-year hiatus from the program. The veteran guard came back for her fifth and final year of eligibility after an exciting two years away from the game. Bechard completed her Bachelor of Studies and Sports Science from the University of the West of England during the 2017-18 season, and the year after she welcomed her son, Mason, into the World.
Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and Bechard was the second fifth-year player on the roster alongside Gyles. The Tecumseh, Ontario native averaged 5.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per game while playing in all 18 games during the regular season.
She saved her best moment for last, and closed out her home career in a way that most kids grow up practicing in their driveway. Against Sheridan, Bechard beat the buzzer with a layup to give the Hawks a 64-63 win over their biggest rivals. The bucket sent the fans and Humber bench into a frenzy, and the win secured the West Division title for Humber.
What better way to go out for Bechard?
After Gyles and Bechard, any further departures are up in the air. Both graduating players leave holes in the roster that will need to be filled, but they also present a ‘next woman up’ situation for the returnees and incoming recruits.
Like most schools and programs all across Canada, Humber is awaiting the start of the school year to confirm who will be back and who may be taking a year off given the remote learning offering as opposed to in-person classes. With only Gyles and Bechard confirmed to be gone, the Hawks could return the bulk of their talent in 2020-21 that will be hungry to get back to the OCAA Championship game.
Leading the way in terms of potential returnees is veteran power forward Miea Campbell-Johnson (Brampton, Ont.). Last season, Campbell-Johnson was once again one of the league’s best, regardless of position, and she was named an OCAA West Division First Team All-Star for her efforts on the floor, joining Gyles in terms of All-Star recognition.
Over the course of the regular season, Campbell-Johnson averaged 14.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. She shot 47.2% from the field and 80.0% from the free throw line. On offense, she was one of the league’s more consistent scorers, reaching double-figures in 16 of 18 regular season games while not being held below eight points in any game.
Campbell-Johnson finished 10th in the OCAA in terms of rebounds per game and 18th in terms of points per game. She racked up five double-doubles over the course of the season, including three straight to close the regular season. It’s no secret that Campbell-Johnson is one of the premier forwards in the OCAA, and she will be looking to help the Hawks get back to the OCAA Gold Medal game as a fifth-year forward in 2020-21.
In the back court, the Hawks have a future All-Star on their hands, one who played like anything but a first-year guard in 2019-20. Kia Watt (Jane and Finch, Ont.) had herself a stellar first season with the Hawks last season, showing poise well beyond her years. For her efforts on the floor, she was named to the OCAA West Division All-Rookie Team.
Watt showed that she can do a little bit of everything last season. She posted a stat line of 13.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game over her 15 appearances. Watt shot 41.9% from the field, 30.7% from beyond the arc, and an even 70.0% from the free throw line. In terms of offense, she reached double-figures in 12 of her 15 games, and had three games with 20+ points.
Arguably the most impressive stat from Watt’s first season was her ability to take care of the ball. In eight of her 15 regular season games, she had an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1:1. As a first-year guard playing in the tough OCAA West Division, to take care of the ball that well is something to note.
IAlongside Watt in the Hawks’ back court is veteran point guard Felicia Velasquez (Brampton, Ont.). Velasquez is one of the country’s better facilitators at the one-spot, and she led the OCAA with 5.8 assists per game last season. In fact, she dished out at least five assists in 11 of Humber’s 18 regular season contests. Velasquez also chipped in 5.8 points and pulled down 6.7 rebounds per contest.
Rounding out the core group of returnees is a trio that all played key minutes for the Hawks during the 2019-20 season. Shooting guard Ivana Twumasi (Jane and Finch, Ont.) was one of four Hawks to average double-digit points per game last season. She averaged 12.5 points per game on 40.4% shooting, while also pulling down 4.3 rebounds.
Guard Brittney English (Toronto, Ont.) averaged 7.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest in 17 regular season games, while fellow guard Teija Wareham (Brampton, Ont.) added 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds of her own in 13 regular season appearances.
Humber had 10 players on last year’s roster that appeared in at least 12 games, and eight of those players are projected to be back in the mix in 2020-21, giving the team a wealth of experience in the process. Three players (Campbell-Johnson, Velasquez, and Jessica Daniel) will be fifth-year student-athletes should they return, plus a handful of fourth-year and third-year players right behind them.
Experience wins in collegiate basketball, and if the roster plays out as we’ve speculated, Humber will have that in Spades.
Again, most of the roster chatter is speculation until at least September when the Fall Semester has begun and students are back in class. Even with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, Head Coach Ajay Sharma feels as though the group will be one to keep an eye on.
“At this point, with what’s happening with COVID, we’re not sure who will be back or who won’t be back,” continued Sharma. “But, we still believe we have a good new group of players coming in that will compliment the returnees from our team last year and make us contenders.”
If Humber’s returning group didn’t have enough experience, their recruiting class will only add to the level of experience and leadership within the group.
As of August 4th, the recruiting class for Sharma and the Hawks sits at two confirmed names. With the pandemic having its affect on enrollments, it remains to be seen whether or not the program will add anymore talent to the mix ahead of the season.
However, the two names they have added to the mix already are two that will look to make an impact, both now and into the future.
Humber has added one U Sports transfer to the roster, and one true first-year guard.
Guard Jasmin Onate (Mississauga, Ont.) comes to the Hawks by way of Brampton Basketball, and will look to help bolster the back court, both in 2020-21 as a first-year player and into the future as her career unfolds. The addition of Onate adds even more depth to the Humber back court rotation.
Sharma has also added former Lakehead Thunderwolves guard Nikki Ylagan (Mississauga, Ont.) to the fold for the 2020-21 season. Ylagan completed her four-year career at Lakehead University in 2019-20, and will play her fifth and final year of eligibility as a member of the Hawks.
It’s important to note that eligibility may not be consumed this year, so Ylagan could very well be in the mix for Humber for two seasons as opposed to just one.
This past season with the Thunderwolves, Ylagan averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game while appearing in all 22 games. She ranked second on the team in scoring, trailing only Sofia Lluch (14.1 ppg). Over the last two season, Ylagan has started all 46 regular season games, adding some more sustainability and durability to the roster in the process.
When asked about the additions of both Onate and Ylagan, Sharma is looking forward to getting them acclimated and into a Humber uniform, especially with the losses of Gyles and Bechard.
“Their work ethic and their ability to compete is going to increase intensity in our practices and make everyone else around them better,” said Sharma. “Skill set aside, I think what is great about these two individuals coming in is that they also bring a level of leadership and understanding of what it takes to be a Championship team.”
Sharma and his staff know that the 2020-21 season is going to be unique to say the very least, and they’re making sure everyone will be ready when the time comes.
“As far as the late start, it really is a mystery for us as it is everyone else,” concluded Sharma. “We just have to take it one day, one week, one month at a time and try not to lose focus of what our goals are once the season does come back.”
With six medals over the last eight seasons, including a pair of CCAA Women’s Basketball National Championships, the last two seasons without the Hawks in the OCAA Championship Game has been a weird sight. As Sharma said, the 2019-20 season allowed for them to re-frame their goals in an attempt to get back to doing the things that a Championship team does.
A re-focused and motivated Humber program may not bode well for the rest of the OCAA whenever the 2020-21 season does get underway.
They’re coming for their title back.
Be sure to bookmark our 2020-21 Season Previews page to keep up with the previews as they are released online.
– T. Bennett