BURLINGTON, Ont. – It was a season for the record books for Laurier Golden Hawks’ receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. (Ottawa, Ont.) and for his efforts on the field, he has been named Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Most Valuable Player and the conference nominee for the U SPORTS Hec Crighton Trophy.
It’s no surprise that Gittens Jr.’s name can be found at the top of several statistical categories, as the First-Team All-Star on both offence and special teams was a dual-threat this year, helping the Golden Hawks to a second place finish in regular season play.
A consistent target for quarterback Michael Knevel, the third-year sociology major hauled in an OUA and U SPORTS record of 75 receptions, to go along with a nation-leading 953 receiving yards on the season. Beyond his silky smooth hands in the air, he also showcased his slick ability in the return game, which pushed his impressive all-purpose yardage total to 1,665 for the season – also leading the country – finding the endzone seven times – six receiving and one punt return.
Even without many one-on-one opportunities, Gittens Jr. battled numerous double teams to secure his MVP-type numbers. And despite the defensive presence, the 6’0” receiver remained as consistent a player as there was this season. Gittens Jr. racked up eight or more receptions in all but one of Laurier’s games, which included a total of 28 receptions and 288 yards receiving against the remaining top two OUA squads – Western and McMaster, respectively.
Gittens Jr. becomes the first Laurier MVP since 2014, when running back Dillon Campbell received the OUA honours, and the school’s fifth recipient all-time, joining the likes of Bill Kubas (1994), Ken Evraine (1987),and Jim Reid (1977).
From an offensive whiz to a defensive powerhouse, the President’s Award (Stand-Up Defensive Player) goes to Ottawa Gee-Gees DB Jackson Bennett (Cumberland, Ont.).
For an Ottawa team that relied on a strong defence throughout their season – a season that saw them, there was no greater playmaker on the Gee-Gees than Bennett. The third-year player shone across several facets of the game, collecting a team-leading 47 tackles, putting him in the OUA’s top-15 in that category, to go along with a solitary sack. His biggest moments, however, came in his ability to make big plays when his team needed them most.
A prime example of his breakout ability was in the team’s late-season win over Waterloo, wherein the First-Team Defensive All-Star came down with a late interception which he brought back for what turned out to be the game-winning major. This was one of his three interceptions on the season, to go along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Truly, Bennett made his presence felt all over the field, which even included the return game.
As one of the most diverse players the OUA has to offer, Bennett also showcased his game-changing ability as a Second-Team Special Teams All-Star. His 19 returns for 611 total yards tied him for first overall in the province, which was highlighted by an OUA-best 99-yard return this year to close out yet another late-game win over the Queen’s Gaels.
Standing tall on the line, meanwhile, was 2017 J.P. Metras (Lineman of the Year) Award winner Kene Onyeka (Brampton, Ont.) from the Carleton Ravens.
The 6’3” defensive end was a force to be reckoned with, making his impact felt in a number of ways; most notably, however, against the opposing quarterback. Onyeka got to the quarterback for an OUA-leading 10.5 sacks, while also lead the conference in tackles for a loss, picking up 12.5.
The fourth-year player wasn’t done there; however, as the engineering major also sat atop the conference with four forced fumbles to his name, showcasing an impressive and potent knack to get the ball loose and get his offence back on the field. Adding to his impressive stat line this season, Onyeka also collected 32 solo tackles on the year and added 14 of the assisted variety, and rounded out his efforts with a pair of pass break-ups.
Not only is this an impressive achievement for the First-Team Defensive All-Star, but for the Ravens program altogether, as this marks the first time that a Carleton representative earns the J.P. Metras Award honours.
While the Western Mustangs were one of the of the most dominant teams on the field across the country this season, one of their student-athletes has also made his mark beyond the gridiron, as Nicolas Vanin (London, Ont.) has been named the OUA’s Russ Jackson Award nominee for exemplifying the attributes of academic achievement, football skill, and citizenship.
Not only does Vanin shine on the field, earning First-Team All-Star honours in back-to-back years, but off of it as well thanks to his kind, loyal, and hard-working nature. Having already graduated from Western’s Physiology program with a 91.3% average, Vanin is currently in his first year of Medical School. Putting his intelligence and passion into action, the fifth-year linebacker is also a Researcher at the Victoria Research Laboratories, Centre for Critical Illness Research.
His community involvement doesn’t stop there; however, as Vanin has also taken part in numerous football and sport related activities – including the London Jr. Mustangs Football Club, Western Football Mentorship Program (which he created), and BMO Sports Day, to name a few – as well as a number of other realms that include the Women’s Community House and Sexual Assault Centre, Ronald McDonald House, and Andrew’s Legacy Fundraiser.
The multiple-time Academic All-Canadian has been a true standout in the realm of athletics, academics, and community, and the deserving recipient becomes the first Russ Jackson Award Nominee for the Western Mustangs in school history.
From a veteran standout to a budding first-year star, the Norm Marshall Rookie of the Year Award for 2017 is Waterloo Warriors’ Tre Ford (Niagara Falls, Ont.).
The freshman quarterback was a leading charge for the Waterloo offence, which proved to be one of the most potent in the entire conference. Despite not technically being a starter, the Recreation & Leisure student-athlete thrived in the team’s platoon system and proved to be one of the OUA’s most dynamic and entertaining talents.
In his seven games this season, Ford collected 673 passing yards on a 66.7% completion rate – throwing for over 9 yards per attempt – while also picking up another 717 yards on the ground on 77 rushes, all culminating in 10 TDs on the campaign. Rounding out his eye-catching first season, Ford also saw a brief appearance as a kicker, punting once for 65 yards.
Ford’s Rookie of the Year nod is the second such award for his program, joining 2008 recipient Jordan Verdone – who proceeded to receive the U SPORTS Peter Gorman Trophy - and his dynamic rookie campaign shows that the future is looking bright for the upstart Warriors squad.
Another reason that Waterloo was a team to watch this season – and moving forward – is head coach Chris Bertoia, who is the recipient of the 2017 Coach of the Year Award.
Bertoia, who is no stranger to OUA accolades, having earned All-Star honours in his playing days for the Warriors, made the most of his third season at the helm of his Alma mater. The two-time Yates Cup champion, who was formerly the lead assistant with the Western Mustangs, helped his team secure the biggest turnaround this season.
After two disappointing seasons for the Warriors, where they failed to pick up a win in their 16 combined games, Bertoia helped the Warriors come out of the gates ready and able in 2017. The team began the season with a sharp 4-0 record, highlighted by their nail-biting 45-43 victory over 2016 OUA semifinalist Carleton Ravens. Despite not being able to secure a playoff berth, falling just shy of the sixth and final playoff spot, it was a significant step forward for the Warriors across the board.
Waterloo finished third in the OUA in points per game (37.4) and their 493.4 yards per game was good enough for fourth. Their unparalleled, dual-threat quarterback platoon was managed to perfection, to the tune of the team ranking second in both passing TDs (19) and rushing yards per game (212.8).
In earning the Dave “Tuffy” Knight Award for Coach of the Year, Bertoia becomes just the second winner from Waterloo in program history, joining the elite company of the award’s namesake himself (Dave Knight, 1989).
Yet another individual who made an impact on his team from the sidelines is this year’s Volunteer Coach of the Year – Paul Gleason from the University of Western Ontario.
Gleason, the team’s second major award winner for 2017, serves as the Defensive Coordinator for the top-ranked Mustangs and represents the only part-time individual in such a role across the OUA. Working as a high-school teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas, the London, Ont. native spends countless hours preparing the team’s defensive game plan and implementing it during team practices; something that has translated into great on-field success. In 2017, Western led the OUA in yards allowed per game (288) and total points allowed (105).
It is clear where Gleason’s passions lie, as the award winner is even completing a book on the history of Mustang football, but his two decade involvement with Western is not the full story. Prior to his now five year stint in his current role with Western (and his additional roles with the team since 1998), Gleason served as a high-school football coach in London, as well as head coach for the London Senior Bowl All-Star Team – a game that he co-founded more than 20 years ago.
The final award, which for 2017 will be renamed the Ken Green OUA Football Officials Award of Merit goes to Kevin Horton who has been involved in OUA football since 2007.
A career that started in 1988, Kevin is perhaps the only official in history who has worked at the CIS level for 3 different conferences – Atlantic, Quebec and Ontario. Known as a student of the game, Kevin is constantly looking at game films to find teaching points. His willingness to share his materials and insight is appreciated by his peers. One of the highlights of his officiating career was working an OUA game with his son, Tobin, in 2012.
Notable achievements in the distinguished career of Kevin, who was the recipient of this same award in 2015, include serving previously as President of the Eastern Ontario Tackle Football Officials’ Association and Eastern Regional Director of Ontario FOA; serving as current President of the OUAFOA; and serving as Head Official for key games that include the 2016 Yates Cup, 2016 Panda Game, and the 2012 Mitchell Bowl.
The complete list of OUA football major award recipients is as follows:
Most Valuable Player – Kurleigh Gittens Jr., Laurier Golden Hawks
President’s Trophy (Outstanding Stand-Up Defensive Player) – Jackson Bennett, uOttawa Gee-Gees
J.P. Metras Trophy (Lineman of the Year) – Kene Onyeka, Carleton Ravens
Norm Marshall Trophy (Rookie of the Year) – Tre Ford, Waterloo Warriors
David “Tuffy” Knight Award (Coach of the Year) – Chris Bertoia, Waterloo Warriors
Russ Jackson Award Nominee – Nicolas Vanin, Western University
Volunteer Coach of the Year – Paul Gleason, Western University
Ken Green OUA Football Officials Award of Merit – Kevin Horton