Varsity Blues Stafford, Thomson headline 2019-20 Honour Awards with Athlete of the Year nods

Varsity Blues Stafford, Thomson headline 2019-20 Honour Awards with Athlete of the Year nods

Burlington, Ont. (by David DiCenzo) – It’s the time of year when Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and its member schools usually gather to honour the best student-athletes, coaches, and teams in the conference. While the challenge we all face together means an extravagant event isn’t possible, the OUA is still extremely pleased to announce the 2019-20 OUA Honour Award winners for their incredible accomplishments in competition on the various fields of play.

Each OUA season produces memorable performances and these elite players, coaches, and teams did not disappoint in one of the most demanding university sports environments in the country. In the case of the two conference Athletes of the Year, meanwhile, their conference honours position them as nominees for the Lieutenant Governor Athletics Awards, to be held on June 25th.

Female Athlete of the Year – Lucia Stafford, Cross Country/Track and Field, Toronto Varsity Blues

It can be tough to follow in the footsteps of successful family members, but Lucia Stafford (Toronto, Ont.) has earned her place among the greats of the Toronto Varsity Blues track and field program. Like her sister Gabriela, her father James, and aunt Sara Gardner, Stafford has proudly worn the Blues’ colours, as well as the red and white for Canada. It was on international duty at the 2019 FISU Universiade in Naples, Italy last summer where Stafford offered a glimpse of what lay ahead during the OUA and U SPORTS seasons. The fourth-year engineering student had fifth-place finishes in the 1500m race and 4x400m relay against the best collegiate athletes in the world – and she brought that momentum home with her.

Stafford had some great results during both the cross country and track and field seasons, including producing two Canadian U23 records in BU’s Bruce Lehande Scarlet & White Invitational (1500m) and the David Hemery Valentine Invitational (1000m). Like all of the greats, she saved her best for championship season. Stafford stood out amongst all Canadian cross country runners, winning individual gold in both the OUA and U SPORTS Championships by six and 14 seconds, respectively, en route to earning MVP and All-Star honours at both levels. She also excelled on the track, sweeping gold in the U SPORTS 1000m and 1500m events, adding a silver as part of Toronto’s 4x800m relay team, and a bronze with the 4x400m quartet.

These are incredible accomplishments for any athlete, but they are that much more inspiring given that Stafford suffers from Graves Disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid. It hasn’t stopped her from becoming a champion runner, as well as a pillar of the community. Stafford puts the same relentless effort into volunteering with Light the Night (a cancer fundraiser), serving breakfast at the Lawyers Feed the Hungry event, and her work with Free the Children, where she organizes food and toy drives.

“I’m so incredibly honoured and grateful to be receiving this award,” Stafford said in a video acceptance speech to the OUA. “The 2019-20 season was an amazing year for so many outstanding athletes in all sports. I feel very lucky that I was able to go out there and compete at my best, have a blast, and do what I love, both on the track and on the course. None of that would have been possible without the amazing support system behind me – my incredible coaches, who always encourage me to be my best on and off the track, my amazing teammates, who are always inspiring and are like my family, and the amazing resources at U of T.

“I hope everyone is staying motivated, safe, and healthy in these times and I look forward to seeing you next year. Bleed blue!”

Male Athlete of the Year – David Thomson, Hockey, Toronto Varsity Blues

The Toronto Varsity Blues are the most prolific hockey program in OUA history and they came back to prominence this past season, thanks in part to the talented David Thomson (Vaughan, Ont.). The second-year forward and psychology/criminology major had an incredible season on the ice, lifting the Blues to their best conference finish in almost 40 years after topping the OUA’s West division. Thomson gave opponents fits, finishing second in conference scoring with 40 points (17 goals, good for third in the OUA, with 23 assists, fifth in the league). He topped his team in each of those categories and showed a particularly special touch on the power play, scoring an OUA-best seven goals with the man advantage.

Thomson’s scoring, which include multi-point efforts in 12 games, was critical to Toronto’s success. They went 21-5-2 during the regular season to match the program’s best-ever win total, led the league with 125 goals, produced an incredible 14-game win streak, and reached as high as No. 3 in the U SPORTS rankings. Those seven power-play goals buoyed a unit that led the entire country with a 30.8 per cent success rate. And by the end of the season, Thomson began to rack up the accolades that he had earned with his stellar play. He was named the OUA West Most Valuable Player, became the first Varsity Blues player to earn First Team All-Canadian honours since the 1992-93 season, and is also the first OUA Male Athlete of the Year from U of T since Kevin Hamlin won the award in 1985-86.

Thomson had a similar influence on his Canadian teammates when he donned the red and white at the 2019 FISU Winter Universiade in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. He scored four goals and added two assists at the tournament, helping Canada to a bronze medal.

“I want to thank the OUA for this award,” said Thomson. “We have so many great athletes around the OUA that it truly is an honour to be chosen as Athlete of the Year. I also wanted to thank everybody involved with the Varsity Blues, right from the athletic department down to my teammates and coaches. They made this year unforgettable and I’m truly grateful for that. Finally, I just wanted to thank my family for all the support they’ve shown me over my career. It’s really brought me to where I am today in my life and I’m very thankful.”

Female Team of the Year – Brock Badgers, Basketball

The Critelli Cup is the ultimate prize for all OUA women’s basketball teams. But the trophy means even more to the Brock Badgers, where the legendary Chris Critelli called home. The Badgers had never lifted that specific hardware entering the 2019-2020 season and though the journey was difficult and intense, the team finally earned the Holy Grail they were so desperate for.

It’s been an inspirational ascent for a program that finished just 6-24 two years ago. Under head coach Michael Rao, the Badgers produced a stellar 22-6 record this season, coming back from half-time deficits in 11 of those victories. They started the campaign in excellent fashion, rattling off wins in nine of the first 10 games, with the nucleus of senior Melissa Tatti and junior Samantha Keltos providing a dangerous one-two punch. Brock then pulled off a signature win by defeating the No. 1-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees 69-63 in the nation’s capital, proving they had the firepower to compete with the best teams in the country.

That ability to overturn deficits was critical once the Critelli Cup playoffs kicked off. Brock shocked the Windsor Lancers after trailing by 19 points in the fourth quarter to win 61-57 in a classic performance at the Bob Davis Gymnasium. They were in a similar situation four days later in London when they were down 12 points in the fourth quarter of the OUA semifinal to the Western Mustangs. The Badgers did it again, pulling off a memorable 69-65 win on the road.

On Saturday, February 29, the dream for every player, coach, staff member, alum, and fan of Brock Badgers women’s basketball came true. The team was dominant in knocking off the Ryerson Rams in Toronto, taking the Critelli Cup for the first time in school history.

Brock wasn’t satisfied; however, and the season was far from done. The Badgers squeaked by the Calgary Dinos 72-71 in the U SPORTS quarterfinal and then beat the UPEI Panthers 69-55 in the semi for the program’s first berth in the national championship gold medal game. While they were unable to cut the nets down again after losing 82-64 to the Saskatchewan Huskies, the Badgers were filled with pride after the best season in school history. Tatti and Keltos were named to the tournament’s All-Star Team, while Coach Rao won both Coach of the Year at both the OUA and U SPORTS levels.

“On behalf of the Brock women’s basketball team, we would like to thank the OUA for this award,” said Tatti, the conference Player of the Year and First Team All-Canadian, who also established Brock’s all-time records for most career points (1,458), most three-pointers (201), most assists (423), most steals (303), and most games started (99).

“Thank you Brock Sports Performance staff, our athletic therapists, and student trainers who prepared and helped us all season,” said Keltos.

“We would also like to thank our entire coaching staff for the countless number of hours they invest into our team every single day,” added junior guard Kristin Gallant.

“Lastly, we would like to thank our friends, family, and dedicated Brock Badger fans for all of their support,” said senior Jessica Morris. “We could not have done this without you.”

Male Team of the Year – Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, Curling

Perfection. It’s almost impossible to attain. But the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks capped off an astonishing 2019-20 season with a championship performance for the ages. After already earning OUA gold, the Hawks went to the U SPORTS/Curling Canada Championships and ran the table on their way to a second national title in the past five years and the first with coach Matt Wilkinson leading the way.

Laurier seemed destined for greatness in a year in which they went 26-3 overall. The pieces were all there, including alternate Adam Vincent, OUA All-Star Jordie Lyon-Hatcher, and eventual U SPORTS First Team All-Canadians in skip Matthew Hall, lead Graham Singer, and vice John Willsey. That strong core led the Hawks to a 9-1 record at the OUA Championship and another banner for the decorated program.

It was off to Portage La Prairie, Man. for the national event from there, and Laurier, knowing they possessed the ability to persevere and fight through tough situations, breezed through the round robin component of the tournament with a spotless 7-0 record. After another win the in the semifinal, the Hawks showed hunger early in the final against the Dalhousie Tigers. They put up three in a massive second end and then put added pressure on Dalhousie with steals of one in both the third and fourth ends. The Tigers never recovered and Laurier took the final match 8-5 for a well-earned championship after nine consecutive wins that week.

The victory also means that Laurier will represent Team Canada at the 2021 FISU Winter Universiade in Switzerland next January.

“Obviously, we strive for excellence and medals and banners at Laurier, that is one of our mottos,” said Coach Wilkinson. “It is nice to bring another banner home.”

“My teammates and I are super honoured and humbled to be named the OUA Male Team of the Year,” added Willsey. “We had a long, gruelling season and it’s exciting to be recognized with such a prestigious honour among some great schools and great teams. So thank you. And we hope everyone is staying safe.”

“On behalf of Laurier, our head coach Matt Wilkinson, and the rest of the Laurier curling program, we would like to extend a huge thank you to the OUA and everyone involved in the selection of the Men’s Team of the Year,” Hall said. “With so many incredible programs out there, it’s really such an honour to be nominated and to actually be chosen as the recipient is quite humbling. We all feel incredibly proud to get the recognition for all the hard work that we put in this year. So thank you once again to everyone involved. We look forward to representing Laurier, the OUA, and Canada at the Universiade next year.”

Female Coach of the Year – Vicky Sunohara, Women’s Hockey, Toronto Varsity Blues

Her name is synonymous with success. Vicky Sunohara has been a part of winning hockey programs for decades and has the hardware to prove it, including two Olympic golds and 18 total medals after representing the powerhouse Canadian national team from 1989 to 2008. The hockey legend has brought that sterling reputation and years of experience to the University of Toronto, bringing the program to new heights in the 2019-2020 season.

With Sunohara on the bench, the Varsity Blues finished the campaign lifting the coveted McCaw Cup for the Blues’ first championship since 2002-03 and first on her OUA résumé. Toronto did it against in-town rival York no less, defeating the Lions 3-1 on March 6 at the historic Varsity Arena.

The Blues were on track for a rewarding campaign after topping the OUA with a 17-4-1-2 record, eight points ahead of the second-place Nipissing Lakers. That marked the team’s best finish since Sunohara took the program over in 2011 after serving as the director of women’s hockey at The Hill Academy the two previous years. Her team was a force in the conference. They did it at both ends of the ice, allowing an anemic 31 goals against (13 fewer than the next-closest team), while also producing the top-ranked powerplay (20.2 per cent) and penalty-killing (91.1 per cent) units.

The abundance of skill was needed come playoff time and Sunohara’s big-game experience apparently had an impact on a team that refused to lose. The Blues swept the defending national champion Guelph Gryphons in two straight overtime contests, and then after dropping the first of the OUA semifinal best-of-three, they took out the Ryerson Rams with two more extra-session wins, including a 4-3 double-OT classic in Game 2. That set up the battle with York, where Toronto won the banner.

The face of the program went on to win both the OUA and U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Coach of the Year awards, adding to an already stocked trophy case.

After winning the McCaw Cup and coaching awards, Sunohara’s career at the University of Toronto has come full circle. She began her own collegiate career with two seasons on a scholarship at Northeastern University before coming to join the Varsity Blues program. Sunohara took Rookie of the Year honours in the 1990-91 season and won two OWIAA championships before making her name on the Canadian national team, where she served as assistant captain for seven years and scored 56 goals with 62 assists in 164 games.

She ultimately earned a U of T bachelor’s degree in physical health education.

“It is quite an honour as there are so many amazing OUA coaches in the OUA,” said Coach Sunohara. “I know because I coach against some of them. I’m super excited to be able to share this with my assistant coaches, team, and the entire Varsity Blues staff at the University of Toronto. I work with such an amazing group and I’m so fortunate for that. Lastly, I’d like to thank my family for all of their support, their cheers, and for allowing me to do what I love to do. Be safe and well, everyone.”

“This award is a testament to the commitment and hard work of Vicky and her staff in building a program of excellence on and off the ice,” said Beth Ali, U of T's Executive Director of Athletics and Physical Activity. “This year's team put together an incredible run this season and we're proud of their accomplishments.”

Male Coach of the Year – Michael Rao, Women’s Basketball, Brock Badgers

Michael Rao has dedicated his life to the game of basketball. Rao, a Welland, Ont. native with 32 years of high-school teaching experience, has spent the past four decades growing the game as a coach. And on a winter afternoon this past February in Toronto, he was able to experience the heights of what all competitors strive for – a galvanizing championship.

Rao joined the Brock Badgers basketball program four seasons ago. A multi-sport athlete who excelled in both soccer and hoops, he brought an injection of energy to a program trying to achieve success. The turnaround began last season, Rao’s first at the helm of the women’s team. In the 2017-18 campaign, the Badgers won just six games, but the rookie coach doubled that to 12 in his debut. With a core that included the sharpshooting Tatti and talented Keltos, the prospects for Rao’s Brock team were looking up heading into the 2019-2020 season, eight years removed from the school’s last OUA quarterfinal appearance.

The Badgers certainly fulfilled that promise, establishing the program’s best-ever record at 22-6 and capping it with a huge 84-71 win over the Ryerson Rams in the Critelli Cup final. That victory avenged an 81-66 loss to the Rams a month earlier but more importantly, gave the school its first conference banner since the 1982-83 season and first title since the trophy was renamed in honour of the legendary Brock coach Chris Critelli. The Badgers added a U SPORTS silver medal after an excellent run at nationals.

The success offered perspective on the sheer will Rao has been able to instill in his players. They refused to quit throughout their season, routinely turning around games they had trailed at the half. In the OUA quarter and semifinal games against Windsor and Western, they were on the verge of elimination each time, but dug deep to overcome big fourth-quarter deficits and stay alive. Under Rao, Tatti, Keltos, and the rest of the team blossomed, winning a championship that was truly earned.

“I am personally humbled by the nomination and the support of Brock University and the OUA in being considered for this coaching award,” says Coach Rao, who was also named the U SPORTS Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year. “It was an amazing season for everyone involved with our team. The players and I will carry the memories of this year with us for a lifetime.”

The complete list of 2019-20 OUA Honour Awards winners is below:

Female Athlete of the Year – Lucia Stafford, Toronto Varsity Blues

Male Athletes of the Year – David Thomson, Toronto Varsity Blues

Female Teams of the Year – Brock Badgers, Basketball

Male Team of the Year – Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, Curling

Female Coach of the Year – Vicky Sunohara, Toronto Varsity Blues

Male Coach of the Year – Michael Rao, Brock Badgers

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