Beyond the arc

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WEB-Nayo-Mark Burnham

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe was a force in all aspects of the game this year

By Jade Richardson
Photos by Mark Burnham

Growing up in Toronto, a young Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe was always the tallest kid in her classes at school. It was her height that led to her picking up basketball in third grade, and her passion and love of the sport has grown ever since.

Now as a senior at Simon Fraser University, the first International school to become a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Raincock-Ekunwe has made a name for herself and her team in the United States and in the basketball world.

In her final season with the SFU Clan, the 6’2” forward has broken two Great Northwest Athletic Conference records and led the Clan women to season-high sixth-place national ranking. At the end of 2012 she broke the conference record for most rebounds in a game with
24 against Trinity Western University and in early 2013 she broke the conference record for career double-doubles with 49, despite only having been in the conference for three years.

With the senior leading her squad, the SFU women advanced to a historic sweet-16 finish in the NCAA National tournament, earning GNAC and West Region runner-up spots along the way.

Raincock-Ekunwe, who averaged 16.8 points per game in her final season, topped the NCAA Div. II field goal percentage rankings for most of 2013, with a 65.1 shooting percentage in her final year. She was also the GNAC leader in rebounds, averaging 12.4 each game, and was fourth in the nation in that category.

The success she had in her senior season seems natural to many people, but the soft-spoken athlete confessed that she has put in a lot of work to get this far. “In my first year at SFU it was a big change. Going from the best player on your high school team to a more secondary position was hard for me. I was able to take it a little bit easy.”

After her freshman year, however, the Clan lost their core group of seniors to NCAA eligibility rules — the CIS allowed athletes five years of competition, but the NCAA only allowed four — so in her sophomore year her role changed again. “I knew that I had to step up my game and put a lot more work in during my second season. I didn’t do as much as I should have as a freshman because I knew I wouldn’t play much, but I became a starter a year later so I had to push myself to improve my game.”

The Clan’s head coach Bruce Langford agrees that her progress has been outstanding, and that the work she put in over the years has truly paid off. “When she came in as a rookie she was an amazing athlete, that is certainly true, but she lacked focus and was not motivated to reach higher. Since that time she has become more and more committed and much more skilled on the court. She is always looking to maximize her potential.”

And the natural-born athlete is looking to be her best in all facets of her collegiate experience, including in the classroom, though that has been a journey as well.

“School came ver y easy to me in high school, and I thought it would be the same at university,” she explained. “I was wrong and my grades suffered as a freshman, so I have been working ever since to improve my GPA and step up my academics. SFU has very high academic standards, so while it can be difficult at times, I never want anything to come too easily to me. I’m glad I’ve had those challenges.”

Teammate Carla Wyman, who has played with RaincockEkunwe since the age of 17, says that watching her friend grow as a player and a person has been extremely special. “She has all this raw athleticism, and now that she is really focusing on becoming a better technical player, her talent is unreal. She works extremely hard in practice, and cares so much about the game and the team that the rest of us can’t help but care.”

At the end of her collegiate career Raincock-Ekunwe holds
12 GNAC records, an outstanding feat, but one that does not define her. “Nayo is a great example and leader for the younger players,” continued Langford. “She leads by example and demonstrates her commitment through her actions.”

She also picked up numerous honours in her final season, being voted a Daktronics second-team All-American; the first basketball All-American by an athlete from a non-American school. She was also the 2013 GNAC Player of the Year, and was named a first-team All-star in both the GNAC and the West Region.

Despite all the success, Raincock-Ekunwe has also had to overcome some adversity in her career, missing out on competing for the Pan American and FISU teams that she made because of appendicitis. “She handled her return following that disappointment very well,” Langford explained.

Now on her way out of collegiate athletics, the two-time Basketball British Columbia University Player of the Year has high hopes for her future, but knows that like her honours so far, future success will not come easily.

“I would love to play professionally in the future,” she confessed. “Maybe in Europe or South America. Lots of Clan alumni have done so and I might wish to follow in their footsteps, if I am able to push myself to that level one day.”

Either way, Raincock-Ekunwe knows, that basketball is a part of who she is, and will always be a part of her life.