December 10, 2019

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Faith and fire

Ferocious all-star Wesmen forward seeks conflict on the hard court, studies methods to resolve it when she's in street clothes

It's been five years, but the memory is still fresh for Tanya McKay.

THE FAITH HEZEKIAH FILE

Age: 21
Height: 5-11
Position: Forward

Hometown: East St. Paul

Age: 21
Height: 5-11
Position: Forward

Hometown: East St. Paul

2018-19: Led Canada West in scoring (23.8 points per game) and was second in rebounding (10.3). Honoured as conference first-team all-star and became first Wesmen player in Canada West history to average a double-double in back-to-back seasons. Led conference with career-high 3.1 steals per game.

All in the family: Hezekiah's younger brother Sam is a highly regarded defensive back/linebacker with the University of Manitoba football team.

She recalls Faith Hezekiah as a wide-eyed rookie, undoubtedly the greenest prospect she has seen in her 24 years as head coach of the University of Winnipeg women's basketball team.

There was athletic talent to be sure, but in a raw form.

Hezekiah laughs when she remembers herself as a 17 year old, a newly minted graduate of The King's School, a small Christian private school located in northeast Winnipeg.

"Yeah, absolutely (I was green)," she says. "I didn’t have much training growing up."

And she something else, too: a purposefulness and drive to succeed that McKay recognized from the outset.

"I'm low-key in real life, but on the court I’m completely different," Faith Hezekiah says. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I'm low-key in real life, but on the court I’m completely different," Faith Hezekiah says. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hezekiah 's introduction to the game was modest, joining The King's School girls team in grades 8 and 9. After that, there was a problem; the school didn't have a girls team.

The girl who'd moved here from Nigeria with her family when she was eight didn't appear to be the least bit intimidated by the solution: she'd play with the boys in grades 10, 11 and 12.

"It was fun and it taught me a lot," Hezekiah says. "I think it helped me greatly. Even though I wasn’t receiving a lot of intense coaching and skill training, it was toughening me up. I was learning to pump fake, I was learning to use my space properly. Because if I did something wrong, I would get blocked."

U of W's head coach recalls Hezekiah as a wide-eyed rookie. (Supplied / Free Press files)

U of W's head coach recalls Hezekiah as a wide-eyed rookie. (Supplied / Free Press files)

Despite her unusual playing circumstances, Hezekiah's aggressive style and instinct for the game was making an impression .

She earned a spot on the provincial under-15 team and twice qualified for the under-17 squad, coming off the bench prior to her Grade 11 season in the summer of 2014 to help Manitoba knock off Quebec in the national final.

Her coach that summer was Tanya McKay.

"You just knew what she had in her — the nose to score and compete," says McKay, who recruited Hezekiah to the U of W and proceeded to ease her into the lineup, playing her sparingly in her first year.

The coach's only regret is she didn't redshirt Hezekiah in that first year, thereby extending her prime years at the university level.

But now in her fifth and final year of eligibility, the powerfully built Hezekiah is used in all situations and all over the court and she's poised to earn all-Canadian honours for the first time.

Although she's a natural forward, McKay routinely uses her as a point guard and in the post.

"She’s hard to guard," says McKay, whose 11th-ranked Wesmen will kick off their conference schedule Friday and Saturday against visiting Fraser Valley. "She’s physical, she can handle the ball. She has a good awareness of the court.

"Does she get in trouble? Yeah, when she’s moving around positions, she tries really hard and that gets her in trouble but, she’s pretty solid in any position."

The progression from unpolished neophyte to seasoned vet has not gone unnoticed by her teammates.

"I definitely can say that after playing with her five years I’ve seen her develop into an amazing player, one of the best in Canada." - teammate Lena Wenke

"I definitely can say that after playing with her five years I’ve seen her develop into an amazing player, one of the best in Canada," says Lena Wenke, a fifth-year guard who serves with Hezekiah as one of the squad's co-captains. "In her rookie season, I remember she didn’t play a lot. She was not the player she is now."

The transformation from bit player to star was a natural one, but hard-won. In her second and third years, the Wesmen were bolstered by American point guard Antoinette Miller, a firebrand who jolted her teammates with her all-out, frenetic style.

The teammates, although friends, were ruthlessly competitive in practice.

"I saw how competitive she was," says Hezekiah. "She brings fire to everything she does on the court and that’s what it takes to get to that high of a level. When I saw Antoinette getting MVP, getting (big) stats, things like that, I was like, ‘I want to be like her.’"

Hezekiah is used in all situations and all over the court and she's poised to earn all-Canadian honours for the first time. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hezekiah is used in all situations and all over the court and she's poised to earn all-Canadian honours for the first time. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

The rivalry fed Hezekiah's ambition to be better and the result was a more well-rounded player.

"Faith actually learned a lot from Ant," says Wenke. "They were pretty close and they kept getting at each other in practices and made each other better. (She learned about) leadership and taking over control and organizing the game and making sure we are going to win."

Miller graduated after the 2017-18 season and Hezekiah became the club's uncontested go-to player. As a leader, she's had to come to grips with the contradictory elements of her personality.

Away from the game, she prides herself in being a mediator and a dedicated student (her major is conflict resolution studies). With a basketball in her hands, however, she sometimes struggles to contain her impulses. Still, she insists an edge to her game is crucial to who she is.

"I'm low-key in real life, but on the court I’m completely different," she says. "My teammates will tell you I’m a bit fiery on the court. I need to watch what I say and what I do. I can let my emotions take control of me a little bit. I’m loud on the court but not like that in real life. I’m very different...

"I honestly look for conflict on the court. I think it makes us stronger."

 

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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Updated on Thursday, October 31, 2019 at 7:13 PM CDT: Fixes typo

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