Ceejay Nofuente looks to extend her Humber Hawks legacy as a head coach

Jun 6, 2024 | Headlines, Sports

In the 2016 Women’s Basketball National Championship final against the Holland College Hurricanes, the Humber Hawks were trying not to put a foot wrong over the thin line between success and failure.

Despite two missed free throws by the Hurricanes, the Hawks were down by 49-47 with just 8.9 seconds left and with no timeouts.

Then, Ceejay Nofuente grabbed the rebound. With nothing but determination instead of intimidation, before the responsibility and the relentless and ruthless passage of seconds, the point guard crossed the court at full speed, brought the ball into the key and kicked out to open teammate Ruth Holland in the perimeter.

Holland hit the three and Humber won its first national title.

Coach Ajay Sharma remains in awe at what he saw from the sidelines.

“So many players would have fallen or turned the ball over in that situation. She wasn’t the fastest or the strongest but she understands basketball,” Sharma said.

“After the three there still was 0.5 seconds left and she didn’t really celebrate. She played defence right away. Next-play mentality,” he said.

Women's basketball team led by Nofuente clinched the first national title for Humber in 2016.

Women's basketball team led by Nofuente clinched the first national title for Humber in 2016. Photo credit: Humber Athletics

The full-of-effort and clutch scene reflected essentially what Nofuente was made of as a best all-time Hawks’ player and what she wants to see on the court as a new head coach: sacrifice and unselfishness.

“It’s all about hustle,” said Nofuente, who was appointed as a new head coach in April as a successor to the 20-year-tenured Sharma.

“Everyone on the court has to give the same hustle and hard. Whether you play one or five minutes,” she said.

“You can miss a shot or turn the ball over, but if you don’t get back in defence, is when you are going out,” said Nofuente, who was assistant coach for the 2023-2024 season. The team made the provincial finals but didn’t medal.

“Offence wins games, defence wins championships,” she said.

The 30-year-old point guard retired in early 2023 leaving behind a legacy that made her deserve the category of Humber’s legend on the court under the mentorship of Sharma.

Nofuente raised the 2016 and 2018 Canadian National Championships (CCAA) banners, multiple provincial championships (OCAA), three OCAA’s Player of the Year awards and is the all-time Humber leader in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals.

Nofuente will be the successor of Ajay Sharma.

Nofuente will be the successor of Ajay Sharma. Photo credit: Antoni Canyameras Rojas

Besides her trajectory in Humber, Nofuente also played for Canada and had a stint overseas in professional Europe leagues including Sweden and Denmark.

The banner that hangs at Humber Gym in her honour will see her now patrolling the sidelines after orchestrating the show on the court.

“It’s a dream come true. Just playing for the school and for Ajay [Sharma] and coaching after Ajay, it’s a feeling you can’t express. You have to feel it,” the former point guard said.

Although Nofuente doesn’t want to give any of the names of the players that will make up the squad next year, she said she wants to keep eight players of the core from last year.

But Brooklyn Johnson, a fifth-year player who might be one of those under Nofuente’s mentorship, said after an off-season practice that Nofuente will keep the philosophy of Humber.

“Ceejay is the best possible outcome of getting a new coach. What sets her apart is her story with the school, she knows the culture and this is the best way to keep flowing rather than start with someone new,” Johnson said.

Beverley Omere, another player likely to be part of the roster next year, said the passion for the game is what makes Nofuente special.

“She is very passionate, she loves the game. She played here and she was really good,” Omere said in an off-season practice after having a one-on-one conversation with Nofuente.

Whenever and wherever the new head coach talks about basketball, she furrows her eyebrows but she smiles at the same time. She was showing off her determination ahead of the challenges but also the joy to embrace them.

Nofuente was the star and the leader that led Humber to two national championships

Nofuente was the star and the leader that led Humber to two national championships Photo credit: Humber Athletics

It’s the case when she opens up about the potential pressure that will be put on her shoulders to succeed as a Humber’s coach after forging a legend as a player.

“Yes, there will be pressure, for sure, 100 per cent. I think when I even played having not lost the game in the CCAA there was always pressure to not lose these games. We had close games where we almost lost, but I had to bring the team together,” Nofuente said.

“But I won’t put the pressure I’m feeling as a coach into the team,” she said. “I want them just to continue to get better each day.”

The long-successful stint of Sharma as a coach between 2004 and 2024 will also raise the bar for Nofuente, the executing arm of Sharma as a player and later the right hand as his assistant coach.

“I don’t think I can come close to what Ajay has achieved, but I want to build into it. I don’t know how long I see myself here, but he is one of the most decorated coaches and if I can even come close I will say that is an achievement for me,” she said.

“But as far as pressure, I don’t want to have that pressure to get what Ajay was, it’s being myself,” Nofuente said.

While the new head coach might inherit some of the principles from Sharma’s coaching in her transition and set plays-based style, Nofuente said she wants to bring ideas she learned outside Humber.

“I want to build up the program back to the way was, create the atmosphere where I played, and also add a little twist I learned in Europe in terms of certain plays or just tactics, trying to show the girls a different level of the game,” said the new head coach.

Nofuente thinks as a coach but still looks like a player. Her youth and her innate abilities still allow her to hoop like that hyperactive point guard used to, making it hard to identify who is the coach at first sight.

She seems ready to jump onto the court. And she does it.

“I still feel jumping in, 100 per cent,” she said. “Even in practice, if I don’t think they are trying it hard enough I play to push the players to do a good job.”

Nofuente will apply some of the principles of coach Sharma in the play style she will implement.

Nofuente will apply some of the principles of coach Sharma in the play style she will implement. Photo credit: Humber Athletics

Nofuente said an advantage of being a close-to-age players coach is her empathy regarding off-court struggles.

“I’ve gone through things like assignments and needing extra time for school not too long ago. I want them to come to talk because if they hold or hide things there’s no way we work as a team,” she said.

But despite all the nuances of being in charge of a squad for the first time, for the tough-as-nails Nofuente, it all comes down to togetherness and the emphasis on the hustle.

She insists on the beauty of defence as if it were artwork painted with sweat and the court being the canvas.

“I love defence, I want to show the girls the same love, I want them to feel the same for getting stops that turn into scoring. There’s no other feeling like stealing the ball and getting out in transition,” Nofuente said.

This art could turn into history. Instead of painting the play like in 2016, she could draw it on the clipboard in a timeout to engrave the name of Humber in a new National Championship trophy.

“If the game is tied, we have 10 seconds left and I have to call a play, yes, I’ll be ready for it,” Nofuente said.