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Some of you may know Elijah Lufile as the younger brother of Chadrack, Meshack, and Abednego Lufile, who all play basketball at the professional level across the globe. While they have all had successful careers so far, Elijah can’t wait to surpass his brothers and prove that they have really saved the best for last. The new team captain at Oral Roberts of the NCAA Division I has had a long and difficult journey to where he is today but he is in it to win it this year with a championship and an NBA career in sight!
Wheza Panzo, like Elijah, grew up wanting to be like his brother and play basketball. Since then Wheza was named MVP at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Americas camp in July of 2017, he led Hamilton Heights to the FCA National Championship in 2018, he helped U17 Team Ontario to the gold medal at the Canada Games and he was a member of Canada’s silver medal-winning squad at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship in 2018. With an already impressive journey, he too is looking to make history this year and add a conference championship as well as a March Madness appearance to his resume.
Check out what both Elijah and Wheza have to say about the uncertainty of the 2020-21 season upcoming, how they have adopted their new leadership roles are returning players, why they chose to play in the NCAA instead of a U Sports Canadian university and what they think U Sports needs to do to have a better chance at retaining their top homegrown talent.
Elijah: I’m a 6’8 Forward and junior at Oral Roberts University, and I consider my role to be a leader on the team like the other players returning from last season. I take my education very seriously because I know basketball is not the only thing that can offer something for me in life.
Every day I wake up at 7 am to read and pray. Next, I hit the gym to put up some shots before I head to my classes. After class, I hit the weight room before team practice and then put up some more shots once practice has ended. Then, my day shifts back to academics.
It’s mostly the same thing every day, aside from varying academic requirements and away games. I sometimes participate in other extra-curricular activities to help keep myself sane and mix up my routine a little bit.
Wheza: Being an NCAA student-athlete at Stetson University has been pretty different right now compared to what I’m used to. We now have to follow certain guidelines due to COVID-19. Before we were even allowed to practice, we had to do extra physicals, and get tested for the virus. Now we’re at the point where we are allowed to practice 48 minutes a day.
My day starts with either an early morning lift or a class, depending on what day it is. Then, I would get breakfast, do some rehab and go to my other classes until it was time for practice. After practice, I would eat again, do any homework I have, then either watch a show or play 2k with my boys.
There hasn’t been a lot happening with all the COVID-19 stuff going on, so for the most part we’re social distancing.
Elijah: I was never a five-star recruit, nor was I the most skilled or athletic, but I always worked harder than others in the gym, trying to change my body so people would see the potential in me if I looked the part or if I had the perfect basketball body.
As a 5’8 freshman, I got cut.
So, I worked even harder and tried again in my sophomore year. I made the team my sophomore year but I didn’t play a whole lot. In my sophomore and junior years, I was finally taking basketball very seriously because at this point I had seen my brother Chadrack Lufile’s successful career in Division I NCAA Basketball at Wichita State University unfold.
In my junior and senior years, I then started to improve my athleticism but did not really sprout up yet. Skill-wise I started learning a lot faster and becoming a lot better, but not nearly good enough for a division I prospect or to even be a top 25 Canadian highschool player.
Then came my time to graduate high school with all my friends, but I did not graduate high school like regular students. I was not the best student or the most motivated to complete my academics. I suffered the consequences of not being eligible to graduate with my classmates. I had to attend adult school. I felt ashamed and I still did not have any offers from any US schools.
So, I joined an AAU team and picked up one Junior College Division I basketball offer from Lamar Community College. I redshirted that year because I started attending during the spring semester because of passport issues which caused me to miss the fall semester.
The following year which was the 2017-2018 season I was ready for my first full year as a student-athlete. I couldn’t wait to step on the court with my teammates… and then, I suddenly got misdiagnosed with cardiomyopathy which cost me my whole season and potentially my whole basketball career.
In the midst of all of this, I was very stressed and then over the summer, through prayers, God worked his miracles and I was cleared to play at the one JuCo college that would take me, Midland College in Texas.
Despite having the worst season of my career, I did become a man and I had to make my own decisions about my future because my coach did not have the best intentions for me and my career.
Oral Roberts University was the only school that was willing to take me and they pursued me very heavily. I became very committed to my career, my future and my dreams. This whole journey has been more about proving myself right than proving anyone else wrong but my resilience and prayers have gotten me to where I am today. It has taken a lot of hard work, and real blood, sweat and tears, both physically and academically, but it has gotten me to where I am today and I’m very proud of the man I have become.
Wheza: My journey really started with my brother. I would watch him play basketball at the YMCA, where all these different players in my city would come and compete, and I wanted to be like them. I didn’t really start playing organized basketball until the 5th grade.
At first, I wasn’t very good but over the years I kept working with my brother, whether we were in the basement dribbling, or shooting at the YMCA. Over the years, I showed a lot of progress, and by the time I was in high school, I was playing with the best in the country.
Playing U15 with Canada Elite and U16 and U17 with Uplay Canada, I was being recruited by plenty of schools.
I ended up finishing my high school career at Potter’s House Christian Academy. The coaches at Potter’s House knew Coach Jones and had a good relationship with him. That relationship ultimately connected me with him, and he gave me the opportunity to come play for him at Stetson.
When I arrived on campus I knew this was the place for me and the rest is history.
One of my personal goals is to lead this team by example. It’s the only way and the right way to be a leader. I also hope to lead my teammates closer to God because we all need it.
As for my goals for the team, I’m here to win and I know they are as well. Our goal for this new, unique season is to make history. Throughout this pandemic, people will be talking about this team, the one who won the 2020-2021 National Championship.
Receiving those accolades was something I was really excited about, and it’s lit a fire in me.
Some goals I have for myself are:
For the team, I have high expectations. As a young inexperienced team, we went pretty far last year. So, this year we really want to make history here at Stetson and win the ASUN Championship. Doing that will also help us achieve another goal which is to play in March Madness.
Elijah: Personally I think that U Sports needs to schedule more games against NCAA Division I basketball teams. From a national publicity standpoint, there is the stigma that Canadian athletes are inferior to American ones.
The USA has a lot of high-level competitions and a lot more scouts that attend their games whether it is NBA or international scouts. I think that U Sports teams need to travel to the US to play against those teams so that playing in Canada does not stunt our development and career opportunities after graduation.
Wheza: I think U Sports would have to use a bigger platform to promote their players and games more. Putting games on Canadian sports channels like TSN would be great exposure.
I feel like people do not know how good U Sports really is. Especially, the kids coming up next. We see the NCAA everywhere, and it makes it easier to decide to go in that direction.
Elijah: For me personally the pandemic did not really affect my basketball career, it was more so my injury against Omaha. I fractured my foot and I was out for 5 games and the whole tournament. I know I could have contributed to team success and I know I could have made a better name for myself. We did not win our conference so the pandemic did not really affect us.
Wheza: I personally feel like everything that has happened has helped my career up to this point. I was able to really reflect on what I had to get better at and had a long enough break to where I could rest, which most people in my position have never had that much time to do that.
The only way this could affect my career is if we aren’t allowed to play, but there are some things you can’t control, so you just have to be prepared just in case we are allowed to play. Regardless, I am getting better every day so I’m grateful.
Elijah Lufile and Wheza Panzo have had very different journeys to this point in their basketball careers but their decision as Canadians to leave their country to play post-secondary basketball in Division I of the NCAA was the same. Both men exemplify the variety of paths that ultimately lead to the NCAA and they have highlighted why U Sports struggles to retain top Canadian talent for their post-secondary basketball careers and the answer is simple: exposure. I can’t wait to see how next season unfolds for both Elijah Lufile and Wheza Panzo, fingers crossed that the NCAA season will resume with some form of normalcy.