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Kandice Belanger: So much more than your everyday accountant

So much for the conformist, ultra-conventional reputation of accountants.

Very little of the trajectory that Valley East native Kandice Belanger followed in pursuing a four-year stint of NCAA tennis in the American mid-west aligned with the norm - and the 32-year-old mother of two wouldn't have it any other way.

Where interest in the sport is often passed on from one generation to the next, Belanger had no such family ties to tennis when she realized her true passion for the game in her early teens. "My parents never played tennis," said Belanger, having now full-circled her way back home to northern Ontario.

"My dad was a hockey goalie, mom played ringette. They tried us out at all different sports, and tennis was the one that took for me."

And once the connection was made, there was no turning bag. Fiercely dedicated and completely self-motivated, Belanger wears the character traits that proved so helpful in reaching her athletic goals as a badge of honour, a fundamental personal foundation that she has relied upon to navigate countless aspects of her life.

It would also set her apart from so many with whom she competed in those early days.

"My dad always talks about how when we went to our first few tournaments in Toronto, other parents would come up to him, wanting to know how he got his daughter to be so motivated, how he would get me to try so hard," said Belanger. "Later on, as we talked to more and more parents, you do see that parent push, a negative parent push, where it is far more the parent that wants it than the child."

To this day, she insists that her dad would strike the perfect balance, supportive, yet not over-bearing. "I remember playing with him at the Elmview Courts, once I was playing often," she recalled. "He would be my hitting partner, that endless back wall where the ball always comes back."

"He had no technique, but he was the perfect practice partner because it helped make me mentally tough for those matches where the ball just constantly comes back."

With older teens and adults, men more often than not, providing Belanger with the competition that she needed, locally, at the Sudbury Indoor Tennis Centre in her youth, it was a six-month stint in Burlington, enrolled at the Ace Tennis Academy to start grade 11, that most opened doors to the next level.

"They would kind of put you in touch with a list of universities that they thought were in line with your playing caliber," noted the 2019 inductee to the Valley East Sports Hall of Fame. "It was nice, getting a chance to pick their brains, because the people in charge there had been away on tennis scholarships, so they knew how it worked and what schools were looking for."

Just to be clear, professional tennis was never the goal for Belanger. In looking south or the border, the aim was to find the perfect mix of academics and athletics, an eventual springboard to the next phase of her life. Ultimately, she would choose the Rockhurst University Hawks, a Division II school of some three thousand students, located in Kansas City, Missouri.

While rare are full scholarships offered at the Division II level, this was indeed a deal-breaker for Belanger and her family. "For me, it was never an issue about whether it was going to be a DI or DII school," she said. "When my parents and I sat down, we decided that the only way I was going was if I was on a full athletic scholarship."

"Otherwise, there was no point on me going there. And it wasn't just a matter of getting a full scholarship at just any school but getting a full scholarship at a school that had good academics." While many a young recruit has paid lip service to much of the above, Belanger was unwavering in her commitment to this path.

The proof would be in the pudding, as the local product enjoyed success on both the court and in the classroom, capturing Conference rookie of the year accolades, captaining her team in both her junior and senior year, and following up her Business degree with a major in accounting with a Masters at the University at Buffalo, before returning to Canada.

Her story is about as good as it gets when it comes to Sudbury prospects venturing off to the NCAA. Where some might have enjoyed greater spotlight with their sport, Belanger benefitted from a very healthy mix, compiling several accomplishments in tennis, maintaining the larger picture at hand, all while preserving some incredible memories from that time.

Some recollections of which involved a very poor sense of geography.

"In my first year, I must have thought I was going to somewhere like Florida or something, because I did not bring a winter coat," Belanger laughed. "I found out pretty quick, come December, that we weren't that far south of Canada. I don't know why my parents never mentioned it."

"I couldn't wait to get home that first Christmas to get my coat."

Where many a freshman will struggle with the small fish in a big pond syndrome, Belanger defied conventional wisdom - again. "For me, I think my path in tennis was the complete opposite of most," she said. "When I was in Sudbury, I never felt that I was the best, that no one could beat me, because I always played the men, so I was always being beat."

"When I got to Kansas City, that's when I first thought that I was a bit better than I thought I was."

And where some encounter a cultural divide when leaving the country, Belanger found a home away from home. "The people were so nice," she said. "You hear stories about people in the States, sometimes, but everyone there was so nice and so welcoming. It was a great, great experience."

"I think I am just so proud of being that small-town girl, going to the States, and actually having some accomplishments," Belanger added. "Named MVP in my sophomore year and captain of the team in my last two years; the fact that people saw me as a leader and wanted me to be their leader."

Not just your everyday ultra-conventional accountant, apparently.

Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League