ST. LEO, Fla. – Saint Leo University star forward Arielle Kabangu speaks three languages: French, English, and soccer.
Affectionately called “Gu” by her coaches and teammates, the five-foot-10 junior has been the team’s top scorer since moving there from Ottawa in 2013.
Overwhelmed with attention from college recruiters as a high school student, the now 20-year-old had no idea how good she really was.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was pretty much oblivious to everything,” she said last week on the St. Leo soccer field. “My parents sat me down and said, ‘you’re going to play soccer and get good grades,’ so that’s what I did.
“When the end of my first season at Saint Leo came, I wasn’t even sure if I had a good season or not, until all these awards started coming in.”
Kabangu had won pretty much every award possible within the conference, region and nation, including Division II All American, NSCAA All-Region First Team, and the Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year, along with Freshman of the Year honours.
Born in Quebec City, Kabangu’s parents moved to Canada from the Congo when they first found out they were pregnant, in order to give their children more opportunities.
She credits her father, who developed a passion for the sport growing up in the French speaking African nation, for getting her involved.
“He pretty much taught me everything I know,” said Kabangu. “He was a coach on some of my teams and even when he wasn’t, he was coaching from the sidelines.
“We would go to the field and play together, or we’d sit down, watch a game and analyze. Whatever he could do to help, he would.”
As the eldest of four siblings, the business management major misses her family in Ottawa, but is grateful to have her French Canadian teammate, also from Ottawa, Genevieve Gignac, by her side.
“We play really well together,” said Gignac. “As soon as I get the ball, my first look is always Arielle ‘cause she’s such a dominant player.”
The roommates, who have known each other since they were 10-years-old playing in soccer clubs, have bonded over their shared first language, French.
“It’s just amazing ‘cause I have someone to talk to in French,” said Gignac. “All the girls on our team try to understand what we are saying. It’s kind of funny.”
Kabangu, who scored three goals in six minutes in her very first game with the school, hopes to make All American again in her final season in the fall.
Head coach Ged O’Connor, who has built the team around Kabangu and Gignac’s offence, is confident she will get back there.
“I remember when ‘Gu’ was in first year, she crossed the ball so high, Genevieve was able to score with a beautiful diving header into the far corner,” said O’Connor. “She’s a special player, and I’m sure there is going to be other wonderful moments in their last season playing together.”
“It was memorable”, joked Gignac about the goal. “It must have been our French connection, I guess.”