Building a program — the men’s volleyball story

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There are a select few Brock varsity sports that have become synonymous with the winter season. Hockey, basketball and volleyball dominate the campus landscape and receive the majority of the attention during this time of year, so it’s almost hard to believe that just three years ago one of the main components was missing.

That piece was men’s volleyball. Since 2001, the program had been on a 15 year hiatus. For a program that had previously been in operation from 1978 until it had been phased out, it didn’t take long for the men’s program’s foundation from the past to be forgotten. When Brock announced the program’s return to compete within OUA for the 2016-2017 season, there was no infrastructure, no personnel and most importantly, no players. This was a full “start from scratch” operation, but quite abruptly, they were back, so they needed somebody to spearhead the reparation of this program.

Doug Hanes was enjoying his retirement in the Niagara Peninsula following an esteemed career within the sport of volleyball across the province. He played OUA volleyball at the University of Guelph from 1975-79 and continued his involvement in the sport, in the form of coaching, at numerous levels, including success with high school and OUA teams. His time coaching in the OUA included a six-year stint at the University of Waterloo that resulted in consecutive winning seasons for the entirety of his tenure. It was 2004 when he was last on the radar for OUA volleyball, and it was in Niagara, where he resided, when the Brock administration first decided to jumpstart their men’s volleyball program once again. It seemed too good to be true that an experienced, qualified volleyball mind just happened to be on the doorstep of Brock, but the relationship between Hanes and the Badgers is nothing but a perfect fit.

“When I was hired there was nothing,” Hanes said. The work quickly began and, because of his previous time as a player in the league, he has the unique ability to compare his memory of Brock’s program to its current state.

“Brock had a pretty good program, but they didn’t have enough personnel to be an elite team. They were sort of a middle of the road competitive kind of group,” said Hanes.

Not only that, but in Hanes’ mind, the makeup of an OUA volleyball program in general, has changed over the years. With further advancement in coaching, player skills, and the recruiting process, the task of becoming a consistently competitive program is a daunting one. Though he still believed, in spite of the task at hand, that it was necessary for Brock to move forward with restarting the men’s program. The Niagara region has a strong volleyball culture and a number of independent volleyball clubs in the area, so it made sense that the region’s only university was represented at the highest level of men’s volleyball under the umbrella of post-secondary education.

What’s interesting, is what the catalyst was that sprung the Brock administration into action. Every year, the Brock men’s basketball team honours an athlete with the Jason Pearson Memorial Award, in recognition of the Brock basketball and volleyball athlete who was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 21 in 2001. On Nov. 3, the Badgers men’s basketball team hosted their annual Jason Pearson Memorial game and Cassidy Ryan received this year’s award. Among the attendees to the game was the late Pearson’s father, Larry Pearson. Pearson is currently an assistant coach for the University of Guelph men’s volleyball team, and in Hanes’ mind, he had an influence on the administration eventually taking action to reboot the program.

“He was always asking ‘why don’t you start up your men’s program again?’”, said Hanes. In addition to the nudging from Pearson, it seemed that there was also additional external prodding from around the OUA.

“The rest of the league wanted Brock to have a men’s team so that they didn’t have to just send a women’s program down here for games. There was a bit of financial pressure, I think, from other schools,” said Hanes.

So with the Brock administration eventually electing to bring the program back, it set the recruiting process in motion. And as it is for any athletic program nowadays, recruitment is the number one key in building a competitive program.

“It was a much different world back then, there wasn’t the recruiting that happens today. If someone did do a little recruiting then they would be very good. It very much depended on who wanted to go to your university for their academics and the sport was very much secondary,” said Hanes.

The challenges of recruitment were clear in the early stages as Hanes was forced to be creative with the manner in which he filled out his first season roster. No stone was left unturned, as starting from scratch forced the team into what some would consider unorthodox measures. Contrary to the pre-established programs that have a constant stream of recruits being added annually to an existing core, Brock had to fill out its entire roster, forcing them to seek current Brock students in addition to a new recruiting class. This meant extending the search to Brock intramural volleyball and local men’s leagues in the area to find potential talent.

“It had to be quite sequential in the way we went about things, the first thing that I did was talk to people about coaching…we were lucky to have some good people help us out right away,” said Hanes. “Then we started a club program that ran for about two to three months, just so we could identify as many people that were here and then teach them a bit. They competed at a few open tournaments so that we at least had some idea when we started the following year and it helped me identify what positions I absolutely didn’t have anybody that was capable at the time.”

Aside from the current Brock students, the first incoming recruit to commit to the program was now third-year accounting student Mitch Taylor, who attended high school in St. Catharines. The rest of the first incoming class was made up of Colton Borkowski, Alex Carter and Dean Globocki. Interestingly enough, each individual from this trio enrolled in the Sport Management program. Hanes suggested that this program being offered was an asset that helped in the recruiting process and attracted these players to Brock — because they had an interest in the academic program before they even knew volleyball was an option.

“I would suggest to any future university student that they pick their university based on the academic program that they do first and volleyball or whatever varsity sports a very close second. I’m not going to try to talk someone into coming to Brock if we don’t have what fits in for them academically, it’s just not ethical,” said Hanes.

These four from the inaugural recruiting class remain a part of the team’s core to this day as they enter into their third year. Also there since day one, Felipe Costa, the first to be found by Hanes, as he was already enrolled at Brock. That connection sprouted another relationship with Marcelo Correa, who also joined the team. Correa has blossomed into a major piece, slotting in as the starting setter and reaching a level that Hanes described as “very elite”, which would explain the two OUA Second-Team All-Star selections in as many seasons.

When it came to the standings, year one was a rough one. A 3-14 record doesn’t seem great, but when you consider the context, it certainly could’ve been worse. If you consider that in 2016-17 a Trent University team also entered into their first OUA season, but they finished winless. It was a grind, and ironically, it was with a team that had an older average age, in what was its infancy, than they do right now. This was due to their need at the time for existing Brock students, which extended to Masters students. A bright spot looking back on that first season was one of those Masters students, Matt Ragogna. Hanes said that Ragogna “had a lot to do with getting this program going” and the life experience and mental toughness older player’s like him possessed got them through the tougher times. With that being said, it makes perfect sense that Ragogna has now ended up as a member of Hanes’ coaching staff as an assistant.

Year two saw another major step for the program as Brock managed to land two big impact recruits: Logan House and Peter Schnabel.

“Right away they became two of our strongest players from the point of view of positions other than setting. That allowed us to be able to compete with a higher echelon of team,” said Hanes.

House, a Kinesiology student now in his second year, made an instant impression by being named the OUA Rookie of the Year and a member of the OUA All-Rookie All-Star team. Schnabel on the other hand, a former member of the German Under-19 national team, joined House on the All-Rookie team and Correa on the OUA All-Second All-Star team. It’s additions like these that can completely change the outlook for a team and goes to show that in early stages, Brock has managed to create something that can be built around.

“The way you play is very much dictated by the players you have and we now have enough good big, dynamic players that we could play a much more offensive, faster game than we used to,” said Hanes.

They certainly made that clear in year two when they found themselves in the midst of a five-game winning streak, knocking off Queens, a U Sports national championship participant, as well as the OUA East division winning Ryerson Rams. Consistency was the issue though, as the Badgers were unable to win outside of the streak, finishing at 5-12. The growing pains were bound to happen, but the value in another year’s competition was important for the program. It’s a minor improvement in the win column, but internally it’s another step forward and represents a baseline entering the 2018-19 season. When asked if another step should be expected this season, Hanes believed that there would be.

“Absolutely, we should expect an improvement. We had a very good preseason, we went 4-2,” Hanes said.

Once again the Badgers were strong in their recruitment, uncovering players from a variety of different places. Their label of talented first years was handed over to a group with high-level pedigree include Ethan Kalef, Mark Naqvi and Nathan Jager. In addition, the Badgers scooped Jason Yeung from York University. An interesting fact about Yeung, though, was that he wasn’t playing for York while he was there, he was playing Chinese 9-man volleyball. Finally, the Badgers made a major addition by adding former Humber College captain, Clayton Blanchette, who had played three years with the Hawks before transferring.

“When you get this many players joining you that are impact players, the whole level of the team gets better. With them playing well and everybody here we can compete with literally anybody in the province, perhaps in the country.”

Hanes did sprinkle a bit more realism into his statement later on when commenting on their depth. He mentioned that if they lose starting players it would be hard to maintain their level of play simply because of how young and inexperienced the “next man up” is at this point in time.

Unfortunately for the Badgers, depth has played a role early this season as there have been some issues with staying healthy. Hanes stressed that there was no room for excuses at this level but that it had to be understood the team was not at its full strength when making early season evaluations.

“We lost by very narrow scores, but if you add some of the players that we’re missing, I think we win by that narrow score,” said Hanes in reference to their season-opening matches at Ryerson and Toronto.

“You have to play with the cards you’re dealt, so right now the boys that are healthy are the ones you’re going to win or lose with…there’s a lot of parity in the league and the teams are so similar that whoever’s playing well on a particular day is the one that’s going to win.”

Hanes has been playing his cards to the best of his abilities since he stepped into the position on day one. It’s led Badgers to the position they’re in now – a competitive program just a few short years into the process. When taking a step back to look at the journey they’ve taken to get to the position they’re in now, there has certainly been bright spots along the way.

“It might be hard to point to one, but when you see this group play so well against good teams now it’s gratifying that we have already attained a certain level of expertise and ability that we never would’ve been able to play in our first year,” said Hanes.

The Badgers will look to take another leap forward in 2018-19, and a potential springboard is during their home opener that takes place at 8:00 p.m. on Nov. 9 against Royal Military College: a team the Badgers have never lost to.

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