Originally published January 13th 2015. We'll revisit the story of the Heat's long-term journey again in late November
--With UBCO in its fourth year competing in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), we look at the decade of work that’s led us here
--After fighting to get into the league, the Heat have (like all new teams) struggled in their early years
--But the new league has brought a host of benefits, including facilities, full-time staff, and prestige
It’s been four years since UBCO made the jump to their current conference, meaning that most of the students enrolled here don’t remember a time when the Heat were winning Canadian championships every year in the college league. They don’t remember the national playoffs on our home turf, and they definitely don’t remember the change from the Lakers to the Heat, way back in 2008.
But the coaches and staff of UBCO Athletics remember—they remember the training and the researching and the hiring and the waiting, in their push to take the new Okanagan campus of UBC into the nation’s top varsity league. Here is the history of that transition, from the PACWEST division of the CCAA to the Canada West division of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS)—arguably the most competitive conference in the nation—as told by the people who were there for it.
The push to enter the university league was underway as soon as UBCO was itself a university (according to WVB coach Steve Manuel, discussions about making the jump date back even further than that).
UBCO Athletics initially expected the transition to be a couple years, but the move ultimately took more than half a decade. First, UBCO was stymied by a league-wide moratorium on adding new teams between 2006 and 2008. At the time, new Canada West additions TRU and UFV were being destroyed in most sports, but Heat Sports Information Director Cary Mellon says that wasn’t the primary reason for the ban.
“When we applied, UNBC applied, VIU applied, Mt. Royal was going to apply, and MacEwan was going to apply,” he said, “they just didn’t know what do with all the teams.”
After the moratorium, UBCO entered an evaluation period of two years, and submitted a proposal to the league. But at CanWest’s February 2009 board meeting the decision on new membership was pushed back from that May to May of 2010. This postponement was to allow the league “time to complete work on a report exploring a possible division of the conference,” explains current Canada West communications coordinator Piccolo Ocampo.
“UNBC applied, VIU applied, Mt. Royal was going to apply, MacEwan was going to apply ... They just didn’t know what do with all the new teams”
The Heat were granted probationary membership in 2010, which entailed playing one more season of CCAA and then two trial years of CIS. During the wait, the teams kept improving, with the volleyball teams perennially bringing home national medals and the basketball teams appearing in the national playoffs. Once the plan to make the jump was underway, winning became paramount.
“There was a real change,” women’s volleyball head coach Steve Manuel said, “between ‘go out and put together a team and compete real hard and represent OUC’ [to] ‘we’re gonna be a leader and a dominant force in the athletics field.’”
In the four years leading up to their Canada West debut, the four teams had won 11 provincial medals, been to nationals 10 times, and captured 2 Canadian championships, with 3 national Coach of the Year awards and 2 Player of the Year awards.
On October 28th 2011, the men’s and women’s volleyball teams played their first regular-season games in the CIS, followed on November 11th by the basketball teams. That season, the Heat won 19 games and lost 57.
In the application, Canada West evaluated what supports were in place in terms of academics, athletics, sports medicine, sport science, performance training, media communications, and facilities. UBCO was lacking when it came to that last item, but through the recession-era Western Economic Plan stimulus, it was able to fund upgrades including team rooms and a concession station.
The application had to overcome not only the specific requirements, but also the league’s general hesitancy toward adding new teams. Creating more locations in the conference increases costs for everyone, and makes it harder for existing members to pick up Western Canada’s top talents, so existing schools are reluctant to add more.
“We had watched very carefully the other people who had applied,” said Heat Athletics Director Robert Johnson, who led the initiative, “[and we] really tried to build our strategy around strengthening up where we saw they were falling down.”
Johnson and Mellon both feel that although it was a setback, the delay helped them shore up the application to ensure they were doing everything right
On the court, though, the delay was both a positive and a negative. On one hand, the Heat were able to dominate the CCAA for a couple more seasons, and reap the rewards of that dominance. On the other hand, though, teams that had been built to be at their best for the new league began to lose personnel. Top players such as Greg Niemantsverdreit, Preston Tucker, and Caitlin Nyhus graduated before or immediately after the first CIS season.
“A few players cycled out and then a couple actually decided to transfer because they didn’t want [to wait and] play another year in college,” Heat MVB head coach Greg Poitras said, “so our depth going into Canada West was not very high.”
“At the time I was upset,” recalled former Heat volleyball star and two-time UBCO Athlete of the Year Nate Speijer, “That was a time where the team was full of veterans and we had always [played against CIS teams in] preseason and had success. In hindsight I’m happy we did in order for the younger players to get more court experience in games.”
“I had to opportunity to serve for championship point on home court for Provincials, which could be my fondest memory of my career.”
NATE SPEIJER on the benefits of the delay
“We lost a couple of key players,” Steve Manuel explained, ”[but] there were two or three top university-level players coming out of high school who looked at us and said ‘you know what, I can step right into that Canada West program and make a difference right away.’”
For Manuel’s team, those young players’ leap of faith allowed the Heat not only to improve but to close the gap between their talent level and other teams’. “It’s a two for one almost,” he says, “it’s not just the fact that we have [star player Katy Klomps]—we also don’t have to play against her.”
“A leap of faith”: Recruiting as a new school
As a new entrant, UBCO didn’t have the clout or the winning tradition of most of their more-established competition. But the Heat were able to sell potential recruits on other aspects. For younger athletes, the chance to start. And for their former PacWest competitors, the chance to play at the highest level before graduating.
“Being recruited from Capilano was an amazing feeling,” recalled former ballplayer Mike Zayonc, “knowing that my hard work in the college league had paid off and that I was being recognized by a CIS program.”
“The team went from a big fish in a small pond to the little fish in a big pond,” said former Heat basketball player Krystal Schouten, who came over from Quest University. “[That jump] was a large factor in my personal decision to transfer to UBCO.”
Welcome to the new age
While the women’s volleyball team is now in the national top five and the men’s volleyball and soccer teams made the playoffs in their debut seasons, UBCO has, like almost all new Canada West entrants, struggled in its first several years of play. Teams in their first three seasons typically cluster around the .250 mark (see graph), with some lower at only a couple wins a year, some higher with slightly more losses than wins, and a select few outliers becoming solid playoff teams.
The Heat MVB team started as one of those outliers, making the CanWest playoffs in their first year—one of the few expansion teams to ever do so. But they struggled afterward, going 6 and 37 the next two years. Poitras concedes that that veteran team’s success may have hindered younger players’ development, but argues that at the same time the playoff appearance helped them recruit better young players. This season, MVB started the season by losing 12 straight games (most of them against some of Canada’s best teams) but has rebounded with a 6-game win streak.
“We try to tell our players to not get bogged down by the record,” Poitras said during the losing streak, “and they’re not. Because we keep hammering them over the heads with the facts that [they] need to get better.”
Poitras went on to explain that the traditional powerhouse teams have a bench full of the program’s future stars, whereas newer teams don’t have that same depth to help withstand the season-long grind.
“[The players] want to get out of Canada West and compete for a national championship, and for them that’s attainable.”
Most newer teams, that is. The exception is Steve Manuel’s women’s squad, currently the second-best team in the country. After losing two thirds of their games in the first season, the team made playoffs both subsequent years and is currently the 2nd-ranked team in Canada.
“[We] were playing CIS teams towards the end of our CCAA career and having a fair bit of success,” Manuel said, “I was hoping that this first group of student athletes that we brought through as CIS recruits would lay the building blocks for our progress to [becoming elite]. I thought it would take a good four or five years, but after three years we’re already competing with the best teams in the country.”
The off-the-court effects
Varsity athletics are sometimes called the front porch of an institution: the games that are televised and written about are often the first and foremost encounter that people have with a university. And when it comes to the perception of that university, being in the big league matters.
“A number of schools have joined specifically only for that reason, to gain credibility,” Johnson says, “I don’t believe we’re one of those schools but [often former university-colleges] are struggling to find an identity so they’re looking to establish themselves as a research institution, as a quote unquote real university.”
Beyond prestige, though, the upgrade has provided UBCO with more tangible benefits in its athletics department.
“The jump changed a lot things for the better,” says former Heat basketball player Yassine Ghomari, “It allowed for the hiring of new staff (athletic therapist and strength and conditioning coaches). [And] the athletes now have their own weight room to keep up with CIS standard.”
Those benefits come at a cost though: the school now employs half a dozen full-time coaches in addition to more support staff. Membership fees themselves are also significantly higher; the CIS has national and regional offices and employees that its members fund.
Another expense is the increased scholarship budget, but Mellon says that playing at the highest level also makes it easier to fundraise for those scholarships. Donors have also enabled facility upgrades, including the $1.2 mil Nonis field in 2010 and the $4.1 mil Hangar fitness facility in 2013.
The jump brought those upgrades, it also brought frequent losses instead of constant wins, and crowd support dipped in the first years even as the school’s population rose.
“Students generally liked coming to the winning games and they didn’t care if we were playing Columbia Bible College,” Cary Mellon recalls, “They kinda liked cheering and taunting the other team and when you’re losing by 30 to Victoria or something it’s not necessarily as good a time. [But] now that our volleyball teams are winning you can see that again.”
Last year students started a Heat support crew, the Fire Brigade, and travelled with the team to Vancouver for the inter-UBC games. After the trip, “UBCO” stickers were found to have mysteriously appeared all around the Point Grey campus.
“We sell what we have and don’t worry about the rest”: Recruiting as a small school
Despite its gains, UBCO will still be a small university even when it isn’t a new one. It doesn’t have the number of students or teams that UBC Van has, or the sports medicine and physiotherapy clinics, or the extensive grad programs to retain students, or the multiple gyms for them to practice exclusively in. And so the challenge for the Heat is to convince recruits that bigger isn’t always better.
Some students simply want to go to a big school, whether for the larger range of academic programs, the proximity to a large city, or the glory of having a bigger stage for their athletic achievements. But other students are looking for a more communal small-school experience, and those are the athletes the Heat sell UBCO to.
“[We’ll] get the student athlete that goes ‘I don’t wanna get lost in Vancouver on the UBC campus—I want to go to a smaller campus and more community, and I want my profs to know who I am,” says Manuel.
“I don’t feel we’re at a disadvantage. It’s different and we just have to sell what’s great about here. We’re in a great place, we have a great campus, and everything’s brand—spanking new here.”
Mellon adds that many prospective non-local players have relatives in the Okanagan, and it can’t hurt that people who’ve visited Kelowna likely did so during tourist season, leaving them with fun summer memories of the place.
“Location, location, location. That’s one thing that we sell, is who doesn’t want to live in Kelowna and go to UBCO?”
Beyond location, the main advantage UBCO has over similarly-sized schools is the name: a global top-40 degree from a school of only 8,500.
“I think you have to go pretty far to beat an opportunity to play at an institution like UBC,” says Heather Semenuik, “This is what’s gonna take you through your life. The experience in basketball will be a memory forever, but the education is what you have in your back pocket.”
UBCO has grown exponentially in the past decade: there are six thousand more students receiving that UBC education than there were coming through Okanagan University College. That growth has always been easy to see, with every year bringing a new building and a longer line at Tim’s. But the growth of the school’s amenities has been less visible. The journey to top-level competition has been long and heavy with setbacks for the Heat. The fans who watch them only know the final product, but for the coaches and personnel and athletes who worked for years to make it happen, those memories of those years of creating the Heat remain. And those memories, together, tell the story of the most important time in UBCO’s sports history.
With files from Kaeleigh Phillips
Here's how the Heat's 2014/2015 seasons turned out (click to view full size)