UBC Okanagan athletics director Rob Johnson and his department have put years of planning into the institution's upcoming move to Canada West competition.

UBCO sports teams ready for the big leagues

No one needs to tell Chandler Proch that the step up to Canada West sports competition next season will be a formidable challenge for UBC Okanagan.

It only makes the highly-anticipated move out of the B.C. Colleges Athletics Association that much more intriguing for the 18-year-old member of the Heat women’s volleyball team.

“It’s a huge challenge for us but it’s nice to know that we’re going to be part of a big change here on campus and in Kelowna,” said Proch, a KSS grad and rookie with the Heat this season. “There’s a whole vibe and feel about this level of play, people seem to be a lot more interested in our sports now that this is happening.

“To be part of a varsity program that’s evolving before our eyes is incredibly exciting.”

Although the move is still one step away from final approval, the Heat men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams are slated to begin play this fall in the Canada West conference—the highest level of varsity athletics in the country.

The lone hurdle left to cross is the official endorsement of Canadian Interuniversity Sport at the national governing body’s annual meeting this June in Victoria.

If CIS membership votes in UBCO’s favour, then Heat teams will be welcomed aboard for the start of the 2011-12 season.

Two members of the CIS executive committee paid a visit to the Kelowna campus this week for a final site inspection and to meet with UBCO athletics director Rob Johnson.

“From what we could tell, they were very pleased with what they saw here and what we have to offer,” said Johnson. “We’ll find out in June if we can take that last step.”

More than three years in the making, UBC Okanagan’s first application for admittance into Canada West in 2009 was denied when the conference chose to postpone all new memberships for one year.

But 12 months later, in May 2010, UBCO’s patience and persistence were rewarded when the four Heat teams finally received the green light from Canada West.

And, as expected, the move to the new conference brings with it both perks and challenges for the UBC Okanagan athletics department.

With a considerable amount of travel required for away games—as far east as Brandon and Winnipeg—Johnson said the athletics budget has had to be ramped up considerably to meet those expenses.

There will also be fierce competition for talent, as opposing Canada West schools pull out all the stops to try and land elite student athletes from across the country.

On the upside, the Heat has been able to hire four full-time coaches for the first time, a necessity in order for programs to compete at the CIS level.

The transition to Canada West has also meant improvements to facilities, including four new team rooms inside the gym. And thanks to a private donor, a new fitness centre will be built on campus in the next year and a half.

In addition, Johnson expects competing against bigger and better known schools than in the BCCAA will raise the profile of UBC Okanagan, both here and abroad.

“From our campus perspective and in the community there’s a real interest in seeing that product up close and in person,” said Johnson. “The fact you’re going to play against our sister campus (UBC), or against the University of Alberta has a certain appeal.

“A lot of people who work here and in the community, also feel that’s the highest level. There’s an optical difference, and a respect difference, that if you’re in that league you’re competing with the big dogs.”

So not surprisingly, admittance into Canada West comes with heightened expectations for new schools, both on and off the field of play.

Foremost is an institution’s ability to put competitive teams on the floor against CIS schools—a new standard of competition Heat programs haven’t yet had a lot of exposure to.

“Will we come out of the gate in Canada West and burn the place up? Probably not, but I do feel we’re going to be pretty competitive,” said Johnson.

“At the Canada West level, the difference is size, speed and technical ability of the student-athlete.

“All levels, in my opinion, have increased tremendously over the last 10 years or so.

The difference is when you go watch a Canada West competition, everybody’s bigger, everybody’s stronger, everybody’s faster, everybody’s better. This is where the premier athletes play.”

The UBC Okanagan women’s volleyball squad has proven it isn’t that far off the Canada West mark after holding its own against CIS competition during the 2010-11 preseason. The two-time CCAA national champs and three-time B.C. champs went a respectable 4-6, which included wins over Calgary, Brandon and Thompson Rivers, while losing two very tight matches to Manitoba.

“It was great for our team to see that we really could do it,” said Heat women’s volleyball coach Steve Manuel. “If you get totally wiped out, then you’re thinking you’re just not ready. But the way we competed against those bigger, stronger teams, we know we’re pretty darn close. It was important to show the league we belonged. We add a couple more bodies in the off-season and we’ll be right there.”

Size, speed and strength are important and necessary attributes that clearly haven’t been lost on Micah Cockrill of the Heat men’s basketball team.

The Chilliwack product and member of the BCCAA’s all-rookie team knows the jump to Canada West will be considerable, and plans to leave no stone unturned in being prepared for the rigors of basketball in the big time.

“(Head coach) Darren (Semeniuk) said what we’ve been doing as far as our training up until now is really just the minimum,” said Cockrill, 18. “We’re going to see a whole different level of athlete in Canada West, so we’re going to need to raise ourselves to that level. Bigger, stronger and faster…I’m going to be working hard on all those things this summer.”

Ensuring that current Heat athletes are in prime physical condition for their first season of CIS play is just part of the battle.

Johnson said UBCO’s ability to recruit elite student-athletes in the years to come will determine the success of Heat programs over the long term.

And, given time, he’s confident all UBCO teams will be able to deliver the necessary commodities.

Johnson said the attractiveness of a UBC degree without having to move to a city of two million, the quality of coaching at the Kelowna campus, excellent facilities, and life in the Okanagan in general should all aid the Heat in its recruiting efforts.

“To compete at this level you need to get kids who can play at that level and there’s a lot of competition out there for those players,” Johnson said. “I think when you put that whole package here together and look at it, a lot of student-athletes are looking at it and starting to think ‘Yeah, that is a pretty attractive package.’

“So, from our perspective, we need to get to some key players who are coming out of high school in the next couple of years and get them to come to UBC Okanagan. Once you get two or three blue-chip athletes who have the academics to get here and stay here, you start attracting other people like them.”

While plenty of time, energy and resources over the next year will be put into ensuring the basketball and volleyball programs make a successful debut in 2011-12, UBCO hopes its long-term future in Canada West will include the addition of several more sports—the Heat men’s and women’s soccer teams among them.

The potential of Canada West football coming to Kelowna is moving closer to reality as UBCO and the Okanagan Sun junior club continue their discussions about a possible partnership.

With considerable resources required to run such a program—more than any other varsity sport—Johnson said adding football would be a significant undertaking.

Still, if all goes as planned, he could envision a UBCO squad taking to the gridiron within the next two to three years.

“With 40 players and another 10 support staff going on the road for games, this isn’t a small ticket item,” he said. “It’s a commitment that both the university and the Sun would share in funding that kind of a program.

“You need a lot of support to generate the kind of revenue needed, and the Sun have been very well supported over the years…they’re been a very good organization, too.

“Their games in the fall are a real event,” Johnson added. “University football I think would resonate with the students and with the community. It’s a great opportunity for everybody, but again the resources needed are considerable.”

Future teams aside, Heat athletics remains firmly focused on the ‘now’ as the basketball and volleyball teams prepare to enter a new world in the fall of 2011.

The preliminary draft of the 2011-12 Canada West regular schedule has the Heat men’s and women’s volleyball teams hosting University of Winnipeg Wesmen on Oct. 28 as UBC Okanagan makes its official debut against CIS competition.

And no one is more enraptured with the idea than women’s volleyballer Chandler Proch.

“When we get into that league, every game will be intense, like playing in a final,” said Proch. “I know a lot of us can hardly wait for October.

“We’re playing with the big schools, we’ll be an underdog going in, but now we know we’re on the same stage as the UBCs and the U of As. I think it’s going to be great for the players, the fans, the u niversity and Kelowna.”

 

whenderson@kelownacapnews.com