As a teenager growing up and playing the game in Kamloops, Heather Semeniuk loved pretty much everything there was to love about basketball.
Nothing has really changed in the decades since, as she prepares for her final voyage as head coach of the UBC Okanagan Heat women’s team.
Now in her 21st season at the helm of the Okanagan’s varsity women’s basketball program, Semeniuk will officially retire from the post when the Heat’s 2014-15 Canada West campaign ends next spring.
Semeniuk’s post-secondary coaching journey began with Okanagan University College in the fall of 1994—the first year for the brand, spanking-new gymnasium on the north Kelowna campus.
“It was exciting,” Semeniuk recalled of her first days on the job. “The facility was big and beautiful and it was just exhilarating to think about the possibilities back then. (Athletic director) Rob Johnson was very proud of the gym and the teams we were going to put out on the floor. I remember it was an exciting time for both of us.”
Little did she know at the time, Semeniuk would go on to compile one of the lengthiest records of coaching service ever in Canadian college or university athletics, overseeing more than 350 regular season games while watching her teams score more than 23,000 points.
Among the many on-court highlights were a pair of provincial championships by her Okanagan teams, along with three trips to nationals.
Semeniuk also witnessed a series of important transitions during her 20-year-plus tenure—from the OUC Lakers to the Okanagan Lakers to the UBC Okanagan Heat.
Four seasons ago, with Semeniuk already pondering a possible exit from coaching, four Heat teams made their long-waited move into Canada West, the highest level of university athletics in the country.
It was enough to keep the veteran coach on board for one more tour of duty.
“I think at the time I might have been prepared to go, I thought maybe some new blood was needed,” she said. “But when I thought about watching my sons play Canada West, it tugged at my heart strings and I thought I had to give this a go. Rob (Johnson) was great and, in fact, kept all of the coaches on for the move to CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport). It was just such a cool opportunity.”
Rob Johnson, the only varsity athletic director on campus Heather has ever known, has watched Semeniuk ply her trade every day of the basketball season for the last two decades.
Johnson said her coaching style is about far more than practise drills and on-court strategies.
“Heather brought something that wasn’t all that common, a combination of technical expertise and concern for the entire person,” Johnson said. “Her philosophy was that we are educators and basketball is her class. It wasn’t necessarily about winning but teaching the skills that are necessary to succeed in life.
“The message was, we’re going to compete hard and try to win,” he added, “but we’re not going to define our success by winning. It’s a very positive message for young women.”
And Heather Semeniuk’s influence and legacy in the sport isn’t limited to just the UBCO campus.
Not surprisingly, her passion for the game has spread all across the Semeniuk family, making the name synonymous with the sport of basketball throughout the Central Okanagan.
Daughter Jacquie (Lalonde) starred at the University of Oregon for four seasons in the 1980s and 90s, and later married Al Lalonde, a former basketball star at both UBC and KSS. Jacquie and Al were also instrumental in helping Heather establish the now-thriving Junior Heat basketball program at UBCO.
Marc Semeniuk won two national championships as a player at the University of Alberta, coached at Mount Boucherie and has assisted his mom for several years with the women’s team at UBC Okanagan.
Youngest son, Darren, a former Canada West player at U of Alberta, coached at the high school level and was head of the men’s program at OUC and UBCO for seven seasons.
First-born son, Rob, also played basketball as a youngster.
In addition, there are 10 grandchildren, many of whom have shown a penchant and skill for dribbling and shooting a basketball.
And there is Dennis, Heather’s spouse of more than 40 years, who is considered by many the Heat’s No. 1 fan and a tireless supporter of UBC Okanagan basketball.
Kelowna’s Jack Hoy, who has been a fixture on the local hoops scene for more than 30 years as a coach, administrator and referee, has witnessed the impact the Semeniuk family has had on the local basketball community.
“It’s a family that’s always been very focused on basketball,” said Hoy, who coached both Marc and Darren as teenagers. “The parents were very supportive, the kids all played, and many of them are still involved in the game.
“You can’t go too far in the community without hearing the name and seeing the impact they’ve had. There are obviously good genes there, and a real passion and love for the game.”
Marc Semeniuk is both proud and humbled by the recognition his family has received over the years for their involvement and contributions to basketball—all of it originating with his mom’s love for the game.
Heather played the sport at the university and senior levels, coached her kids at elementary school, mentored teenaged players as a high school coach at KSS, and eventually assumed the lead role for post-secondary women’s basketball in Kelowna—all of it while maintaining an unwavering passion and fascination for the game.
“She was coach, advocator, mentor, you name it. She loved basketball and she was there for us 100 per cent…as was my dad,” said Marc Semeniuk.
“It’s an amazing feeling knowing that people do talk about the Semeniuk family when people talk about basketball, I’m very proud to be a Semeniuk,” Marc added. “My sister and brothers, going through high school, university and college, being able to represent our family through sports and having that recognition of being basketball family…it’s all pretty cool.”
As for his mom’s last tour of duty at UBC Okanagan this season, Marc has conflicting feelings but knows she is bidding farewell in precisely the manner she had planned on.
“I’m happy that she’s leaving on her terms and is ready to move on, but sad that she’s not going to be there any more doing what she loves to do so much,” Marc said.
“We’ve been a family that’s come out and watched mom coach over the years and supported her. And for our kids, to have a grandma that’s a CIS coach, that’s pretty impressive.
“I wish her the best when she does say good bye and has her last game here.”
As many memorable moments as there have been for Heather Semeniuk on the court over the last two decades, what she values most from her coaching experience are the people—in particular the 125 female student-athletes she’s coached over a 20-year span.
“It’s funny, people talk about wins and losses, but for me it’s the opportunity I had to coach some amazing young women,” she said. “There are many of them working in the area still, I’ve been to a few weddings and met a few new, little babies, too.
“I loved the opportunity to be able to bring young women together to appreciate the sport and support each other. It’s all so much bigger than just the game.”
Among those many young women Semeniuk has coached over the years is Aidan Cole, who suited up for OUC between the 1996 and 2000 seasons.
Cole remembers the positive and productive environment fostered both by Heather and her assistants. In addition to owning a provincial gold medal from the 1999-2000 season, Cole has retained some lifelong friendships.
“We didn’t win very many games during my time there, but in my last year we ended up winning provincials and going to nationals,” Cole said. “We weren’t necessarily the most talented team, but Heather (and assistant) Lisa (Nevoral) really helped us bond together that year. The environment we had was one of team work, but it wasn’t just about basketball.
“Some of my teammates then are still some of my best friends. With Heather, it was a really positive, fun experience.”
With the 2014-15 version of the Heat being the last team she will guide, Heather has already done plenty of reflecting on her long and fulfilling career as a college and university coach.
And while she admits she will likely miss frequenting the UBCO gym as she has for the 21 seasons, Semeniuk believes she’ll leave the position with no regrets.
“I just want to make sure I enjoy every minute of this last season,” she said. “One thing I can say is that I will adjust, I will be ready to move on. It’s hard to be sad when you feel good about what you’ve been a part of for so long.”
Heather Semeniuk will officially begin her final season as head coach of the Heat women when UBC Okanagan hosts Fraser Valley in Canada West action on Friday, Nov. 7 at the Kelowna campus gym.