A lot has changed since Yassine Ghomari first walked on the grounds of UBC Okanagan back in the fall of 2007.
In addition to the construction of dozens of new buildings all across the Kelowna-based campus, the 23-year-old from Vancouver has watched student enrollment nearly double in just five years to more than 8,000.
As a player with the Heat men’s basketball team, Ghomari has also witnessed firsthand the evolution and growth of varsity sports on campus and how Heat athletics are, at least in some way, helping to define UBC Okanagan’s identity.
This fall, four Heat teams—men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball—are entering their second full season of Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition, the highest level of post-secondary athletics in the country.
“Of course, the school itself has changed a lot,” said Ghomari, who first suited up for the Okanagan Lakers of the BCCAA in 2007-08. “When you’re an athlete you see another side of it, too. Athletics has grown so much, the funding, the exposure it gets has really gone up. We’re getting better facilities all the time, we’re getting bigger and better recruits, our coaching is very good. It’s exciting for us to be a part of the CIS and to see what’s happening here on campus.”
The first year of Canada West competition created its share of challenges for the UBCO athletics department but, by and large, athletics director Rob Johnson was encouraged by the way Heat coaches and players responded to the considerable step up from the college level.
All four teams enjoyed a degree of success on the court, particularly the Heat men’s volleyball squad which made the Canada West playoffs on its first try.
But as much as there was emphasis on wins and losses in year one, Johnson said proving UBC Okanagan would be a viable and respected Canada West member for the long-term future was the primary focus.
“It was a big learning curve for us on all fronts, for the student athletes and the competition level they saw, and from an administrative aspect, it was all new,” Johnson said. “But so far, so good I would say. I thought as a group we did a pretty good job, from the conduct of our student athletes, to our coaches who showed strong leadership. A culture has been created where expectations are clearly understood of how we want people representing UBCO, and that’s the direction we want to keep moving in.”
If all goes as planned, Heat varsity athletics will officially become a permanent fixture in the Canada West conference by next spring.
The program’s three-year probationary period ends with a vote in May 2013, and with 75 per cent approval from Canada West membership, the UBCO would attain full-time member status.
UBCO has also applied for admittance for both Heat soccer programs and if successful, the men’s and women’s teams would join the Canada West conference in the fall of 2014.
Although Canada West competition is still a relatively new concept at UBCO, it hasn’t taken long for athletes, students and the community at large to realize just how significant a move it has been for Heat programs.
Women’s volleyball coach Steve Manuel said the impact of CIS sports on the local campus can’t be overestimated.
“There’s much more of a feeling now that (the CIS) is the real deal, there’s a real buzz about what’s happening here,” said Manuel, in his 12th season as coach of the women’s volleyball team. “There’s real a recognition factor and respect that comes with being in Canada West.
“It’s exciting and we’re getting known not just on campus, but in the community, in the province and across Western Canada. We’re making a name for ourselves in a hurry and people are taking notice. For lack of a better term, we’re in the big-time now.”
For UBCO student-athletes, such as volleyball’s Kendra Wayling, competing in the big-time against the country’s best athletes, has required a whole new level of commitment and dedication.
Even with a full load of classes piled on top, the fourth-year player from Castelgar isn’t complaining.
“We take things a little more seriously, we all have to work harder at it than we did in the college league,” Wayling said. “Every match is huge for us, you feel like there’s something at stake every time you play. You sacrifice a lot more, working out, trying to balance school and all the volleyball and stuff, so you have to be committed and organized. But it’s so much fun. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Since its move to Canada West, UBC Okanagan is now going head-to-head with many of the bigger, established schools when it comes to competing for and recruiting the top available talent in Canada. As members of the BCCAA, that wasn’t often the case.
“It seemed to take a while to get some traction, but once we got into Canada West, recruiting became that much easier,” said Johnson. “Athletes who have looked at UBC, Alberta, or Victoria in the past are also looking at us now. Those high-level athletes who wouldn’t give us a second thought before are now seeing us as a viable option. For me as an administrator, that’s a beautiful thing.”
What also brings a smile to Johnson’s face is the popularity of Heat apparel, as the student body and the community have clearly climbed board with the brand of UBCO athletics. Sales of clothing bearing the Heat logo are more popular than ever.
“You really see people buying into it, they want to know where they can get Heat apparel,” Rob Johnson said. “The kids with our junior Heat basketball program are really excited to wear it. It’s great that people are connecting with the name and logo.”
While much of the focus the last several years has been preparing for and ensuring the success and viability of the Heat’s Canada West varsity squads, Johnson said the athletic department is in the process of widening its scope.
“The whole application process and the first year of Canada West took a lot of time and energy,” Johnson said. “Now we can work on organizing things a little better, reflect on what we’ve done and see what’s the best way to function. Now we really want to focus on campus recreation and facilities, to provide programs and services that will benefit the campus and the community. We see UBCO as being a valuable community hub.”
Part of that initiative includes a new fitness centre currently under construction beside the UBCO gymnasium. Named The Hangar, the majority of the $4.1-million project has been financed by Kelowna’s Lapointe family, on behalf of Kelowna Flightcraft. The two-floor, 9,000 square-foot facility features a wide range of fitness equipment and studio space, and should be completed by the spring of 2013.
Another of Rob Johnson’s visions is the potential addition of a wellness and recreation centre to the existing gymnasium. The blueprint for the big-box style structure calls for a new three-court gymnasium, research facilities and a sports medicine clinic.
“The biggest need in the Okanagan is more court space and more artificial fields and this would address some that need,” said Johnson, who hopes to see the facility added within five years. “It’s another way for us to connect to the community.”
With UBC Okanagan basketball and volleyball teams already competing in Canada West and the soccer programs not far behind, many in the valley are wondering when university football might make its debut in Kelowna.
While UBCO remains interested in partnering with the Okanagan Sun and the potential of adding football in the future, athletic director Rob Johnson said any such plans are, for now, on hold.
“I think the institution and the Okanagan Sun are still very intrigued by the possibilities,” said Johnson. “There would be lots of positives that could come from that kind of arrangement. But it’s something we can’t really consider until we become full members in Canada West.”
Johnson said UBC Okanagan isn’t allowed to apply for any new sports until after the institution earns full membership from the Canada West conference. Canada West will hold a vote on UBCO’s status in May 2013.
“The earliest we could get approval for any new sport is May 2014,” Johnson said. “The Sun have told us they’d need two full years from approval to get ready for the transition.”
The Sun organization has already made a commitment to sharing the operating costs with UBC Okanagan should such a move happen.
Because of the large numbers of players and staff required, football is typically the most expensive program for a university to run.
“Yes, it’s a step we want to take but not before we’re in a position to make it work. You don’t start something that significant without a solid foundation. We’re going to do our best to make sure that’s the case.
“This will ultimately be a decision for the UBC Okanagan executive at some point in the future.”