When Chandler Proch was first recruited to play for the UBC Okanagan women’s volleyball program, she fully bought into coach Steve Manuel’s notion that the Heat would one day be on equal footing with the nation’s top teams.
That day has arrived sooner than either Proch or Manuel expected, as the Heat find themselves sitting on top of the Canada West conference with a 12-4 win-loss record.
In addition, the UBCO women head into the Christmas break as the second-ranked team the country—the highest grade ever reached by a Heat team at the CIS level.
To be in their current situation just 3 1/2 seasons into their Canada West tour is everything—and more—Proch hoped it would be.
“I know that when I was recruited, Steve was not only convincing but he was believable when he said that there were great things ahead for the program and, in time, we would be very successful,” said Proch, a KSS grad and co-captain with the Heat. “We knew the first year would be tough, but since then the progression has been surprising…in a really good way. We have a well-rounded team that wins with depth and hard work.
“Steve had an amazing vision for the program right from the start,” added Proch, “and I think we’ve made it there at an accelerated pace.”
After winning the national collegiate titles in 2009 and 2010, it was apparent the Heat was ready to take the big step out of the BCCAA.
Predictably, their first Canada West season (2011-12) came with its share of struggles and tribulations as UBCO posted a 6-14 record and missed the playoffs.
But progress has been steady ever since, with the Heat making the quarterfinals in 2013, then the Canada West Final Four in the spring of 2014, falling just a win shy of a trip to nationals.
Now, as the second-ranked team in the nation—and riding a season-high eight-match winning streak—Steve Manuel said the program’s growth into a viable contender in Canada West has been a rewarding journey.
“A few years ago in the college league we felt pretty good about what we were doing, but we always felt like we were preparing for something bigger,” said Manuel. “Now that we’re this far into Canada West, I’d have to say things have gone as well as expected, maybe even more so. We have student athletes who have totally bought in…they have input too, and it works very well. There is an air of confidence, everyone is motivated, so the plan seems to be working. It’s full steam ahead from here.”
On the court, Manuel is quick to credit the players for their work ethic and commitment to the Heat program.
“We are very happy with how this team has matured, you see it in the classroom, in the weight room, at practise…in everything they do. They’re putting in the effort and the wins are coming.”
As Proch alluded to, a deep, well-rounded roster has also had plenty to do with UBCO’s ascent to top spot this season.
Manuel backs up that theory.
“We’re doing it with a full lineup, we really do depend on a lot of different people,” said Manuel. “Some teams rely on seven or eight players, but that’s not the case with us. We’re doing it without that star player, the one with 30 kills in matches that everybody knows about. It really is the whole team concept for us.”
With wins this season over top teams such as Alberta, Trinity Western and Manitoba, the Heat has established itself as a bonafide contender on a national scale—a scenario many people didn’t believe was possible even a few years ago.
“I think we feel vindicated,” said Manuel. “For years we were told we wouldn’t get into CIS and if we did, we’d never be able to compete with the big schools. Now we’re not only in the same conversation, but we’re looking them in the eyes. Those schools still have an advantage from an experience standpoint, but we’re closing the gap and now I think it’s finally a fair fight.”
Stability on the UBCO coaching staff hasn’t hurt the program’s continued evolution either. Manuel and assistant Karl Enns are each in their 14th seasons with the program. Assistants Jackie Wong and Becki Kosinski are in their 10th and 9th years, respectively.
The Heat’s Canada West season resumes Jan. 9 in Kelowna when UBCO plays host to the Calgary Dinos.