LANGLEY — Ask Savannah Purdy to describe the worst volleyball team in the entire history of her sport, and with a lighthearted laugh, she would likely pick the team she was a part of during her Grade 6 season at Victoria’s Spencer Middle School.
“I remember in the very first tournament, the first game we played, we lost 25-1,” she says. “It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come.”
When the 2017 Big Kahuna B.C. senior girls AAAA volleyball championships open a three-day run Thursday, Purdy and a number of her teammates from that very same rag-tag unit will take their place at the Langley Events Centre as the province’s highest-tiered defending champions, and as it’s No. 1 seed.
“(Belmont head coach) Mike (Toakley) always tell us that in that first year, we might have won one set,” adds the 6-foot-1 Purdy, a Trinity Western recruit who is regarded as perhaps the best attacking player in the province.
Key additions have joined the team along the way, but in this day and age of powerhouse programs casting their magnetic aura beyond typical catchements, and relying on key feeder schools, it’s fun to say that Belmont Bulldogs senior girls volleyball is an outlier.
Toakley has been the caretaker to the school’s only two other B.C. senior varsity title winners — a boys champ in 1997 and a girls champ in 2001 — but now, on the heels of last season’s odds-defying girls AAAA title, won with a team of Grade 10s and 11s, the program looks to have finally reached the middle of what could be, at minimum, a productive three-season run.
Seniors Purdy and Hannah May, the latter committed to U Sports’ Grant MacEwan Griffins in Edmonton, give the Bulldogs a pair of top-level collegiate recruits.
And behind them are four Class of ’19 grads in current Grade 11s Gracie May (middle), Taylee Pomponi (setter), Jocelyn Sherman (power) and newcomer Aspen Nemeth (middle).
And Toakley credits an essential part of the success of the team to Elaine Anderson, an assistant coach who was a player on his 2001 title team.
THE POWER TO EMPOWER
When you field a team of Grades 10s and 11s, and somehow you meet every challenge by rallying from big losses, winning five setters, and finally, beating a very good Handsworth Royals’ team 3-0 in the 2016 championship match, the next chapter can go one of two ways.
That’s was the CV of Belmont as it headed from 2016 into the current season.
To the Bulldogs credit, says Toakley, they not only experienced heartbreak, they learned from it, and made themselves wiser.
Ranked No. 1 in the province late in the 2016 campaign, they stumbled and fell at the Island championships, plummeted to No. 10 and then had to take the doomsday route of the wildcard path just to get to the final field of 16.
Then once at the B.C.’s, they teetered on the brink, falling in the fourth set of a quarterfinal clash with Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers, only to rally in the fifth, a victory which allowed them yet another new life en route to the title win.
“They are much more humble as a result of how they got to the B.C.’s last year,” Toakley says in the kind of learning-the-hard-way tone. “They recognized that at any moment they could be bit by a team they didn’t see coming. From the wildcard berth to that five-set win, it could have so easily gone the other way and maybe we would have finished fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth.”
Instead, a winning response was summoned at every cue.
Ask Toakley to break that one down and all he can say is this: “There is no question that they all like each other. This is a very strong social unit. When they lost in that fourth set to Lord Tweedsmuir last year, I remember that I remember I didn’t have to say a thing.
“They gathered themselves in a huddle,” he continued, “and then each had something positive to say. They knew how to work each other to go.”
And then Toakley offers illuminating insight with the kind of observation that should empower any coach who takes pride in the fact a team’s own internal leadership can trump anything a coach has to say.
“When I saw that,” he said, “it made me realize that we have a lot of leaders in our group, but not a lot of bosses.”
THE SPIRIT OF STICK-ING TOGETHER
Ask Purdy about the rough but intrinsically essential lessons she and her teammates learned as they scraped and clawed just to get into last season’s 2016 tournament, and all of the self-starting team traits Toakley has observed manifest themselves in a most delightful and kooky kind of way.
“Yeah, we had a rough time last year,” admits Purdy. “But then we had a team bonding session. One of the girls brought this wooden stick out. It’s not very long, but now it’s our lucky charm.
“We call it our Spirit Stick and it brought us out of our rut.”
So much so that after presented to team newcomer Nemeth to caretake over the summer, it has been brought back this season, with more and more additions being made, from glitter to bells to feathers, to whatever brings karma.
“It’s kind of silly,” prefaces Purdy, “but any time we drop it, we put on a band-aid on it.”
And thus the bid for a repeat title resumes this week and the Bulldogs look to have as good a chance as any to come away victorious.
They’ve come a long, long way from their former days as rag-tag middle schoolers, when few could find their way to the short end of a score with such stunning efficiency as they.
“All of this, it almost never happened,” laughs Toakley. “Things could have been completely different. We like talking about that every now and then. But no matter, they all became such fast friends, and we all know that no matter what happens on or off the court, that they will always be lifelong friends.”
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