BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Ask Gina Schmidt about her first official day on the job as the then-new head coach of the Simon Fraser Clan volleyball team and you get a story filled with both comedy and karma.

“I watched one practice where they weren’t really doing a lot of game play,” Schmidt remembers of a day in March of 2013 where, fresh on the recruiting trail, she had gone to watch a high school senior from Surrey’s Clayton Heights Secondary named Madison Power. “It was not a very telling practice.”

Maybe not, but something about Power convinced Schmidt to trust her gut.

Now, as both coach and player prepare to begin their fifth season together, viewing that day through big-picture glasses makes it hard to understate its actual importance.

After all, no matter the circumstances, you need a little serendipity to find those student-athletes whose very character can provide the underpinnings of your entire program. 

In this case, the details are important.

Due to her spring hiring date, Schmidt was entering the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s recruiting race woefully late in the game, so she needed players and she needed them fast.

The redshirt senior Power had verbally committed to SFU as an 11th grader, yet later learned that the landscape had changed when former head coach Lisa Sulatycki decided to resign before the 2013 campaign.

“I got a phone call in December of my Grade 12 year that the coach was leaving and that my offer was off the table,” remembers Power, a 6-foot middle blocker. “I was back to square one.

“But I decided that my education was more important, so I was going to come to SFU regardless of volleyball. But then Gina showed up at the end of March. She had never really seen me play but she said she would still take me. For a coach to take someone they don’t even know? I’ve always thought that was pretty generous.”

Madison Power (11) and the rest of the Clan qualified for the NCAA D2 national tournament a season ago. (Ron Hole/SFU athletics)

HER OWN KIND OF ALL-CONFERENCE

On Sept. 1, the Clan will be in San Diego for the Point Loma Nazarene Seaside Invitational,  opening their fifth campaign under the tutelage of Schmidt, the former lead assistant and recruiting coordinator at Div. 1 Montana, who this past February was named the head coach of Canada’s senior women’s national ‘B’ team.

Over her first four seasons at the helm, Simon Fraser had shown consistent improvement, to the point where last season, it established a new program standard for wins by going 21-7 overall including 14-6 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

The latter mark pushed the Clan to its first-ever NCAA D2 post-season berth.

Yet lockstep with that success comes the reality of the program’s first heavy graduation loss of its NCAA tenure.

Four standout players — Alison McKay, Devon May, Emma Jennings, Tamara Nipp — have left the program, and with a second phase of stars ready to deliver the team’s new identity, a player with Power’s intangible qualities is essential in bridging the transition.

“She was voted a team captain, which is not a surprise because she is just one of the most genuine people you will ever meet,” says Schmidt of Power, who will share the role with fellow senior Christine Howlett (outside) and junior Tessa May (middle), the latter pair announced Wednesday as part of the GNAC’s inaugural Pre-Season All-Conference team.

Ask Schmidt if Power has some all-conference credentials of her own and the answer is clear.

“She is the oldest one on the team but she is also that nurturing person,” begins Schmidt. “She has been here as long as I have and so she knows what my expectations are and exactly what I am looking for. That makes it so easy to talk to her about how I want to do things here.”

The term ‘Team Mom’, when applied to one of the players, might not seem like the most coveted of titles, but that is how Power is known, and she embraces it.

“My parents have always been hospitable, wanting everyone on a team to be involved, and I don’t know if it was that upbringing that led me to this,” laughs Power. “But it’s what I have brought into this team, and with me being in my fifth year now, you watch out for the young ones, just to make sure everyone feels included because you don’t want university to be a tough journey.”

Simon Fraser Clan head coach Gina Schmidt has built a family feeling within her GNAC women’s volleyball program. (Ron Hole/SFU athletics)

CAPTAIN CHARACTER

Losing three all-conference performers to graduation is tough for any program to absorb, and when the GNAC pre-season coaches poll was revealed Tuesday, SFU was picked to finish fifth in the 11-team conference, behind No. 1 powerhouse Alaska Anchorage, No, 2 Western Washington, No. 3 Northwest Nazarene and No. 4 Central Washington.

Yet there is a growing tradition swelling within the ranks of the Clan program, and with players like Power, Howlett and Tessa May having grown within that tradition, Schmidt likes to think that a key hurdle has already been cleared.

“I think there is an expectation now that we can win, that we’re not going to put limits on what we are able to achieve,” the coach says, referencing last season’s first-ever win over Western Washington and a revealing five-set loss to Anchorage. “So regardless of what the polls say, we know what we’re capable of doing.

“We have a new look but I think we’ll surprise some people in our conference,” Schmidt continues. “Obviously it will be about how fast we can catch up and how fast we can learn to play together because it is a new group.”

And that’s where the Power of Maddy comes into play.

“Over the summer I have kind of already talked to some of them and I just let them know that I already have their class schedules,” Power laughs of the proactive greeting she gave the Clan’s incoming crew of freshmen. 

“I just want to see them do well, and I want to see our program keep progressing,” continues Power, who in addition to coaching youth volleyball in her community and performing additional outreach work through Athletes In Action, will serve as this year’s co-president of the SFU Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC). “The leaders we’ve had here in the past have helped build this program and I want to do the same thing.”

A health sciences major, with a minor in kinesiology, Power hopes that her future will include traveling the world and helping the less fortunate.

“I love helping people, hence the Team Mom stuff,” she begins. “I would love to travel to developing countries and help with environmental issues like sustainability, or health care issues.”

Four seasons ago, until Schmidt gave her a second chance, Power was ready to give up volleyball and focus on her education. As the fifth season dawns, the win-win is so unmistakable that those big-picture glasses are no longer needed.

In her quest to build a family on and off the volleyball court, Gina Schmidt has looked for a little bit of Madison Power in every recruit she has since brought to the Burnaby Mountain campus.

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