If only there was a way to measure the actual heartbeat of the B.C. senior girls Quad-A high school volleyball championship tournament set for first serve this Thursday in Nanaimo.
Awarded, cancelled, re-awarded, postponed, rescheduled, very nearly cancelled again, and earlier this week, re-instated to all of its original glory, you could almost say that it carries a positive air of gratitude, the same human quality most closely mirrored by its actual hosts: The Dolphins of Dover Bay Secondary School.
“Throughout all of this, we talked in practice that it might all be cancelled but that we should just be grateful that we were able to have a season at all,” explained longtime Dover Bay head coach David Nelson of a tournament which the Dolphins were supposed to host last season before it was wiped clean by COVID, and were then supposed to host this past Thursday through Saturday before being postponed and later re-scheduled to this coming week following flooding throughout the province.
“The kids were content with whatever happened, resilient in knowing that they’d still had a season,” continued Nelson. “But when they heard there was a still a chance, yes, they got very excited.”
Of course with the intent to chase a B.C. championship title, but as much to play at their highest level in honour of a fallen teammate, one whose passing just under 15 months ago to a rare form of spinal cancer continues to remind them all of the precious gift of life.
“She was like a big sister to me,” explains Dolphins’ Grade 11 middle blocker Ava George of Reilly, who in the fall of her Grade 11 year of 2018-19 was set to begin her own senior varsity career as a Dover Bay libero before being diagnosed with a tumour inside her spinal cord that October. “She was so uplifting. She could light up a room.”
Through paralysis, numbness, back pain, surgeries, treatments and countless setbacks, she fought her cancer, but sadly, Michelle succumbed to her two-year battle in September of 2020, just days shy of her 18th birthday.
And although she was never able to play for the Dolphins’ senior varsity, her level of presence with the current team has remained extraordinary.
While her No. 10 has been retired by the girls volleyball program, the number itself along with a cancer ribbon insignia adorns the upper arm of each and every player’s game jersey.
So top of mind is Reilly to every member of the program, that two weekends ago, in the moments following the Dolphins’ greatest accomplishment as a team, a somewhat unexpected and thoroughly inspiring Vancouver Island Quad-A championship title won right in its own gymnasium, the team’s trophy photo shows Dover Bay’s Rosalie Beaudoin holding up a framed photo of Reilly.
Ranked No. 9 at the time, the current Dolphins had never managed to beat crosstown for Nanaimo District at any stage of their high school careers.
Yet in the tournament semifinals, they emerged 2-0 (25-20, 25-18) victors over the No. 3 B.C.-ranked Islanders, then in the final went the distance, rallying from the brink of 0-2 to beat Victoria’s Claremont Spartans, ranked No. 6, by a 3-2 (19-25, 20-25, 25-19, 25-18, 15-12) count.
It was the kind of day Michelle Reilly loved, standing alongside her friends, making a dig, celebrating with teammates.
“But she never got to play for us,” continued Nelson. “She was an amazing kid. The perfect teammate. Always smiling. Always positive. At the Islands, we raised about $200 in her name for Children’s Hospital, but when I got on the mike afterwards to thank everybody, I couldn’t get through the awards ceremony without getting choked up.”
The Dolphins are polishing up the gym to welcome the rest of the province this coming week, although because of varying conditions around B.C., even Nelson can’t say who exactly is going to be able to show up. All of that is supposed to become much clearer on Monday.
Yet perspective tells him it’s all going to be okay because first and foremost, high school sports are back.
“I am lifetime coach in high school, I coached my first team in 1990 and I see the value of what we do in our hallways and our classrooms,” he begins. “This year, especially after last year, and the pandemic and dealing with all that, to give these kids the opportunity to play again has been amazing, unbelievable.
“You can see it in how they walk down the hallways. It can’t be replaced by any club system. You can’t replace what happens in schools anywhere. They are not going to remember their chemistry class or their socials class, but my Grade 12s will remember (winning the Islands) forever.”
And as they mourn the loss of their friend, each day through ever-maturing eyes, they have begun to understand, ever more deeply, the true nature of the gifts Reilly left behind for them… gifts which gain their meaning through the passing of time.
“Even if we had never gotten to play another match this year, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Nelson assures, “because we built all of these memories and relationships together. They go beyond sports. I’ve never been a coach about the W’s. I have 17 girls on my team because we didn’t even get a season last year. Who am I to tell kids they can’t play after all of that.”
It’s Ava George telling me about the special tribute on the tongues of her volleyball shoes, and it’s David Nelson putting pristine focus on why, coming out of a pandemic, that the community of high school sports is on so many levels, a magic elixir which can’t be replicated anywhere else.
And it is because of who Michelle Reilly was to so many, within the very environment of which we speak, that her presence continues to be felt so deeply within the lifeblood of a high school sports team.
So whether they have known it or not, these Dover Bay Dolphins have been honouring her memory just by being themselves.
“The best way to do it?” asks Nelson of his players paying tribute to their fallen friend. “Just give everything you have the way that she would have.”
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