LANGLEY — You don’t build a university sports dynasty by diligently following the same footsteps as the rest of the pack.
Instead, if you’re the men’s volleyball program at Langley’s Trinity Western University, you cultivate your own belief system of what matters most and you act accordingly, bringing student-athletes into your program whom others may not have prioritized as must-wins in their own recruiting battles.
In a nutshell, that is the best way to explain why a fluid, blue-chip 6-foot-7 high school basketball star named Jackson Corneil, who could have had his pick of literally any university in the country at which to dribble, shoot and dunk, will soon focus full-time on volleyball, a sport he never even played at his high school, but one which becomes his sole focus this fall when he joins a TWU’s Spartans program which has won three of the last four Tantramar Trophies, emblematic of U Sports men’s national championship supremacy.
“That was a really tough one,” Corneil told Varsity Letters earlier this month after getting off the basketball court with the rest of his teammates from Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary, following a game at the Tsumura Basketball Invitational.
“I spent a lot of nights up at 3 a.m. asking myself ‘What am I going to do,” continued Corneil, whose parents both played university volleyball, and who last season helped lead Tweedsmuir’s Panthers to the top-tiered B.C. Quad-A basketball crown.
This is a story about a 50-50 love affair between two sports, but it’s also a story about stripping away generations of misguided belief which have told us to watch a developing athlete solely through the single prism of his or her primary sport.
ACT 2: PROOF POSITIVE
Maybe there is something to the fact that as successful as he has become at the helm of a program which he has coached to five national titles the past nine seasons, that Trinity Western Spartans’ head men’s volleyball coach Ben Josephson can still see himself as the basketball player who graduated from Strathmore (Alta.) High in the 1990s.
“Maybe I do look back on my own story a little bit,” said Josephson on Wednesday as he addressed the multi-talented Corneil. “I was more of a basketball player in high school, and now, we have these guys like Eric Loeppky and Jackson Howe, athletes who can play a lot of different sports and play them all at a really high level.
“It’s something to be able to recruit an athlete like Jackson Corneil, who in basketball, can play the point (at 6-foot-7) just as easily as he can go down and play in the post,” Josephson continued. “Then, once you start building your body for volleyball, gaining more flexibility and getting more explosive, you have that great foundation from all of the other sports you’ve played. It’s why elite athletes are so good at moving, being powerful and having awareness of their body in space.”
There is, of course, a precedent here so overwhelmingly in favour of Josephson’s belief on this specific topic that he could write a thesis on it.
Back in the 2011-12 season, Ryan Sclater of PoCo’s Terry Fox Secondary turned in a high school basketball season so complete that he was named the MVP of the top-tiered 2012 Quad-A championship tournament after helping lead the Ravens to the B.C. title.
With a story stunningly similar to Corneil’s, Sclater, who is also 6-foot-7, also happened to play at a high school which did not field a boys volleyball team.
Yet after getting a recruiting pitch from Josephson, who had seen him play club volleyball, Sclater chose to come to TWU to spike, block and serve.
By 2017, following five one-better-than-the-next seasons, Sclater had turned in one of the most decorated careers in program history.
Not only did he help the Spartans win back-to-back national titles over his final two seasons with the program, he exited as the Canada West and U Sports Player of the Year, has become a mainstay with the Canadian senior men’s national team, and currently plays professionally at the top levels in France.
“Ryan was not the most talented guy when he came here, but now he is one of the best in all of Team Canada,” adds Josephson of Sclater. “Multi-sport athletes have a higher end. Anecdotally I have always believed it, but the science talks it.”
NO SECRET TO SUCCESS
If Ben Josephson had only watched Jackson Corneil through the single-sport prism of his time with the Fraser Valley Volleyball Club and Team B.C., he would have missed more than half of the picture.
In both 2016 and ’17, Corneil lined up as a wide receiver with the Lord Tweedsmuir high school teams which won back-to-back Subway Bowl B.C. junior varsity football championships.
In the spring of 2018, he was a mainstay on the Tweedsmuir team which lost to Vancouver’s St. George’s Saints in the B.C. junior varsity basketball championship final game.
And then last season, he was the lone member of the Grade 11 contingent to earn a starting role on the Panthers’ team which so dramatically won the B.C. senior boys Quad-A hoops title over Kelowna before a sell-out crowd at the Langley Events Centre.
To Josephson, who seems to be able to innately weigh the impact of just such outside accomplishments as part of an athlete’s overall resume, this was all substantial stuff.
“I think certain things jump out as soon as you watch him,” Josephson begins. “To me, whether it’s basketball or volleyball, he is just a competitor. And, he’s been part of winners. The great club volleyball system, and Team B.C. The junior (varsity) football titles. Last year’s (senior varsity) provincials in basketball. He has won at every level and that kind of championship mindset is hard to cultivate as a coach. It’s about the kind of person who understands how to win, understands how to play a role, and who doesn’t need to be the star.”
Ask Corneil about playing sports, and it’s clear that his mom and dad, Sarah and Jeff Corneil, have played a huge role in terms of their overall positivity.
“They both played (volleyball) in university, there’s a picture of them down in the basement,” says Corneil.
Sarah Corneil coached the Lord Tweedsmuir senior girls volleyball team this season to the Final Four at the recent B.C. Quad-A championships.
Yet despite his family ties to volleyball, Jackson himself didn’t even start to play seriously until the ninth grade.
By that time he had already played club basketball and had started playing football.
Yet just as Josephson targeted Corneil based on the wide-angle view of his athleticism and competitive DNA, Corneil himself lists a prime mentor who resonated most with him because he stressed sport and life.
“I was fortunate enough to meet a guy named Dwayne Selby and he was unreal,” Corneil says. “He’s the best trainer and he coached me in basketball… but he was more like a life coach, too. He taught me to be a good leader, how to keep my composure.. all that stuff. So that guy… everything I am today is because of him.”
Which brings us to the challenge which lies ahead for Jackson Corneil.
He’ll continue to lead his high school basketball team through the winter and into the spring. Then, it’s another club volleyball season where FVVC should again be a national-title contender.
After that, it’s becoming a one-sport athlete for the first time in his life, on the volleyball court, with the TWU Spartans.
“(Josephson) has mentioned Ryan (Sclater) to me and how he likes to take basketball guys and turn them into volleyball players,” laughs Corneil. “I am not going to lie. I am probably not the most skilled (volleyball) player there is. Playing with guys at Trinity like Eric Loeppky, Jacob Kern and Jackson Howe, they are all unreal. Sometimes I am just sitting there saying ‘What am I doing here?’ But I totally believe in (Josephson).”
Yes, three of the last four Tantramar national title trophies have been hoisted by the Spartans, and Josephson has won the top prize a total of five times since becoming head coach prior to the 2007-08 season.
The reason for the success, he says, is simple, and it’s the same philosophy that Corneil is already following in his own life.
“The only secret to our success is that we just train harder and longer,” Josephson begins. “Jackson is an absolute workhorse. So many kids these days, they think that LeBron just appeared. Jackson just gets that you have to work.”
And like every great athlete, there is a competitive streak within Corneil that can not stay hidden too long.
“One of the reasons was that there was a lot of doubt around me going to Trinity to play volleyball, and I love it when people doubt me,” Corneil explains.
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