LANGLEY — It’s hard not to call the tall-timbered senior boys volleyball team from tiny Vernon Christian School one of the biggest outliers in the history of B.C. high school sports.
After all, what are the chances that a gaggle of kids, together since the sixth grade at a kindergarten-through-Grade 12 school which competes at the Single-A level (80 or fewer boys in Grades 11-12), would grow into the kind of team which a few weekends ago took first place at Kelowna Secondary’s Best of the West Invitational, the most prestigious event of its kind in the province?
That’s the hook to this story of volleyball Hoosiers who even traverse the highways and byways of the province in their own mini bus.
Yet how is it that this band of small-school kids from an Okanagan school no one has ever mistaken for the likes of athletic behemoths like Vancouver College or Terry Fox Secondary has been able to state its case as perhaps this season’s best boys volleyball team in B.C. regardless of tier size?
“Everybody asks us ‘What are you guys doing over there?’” laughs VCS co-coach Dwayne Remple, whose team is not only uber-talented, but has, through its sheer physical size alone, the ability to set jaws drooping by simply walking through a set of gymnasium doors.
There’s 6-foot-8 Devin Hofsink, followed by 6-foot-7 Liam Remple, along with the 6-foot-5 duo of Josh Hall and Saul Saunders, the 6-foot-4 trio of Levi VanderDeen, Ben Molitwenik and Jacob Defeo, and 6-foot-3 Braeden McAmmond.
And while it’s not unusual for top teams to sport front-row hitters smaller than the team’s 5-foot-10 libero Shaun Huizinga, he just happens to be the Royals’ only sub six-footer.
So what does Remple tell all of those who wonder what must be in the water?
“I tell them ‘We just stand our guys in manure,’” he says with a hearty laugh. “Really, that’s why they have all grown so tall.”
The coach’s words are delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, yet there is something so remarkably organic about the way the 2019 Vernon Christian Royals have emerged as a volleyball giant in the same city where the crosstown Vernon Secondary Panthers are the favourites to not only repeat as Subway Bowl AA football champions, but to also win the B.C. senior boys AAA basketball title after finishing second a season ago.
“Dwayne has been working with this group since they were in Grade 6, and myself since they were in Grade 7,” says co-coach Chris Bannick.
Adds Remple, whose son Liam is one of the team’s top players: “Back then they were all fairly tall and you could see that if they could keep growing, that this could be a really good team. They love the game, they’ve kept maturing, and now it’s come to the point where they all just believe.”
Bannick can remember back to the team’s elementary school days, in the city final’s championship game, and how they served for the match with a level of detail that must have seemed completely foreign to their competition.
“Our setter goes and sets a 51,” says Bannick, of a scheme the Volleyball Canada website describes as “… a first tempo set meant to beat the blockers by speed and to create openings for the outside hitters by getting the middle blocker of the other team to commit block on the middle attacker.”
Adds Bannick: “Elementary teams don’t even know what that is. But back then we were already running systems and setter switches.”
Early in the season, in a match which quietly announced their arrival as one of the very best teams in the province, the Vernon Christian Royals went the distance but fell heartbreakingly short against the AAA No. 1-ranked and defending B.C. champion Earl Marriott Mariners of Surrey in the final of the Douglas College Invitational in New Westminster.
“It was right at the start of the season and it made the guys believe,” said Remple after Vernon Christian lost the opening set 28-26, but then came back to win the second by an epic score of 38-36.
The Mariners came back to win 15-11 in the third, but by that point the Royals’ confidence had been let out of the bottle and they were all inhaling deeply.
“When the match was over, it was like our level of confidence went from here to 10,” Remple said, lifting an arm from his hip past his head. “It really catapulted us in terms of maturity.”
Winning at its own tier has been a breakthrough on its own.
After electing to forgo the junior varsity ranks altogether coming out of elementary school, Vernon Christian took second in the Single-A provincials as a Grade 9-10 team in 2017.
Last season, as a Grade 10-11 team, the Royals broke through with a championship at the same tier.
This season, however, their results against the province’s best teams has begged the question: If given the opportunity, is this a Single A team which could also win the provincials at the Double-A and Triple-A tiers?
“What we’ve seen this season is way the boys seem to be able to claw themselves out of just about any hole,” Remple continued of rallying to beat Marriott in that marathon middle match. “Let’s face it, Earl Marriott has been something of a Holy Grail in the sense that they are the Triple-A team which has been beating everyone.”
After grabbing silver at Douglas College, the Royals won their own Tri-Lakes Invitational, then traveled to North Vancouver and won the Argyle Pipers Classic.
That set the stage for Kelowna Secondary’s Best of the West, hosted by one of B.C. truly great sports schools, and the one with the largest Grade 11-12 boys student population in the province.
The B.C. high school volleyball world has certainly had more parity between its respective tiers over the years than its basketball counterparts when it comes to the male side of the equation.
Yet a tiny school doing what Vernon Christian did in winning the KSS Best of the West, something no other Single-A program had ever done in the event’s long and storied history?
The best comparison would be a top Single-A boys basketball team, like perhaps Kelowna Christian or Langley’s Credo Christian, storming the field and knocking off the province’s top Quad-A teams like say, Walnut Grove, Burnaby South or Centennial, to win an event like the Terry Fox Legal Beagle or the Tsumura Basketball Invitational.
Ask Remple about the feeling he had heading into the Best of the West, and it was one tinged with an underdog’s excitement.
“We said it right from the start, that the Best of the West, in B.C. high school, it’s the Stanley Cup of volleyball,” said Remple. “We really believed that it could be about us proving that whether Single-A, Double-A or Triple-A, that we’re the best.”
Certainly, the Royals have not been invincible this season.
In addition to their loss against Earl Marriott, they have lost twice to Double-A Langley Christian and last week split their matches with defending B.C. Double-A champ and current No. 1 Abbotsford Christian, losing to the host Knights in the final of B.C. Christian Schools Championships.
Yet they passed so many tests at Best of the West that you have to include them in any conversation about B.C.’s best teams, especially after they won in straight sets over the host and Triple A No. 2-ranked Kelowna Owls in the semifinals 2-0 (25-20, 25-16), then swept the former No. 1 Double-A MEI Eagles 2-0 (25-20, 25-22) in the title tilt.
“When we played Kelowna in their home gym, we knew they were out for us,” admitted Remple. “We had beaten them in an exhibition game earlier in the season. So for us to beat them in front of their home crowd 2-0, the boys just walked away going ‘Wow, we can do this.’”
And when each weekend tournament is over, the players and coaches board their own mini-school bus and head back to their tiny neck of the woods.
“They are a family on that bus,” says Bannick.
Adds Remple: “There’s a bit of a joke that if they couldn’t be a volleyball team, then they’d be a boy band because they crank the tunes and they sing all the songs.. I mean, there’s dancing… the whole nine yards.”
Ben Molitwenik, one of the team’s two captains, knows that within a matter of weeks, the experiences so ingrained in them as a group, will be over for the graduating seniors.
“You get so close with them,” he explains. “We’ve developed such great relationships, and it’s interesting because I think one of the big reasons we’ve all jelled so well as a unit is that we all have the same personalities.”
Whatever it is, it is hard to think of any Single-A classified team in any sport during B.C. high school sport’s tiering era — which began for various sports at various stages, mostly in the 1970s — that has so organically developed into a team which is capable of taking on and beating all comers, regardless of size.
“In terms of the quality of their skill level, we’re just very fortunate,” concludes Remple. “It’s just pure, dumb luck.”
With that, he pauses, then continues.
“Well, I shouldn’t say that, because what is really is, is a blessing.
“I truly believe it, and I believe it fully, that we could win the provincials this year at all three tiers.”
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