VANCOUVER — It was just this past Wednesday that UBC Thunderbirds softball players Mia Valcke and Avery Hilpert set off on foot from their residence for a stroll down to Wesbrook Village on the south side of the sprawling Point Grey campus.
The two will tell you that the purpose of their mission was to check in on the progress of their team’s new softball diamond complex.
Yet with two seasons of play already lost within the last one-year-plus since the pandemic’s B.C. arrival, you could just as easily call it a pilgrimage of hope.
“We probably go down there every few weeks, just to look at all of the new things being put in, and now it’s almost complete,” marvelled Valcke of a project which, besides representing the only on-campus home the decade-plus program will have ever known, stands as a hopeful symbol of a post-pandemic re-start for the nation’s most vast and decorated university sports program.
Yet framing just such a statement through the example of UBC softball is actually somewhat miraculous when you consider the litany of travails which have lurked along the program’s base paths since its humble beginnings as a club team back in 2010.
First, a battle to simply survive after being stripped of varsity status in early 2014 by its own school’s Sports Targeting Review committee.
Then, dealing with the fall-out which accompanied two seasons (2014,’15) of both compromised recruiting and an unforgiving independent schedule, the latter of which saw the barnstorming ‘Birds play a total of 72 games (30-42), of which only five of which were contested on B.C. soil.
All that, of course, has been followed by the onset of the pandemic, rendering UBC bats silent for the greater part of two complete seasons in the NAIA’s Cascade Collegiate Conference.
Add it all up, and over the past eight seasons, there has been only one incoming recruiting class (2016) whose four-year eligibility window was neither impacted by the targeting review nor the pandemic.
That’s why it’s easy to understand, for UBC players like Valcke and Hilpert, why merely catching a glimpse of their new softball home can be a reaffirmation of their shared struggle. In 2021-22, each will start her fourth year of classes but use just her second year of athletic eligibility.
“It’s crazy,” continued Valcke. “Last year, before all the work started, it just looked like an old field, a field that didn’t get a lot of love. But now? It’s completely changed and morphed. There’s new grass. There’s new dirt. New everything.
“There have been so many uncertainties this season, like having to practice on the rugby/soccer turf and then we find out it’s been double-booked,” adds Valcke, set to patrol centre field for the ‘Birds in 2022.
“I just think that if everyone gets their vaccines… we’re just so excited for next year,” continued the Canadian junior national team select. “I love softball, but after the seasons were finished, you were tired and you wanted a break. Now, being off for two years, you realize how much you miss it and how much you love it. To have our own field, honestly, just means so much.”
A MENTOR FOR ALL SEASONS
At no time over its first 12 seasons as a program has UBC softball been able to feel the true blue-and-gold connectedness that is part-and-parcel of playing home games on its own university campus.
Yet ask the program’s guiding light what has inspired him to keep working in the face of adversity, and Gord Collings will simply point in the direction of his players.
“It’s a weird thing to say with COVID, but to see the commitment that these girls have shown, it’s re-energized me,” said Collings, 71, who became the program’s head coach in 2013, following two national championship club runs with the Delta Heat organization. Collings also coached all three of his daughters — Jessie, Lindsay and current UBC assistant coach Paige — throughout their youth softball careers.
“Gord just does so much for us on the sidelines, things we don’t even know about,” begins Valcke. “It’s just crazy to think that a few years ago our team was going to be cut, and now we’re getting a new field. I mean, Gord just cares for us so much.”
And that reciprocal affinity was never more apparent than in early December when coaches and players alike were invited to join a Zoom conference to celebrate the official sod turning ceremony for the team’s new field at Nobel Park.
UBC softball and its most dedicated supporters had fund-raised tirelessly to arrive at a milestone day, yet as Collings and others, like longtime backer Rick O’Connor, the Softball B.C. Hall of Famer who had helped the program reach the light of day back 2008 knew, there was still plenty of work to be done.
Yet on that day, as all concerned followed the events via computer stream, the expected ceremonial narrative took a most unexpected turn.
As Collings watched, he suddenly saw his younger brother Al Collings, himself a UBC soccer alum, begin to speak about the new field.
Something was up, Gord Collings thought to himself.
What he soon discovered was that Al Collings and his wife Hilary Stevens, through their Collings Stevens Family Foundation, had made a significant gift to the UBC softball program, one which would comfortably allow the project to meet its final goals for construction.
Yet it didn’t stop there.
It was also announced that the new stadium would be named Collings Field in honour of the UBC coach, who throughout both the low ebbs and the high anxiety that has permeated university sports programs across the country amidst the COVID shutdown, has kept his Thunderbirds on an even keel.
“We had a virtual sod-turning event but I had no idea that all of this work was being done behind the scenes,” he said. “I was working on getting people to put money forward because we were given a number that we had to come up with as a team and then they would start construction, and from there we would continue to fund raise.
“I had no idea about my brother’s contribution, or why he was there talking… it was totally out of the blue,” Collings added. “It was one of those announcements you hear and you just go ‘What?’ It literally took my breath away. I’m still dumbfounded by what’s transpired in terms of all this coming together. It was such an honour it was overwhelming.”
Of course, none of this was happening in a vacuum.
Every player on the UBC team was also watching, and in what was truly a sign of the times came proof that true emotion will always carry the day, even via live stream.
“The last thing Gord’s brother said was that it was going to be called Collings Field,” remembers Valcke. “I don’t cry a lot, but oh my gosh, when heard that I cried.”
For Valcke, the reasons were simple.
“With COVID, he’s been like a father figure in a way,” she began. “He’s our coach, but at practice, he asks us all how our families are doing. He checks in with our mental health. He randomly texts us to make sure we’re doing OK. And through all of this, if we need that mental day, he doesn’t ask questions. He trusts that we need time to re-group.”
And just in case Valcke thought she was alone in an outpouring of pride for her head coach, one simple keystroke on her computer convinced her she wasn’t.
“Right at that moment, I put my computer on gallery mode, and you could just see everyone on the team start to break down and cry as they heard the news,” she added. “We were all happy for him, and the fact that we were all on Zoom… you still just wanted to give the guy a hug.”
A COACHING CAREER SPANNING SIX DECADES
Bring up the ‘R’ word with Gord Collings, and he won’t deny its existence.
Retirement, however, is simply not front-and-centre in his mind these days, and that’s because of the extraordinary bonds which have been built by all concerned within the UBC softball program over the past two cancelled seasons.
“I just feel committed to the ladies out there… they make my day,” he said. “Some of them will be going into their fourth year of education next year, but only into their second year in terms of eligibility. They’ve shown so much commitment and so much dedication to have gotten through these last two seasons.”
In his mind’s eye, Collings can connect the dots back to the 2014 and 2015 seasons, when stripped of its varsity status and thus its ability to help prospective recruits and existing players defray their costs as student-athletes, the softball program was left to dangle in the wind.
“Put it this way, if I was recruiting you, I would have said ‘I’d love you to come to UBC,’” began Collings of the kind of pitch he had to make to prospective recruits over that challenging period, one which ended in 2016 when the program regained full varsity status. “‘I think you’d fit in real well with our team, and with your skill set you’re going to be a player that will really help us to be successful out there. Only problem is, I’m not sure we’re going to have a team next year, and I don’t have any money I can give you for a scholarship. You’re going to get one of the top educations in Canada, if not the world, if you come, and we’re trying to get the program back, but I can’t make you any promises.’”
Those days are now all in the rearview mirror, yet Collings remains eternally grateful to those who chose to believe at a time when the easiest thing to do would have simply been to look for greener pastures.
“We had a core of players that didn’t leave when we got cut (from varsity funding),” remembers the coach. “All of those kids stayed and helped us keep the program going. They were all such character people.”
Working with students and around athletics has been a part of Gord Collings’ DNA since he graduated from UBC in 1975 and later started his teaching and coaching career back in the 1976-77 season at Delta Junior Secondary.
Over a 34-and-a-half year teaching, counselling and administrative career in the Delta School District, Collings was heavily involved as a basketball coach. He also served as principal at South Delta, Sands and Seaquam secondary schools.
A soccer and baseball player throughout his youth in Coquitlam, where he graduated from a near freshly-minted Centennial Secondary School back in 1968, Collings admits the tools of his teaching trade trade have served him well with the many hats he’s had to wear at the helm of UBC softball.
“I got my master’s degree in counselling psychology, and in the mid-1980s, I was also a counsellor at Seaquam,” Collings relates of working at the North Delta-area high school at which his senior girls basketball teams were regularly amongst the province’s elite.
“Having that counselling degree has really influenced how I work with student-athletes, and in the last few years I have done a lot of work with my teams in mental preparedness and mental training.”
All of that is putting UBC softball in a hopeful frame of mind for next season.
If all protocols are met and figurative green lights can begin to flash over the coming months, the Thunderbirds could be back on their diamond for practices come September in anticipation of a Cascade Collegiate Conference schedule which would begin, if border issues are resolved, sometime in February of 2022.
And of course, all of that would lead to biggest day in the history of UBC softball since perhaps 2008, when former athletic director Bob Philip announced in late January of that year that the university was adding softball into its vast stable of sports.
Yes, an actual home game played on the UBC campus.
It’s only been 12 years and 396 games since an unofficial countdown to homecoming began. But who’s counting?
For his part, Collings can’t wait.
“You don’t get an appreciation of how beautiful it is unless you’re standing on the field looking at the trees,” he says when asked to describe the view looking into the outfield from home plate at Collings Field.
“Beautiful tall firs and big cedars,” he describes. “This part of UBC has grown so much and it’s going to be nice for not only the UBC people to come out and watch, but the endowment lands community as well.
“It’s going to take on a character of it own, and now, it’s just a matter of the seeds getting a hold in the outfield,” he says of both the literal and figurative aspects of a brand-new home just now putting down its roots.
Between now and then, expect more pilgrimages of hope by UBC’s players to their new home, the one now named after a coach who never stopped believing in them.
“Through COVID and all the restrictions, it’s been tough, but my ladies keep me going,” Gord Collings says. “To watch the enthusiasm and the energy they bring… I can’t say enough about what they do for my mental health in terms of keeping me going, too.”
And so a coaching career that began in the 1970s and now marches into Collings’ own 70s, is set to continue.
“I can’t think of what else I would want to do,” the understated ball coach adds. “It’s not like work, because work is when you’re doing something and thinking about what else you would want to do. I am just out here enjoying the moment. These girls just keep bringing it, and I can’t walk away from that.”
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