SURREY — To the wise and sage among us, the B.C. high school sports experience continues to represent the ultimate environment for student-athletes to glean the kinds of lessons which have always transcended the games themselves.
Mike Jamieson needs no convincing in that regard, yet the teacher-coach at Surrey’s Elgin Park Secondary will be the first to tell you that the days of simply expecting turn-key loyalty from young high school kids when it comes to their high school teams is long over.
Competition from outside of schools to keep young student-athletes invested over the course of their high school careers in one or any number of Grade 8-, junior- or senior varsity-aged teams, has never been more fierce.
Yet Jamieson, himself an Elgin Park grad and a member of the only team in school history to win a provincial boys volleyball title, as a Grade 10 call-up back in 2000, has not only overseen a complete re-build of the boys game at its South Surrey digs, he’s done it by taking the pressure off the kids and letting the entire experience engender that loyalty in a most organic way.
And although it takes the issue of student-athlete loyalty and places it squarely outside of the traditional box, it has worked to the point where the Orcas are at an all-time high for boys volleyball participation, with its senior boys Triple-A team, the flagship of five boys teams in the program, continuing what has been a lengthy run at No. 2 in the B.C. Top 10 rankings.
So what has he done?
“The model I have always gone for is being an athlete’s secondary sport,” begins Jamieson of the manner in which he has welcomed athletes into Elgin Park’s younger-aged volleyball teams. “There’s a lot of coaches out there, say, in soccer, hockey, baseball or basketball, and it’s like ‘You’re here, and if you’re not, you’re cut’. Whereas our model is, ‘Hey, if you’re not playing your main sport, come play volleyball.’ And now, I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.”
The merits of B.C. high school sport are not something easily slapped on a bulletin board or contained within Twitter’s 280 character limit.
And it’s because of that, that its best selling point remains good, old-fashioned user experience.
So how do you get that message across within a figurative vacuum when pay-to-play options, through social media channels, have a way of trumpeting themselves the loudest?
“If I am, say, a Tier 1 athlete in whatever grade I am in, let’s call me a hockey player,” begins Jamieson, “if I am really lucky maybe there are a couple of guys on my team who are also from my school. Maybe they’re in my close circle of friends, but maybe they’re not.
“In high school sports, all of your friends are playing that high school sport, and you get together at school to talk about it every day,” he continued of the camaraderies which build in their high school, which these days almost seems to have been forgotten for what it really is: The most natural and sustaining social environment a young person will ever inhabit.
“It gets to the point where there is this organic feel of the kids realizing that there is some… I’m not sure if social status is the right word, but a little confidence within that setting to say ‘I am a member of the Elgin volleyball team.’ Kids want to be front-runners, and to feel a sense of confidence that they are part of something strong, and when that doesn’t happen, they quit.”
But when it doesn’t?
THE TIES THAT BIND
Within its current model, Elgin Park boys volleyball fields two Grade 8 teams, a Grade 9 team, a Grade 10 team and a senior team, with all five coached by either Jamieson, whose main focus is the juniors, and 2013 Elgin grad Matt Ekholm, who leads the seniors.
Early in the season, when the Elgin Park seniors won the Trinity Western Spartans Invitational, it was the first time the school’s senior boys had won an invitational tournament in over 15 years.
Led by the likes of seniors Kendall Homenick and Nick Johnson, and Grade 11 Zack Yewchuk, the team is just now hitting the post-season stretch with its ultimate goal being a long, healthy run in Kelowna, site of this season’s B.C. championships.
Those seniors, in fact, are a flagship group of sorts in that Jamieson, who switched over from a rugby-coaching career to focus on volleyball in 2017, gave many of them their introduction to the sport as Grade 8s and stayed with them through the end of junior careers in 2019.
Now in the hands of Ekholm, their bond and commitment to each other was evident during the team’s Seniors Night festivities earlier this month.
“Touching would be the best word for it,” begins Ekholm of that night. “If I kept talking, I think there would have been some tears.
“I never realized what a cool bond you could build between player and coach when you really care about the game,” said Ekholm. “Sometimes I hear from other coaches about how you have to be cut-throat to win, but the more I dive into this, I’ve found that the more a coach builds relationships with athletes, the more successful those teams have been.”
And over the course of B.C. high school sports’ return to play this season, some of his most rewarding moments have come through the overall Elgin Park program’s purposeful integration of its youngest and oldest teams.
That practice is firmly in place within the Elgin boys volleyball program.
“In my first practice with the Grade 8’s, I had them come in 15 minutes early to watch the end of the Grade 12 practice,” Ekholm relates. “Then I gave them all (senior team) buddies, and their job was to talk to the senior and remember his name. Each time they see them in the hallways they have to say ‘hello’ and that player’s first name.
“I’ve been in the gym and I have seen a senior see one of the younger kids and say, like, ‘Hey, Parker’ and for those Grade 8’s, who look up to the seniors like gods, it’s a very cool experience.”
“…I NEVER KNEW MY KID LOVED VOLLEYBALL”
Before Mike Jamieson decided to return to volleyball, a sport he calls his first love, he had spent a healthy career both playing and coaching rugby.
Four years a player in university with the Victoria Vikes, he later took the B.C. Under-18 team on an undefeated tour of Ireland with longtime Earl Marriott rugby coach Adam Roberts. And in 2017, Jamieson won the Gerald McGavin award as B.C. Rugby Coach of the Year.
“The one thing I have really taken from rugby and brought into volleyball is the importance of coachign at the younger ages,” he explains.
“I look at Yale and W.A. Fraser rugby as being a perfect example,” he begins of the neighbouring senior secondary and middle school in Abbotsford where Doug Primrose and Ryan WcWhinney, respectively, have had a system where huge numbers of boys and girls have been both introduced to the sport, and then kept purposely invested in it throughout their high school careers.
Then he casts his eyes over his own Surrey School District where veteran coaches in certain key sports have been operating with, for all intents and purposes, a mindset similar to the one he has brought to Elgin Park boys volleyball.
“I look at what Ed Lefurgy is doing with Semiahmoo basketball and Roberts with Earl Marriott rugby,” he begins. “It just takes that one person to drum it up.”
From there, the right help can put it over the top, and Jamieson appears to have that in Ekholm.
On Thursday, as Ekholm spoke over the phone with Varsity Letters, it was just moments after the Grade 8 team he is also coaching had dropped a tough best-of-three set match to Pacific Academy in the semifinals of the Surrey championship tournament.
When asked how his first season has gone with the Grade 8s, who will still advance to play at the upcoming Fraser South tournament, Ekholm spoke first about the policy Jamieson had put into place now five seasons ago about allowing kids to discover a new sport like volleyball on their own terms.
“It has been awesome,” he reports. “This is the first time I have been involved with a group this young, and I have really promoted positive team vibes and not getting on each other.”
The Orcas lost to the Breakers 15-12 in the third set when one of the Orcas’ players missed a pass.
“But they all picked him up and they hugged him,” Ekholm reported. “I have found that there is so much hostility in youth sports, but teams that do well, do so when they are motivated by a love for each other, not a fear of the other team.”
On the same day, Jamieson’s Grade 10 team went out and won the Surrey championship tournament.
Who knows if the system in place with the Elgin Park Orcas boys volleyball program can be plugged in anywhere with any high school sport in the province?
All we seem to know for sure is that it works for the guys wearing purple and black.
For his part, Jamieson is hearing it from not only the players, but their parents, the latter a little dumbfounded at why their children suddenly can’t get enough volleyball.
“Our Grade 8s right now, they are slowly in the transition of starting to skip other sports to come to volleyball,” begins Jamieson. “I talk to parents and they are ‘I never knew my kid loved volleyball, what is going on here at the school? I am paying thousands of dollars for these other sports and all he wants is to come out to volleyball.’
“I think the nice thing we’ve been able to do at Elgin is provide opportunities for kids to be a part of something that has created some buy in,” Jamieson adds. “I guess we’re lucky to have some talent and some half-decent coaching, too.”
Every system needs the right people at the top to work, and with Jamieson and Ekholm at the helm of the model we have examined today, the results seem to be speaking for themselves.
Maybe, in this entire melting pot of discussion as to what has to be done to insure the long-term health of the B.C. high school sports eco system, they’ve actually hit on something that merits further discussion.
It’s like Jamieson said earlier: “It just takes that one person to drum it up.”
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