KELOWNA — Let Sebastien Manuel tell you a volleyball story and before long you start to realize, from the conviction of his delivery, that he’s actually talking about what matters most to him in life.
Is there a way to best describe him?
How about the word ‘steeped’ as in “…to be surrounded by or filled with a quality or an influence.”
As we introduce you to the Kelowna Owls’ 6-foot-5 outside hitter — the unanimous choice of the head coaches of B.C.’s five U Sports’ programs as the Varsity Letters’ 2021-22 B.C. Boys High School Player of the Year — it seems to be as apt a way to paint the picture of how, while growing up in a volleyball-mad family, an impressionable student-athlete was infused with the perfect blend influence and positivity to set an independent course of his own choosing.
Of course by this point you know the direction he took.
Over the years, as Sebastien Manuel was pointed towards what the best parts of the game had to offer from both his father Steve, the longtime head coach of UBC Okanagan Heat women’s team, and his mom Leanne, he also grew to a strapping 6-foot-5.
And nowadays, blessed with not only a golden attacking arm and an incredible IQ for the game, but a love of the game steeped in a tradition of family and team, he is set to begin his U SPORTS career next season with the UBC Okanagan Heat men’s team.
It’s something his soon-to-be head coach has seen, both up-close and from afar,
“As a coach or parent you know you can’t want for someone who doesn’t want for themselves and Seba’s passion for the game is so important,” begins Brad Hudson, UBC Okanagan’s head men’s coach.
“Eventually, to some degree, talent can even out, and something has to separate you from your peer group,” continued Hudson. “And really, it’s those intangibles. In our league, everyone is big and strong with a strong shoulder. But not everyone possesses the intangibles, and they are the difference-makers.”
In Manuel’s case, none of it is hyperbole.
On the first day of a B.C senior boys Quad-A championship tournament that seemed Kelowna’s to lose, the No. 1-ranked Owls were struck by the most untimely injury possible.
Manuel, the team’s top star, suffered a broken left pinky and was unable to play the rest of the way for a program that had its best chance to win its first provincial title in 68 years.
Yet what happened the rest of the way spoke directly to Hudson’s definition of intangibles.
“I knew we had a super-strong team,” Manuel said earlier this week after visiting with the occupational therapist who is helping him rehabilitate from the injury suffered in early December.
“I just felt like the best way for us to get our goal was to be as super-supportive and bring as much energy as I could.”
So with Manuel providing coaching, encouragement and even struggling with one hand to fill and deliver the team’s water bottles to the bench, the Owls came through with a 3-1 championship finals win over Surrey’s Elgin Park Orcas.
There is also another side to Manuel’s volleyball presence, and that is the absolute love he harbours for the beauty of the game, one which extends to an appreciation society for the greatest stars in the sport, both home and abroad.
In early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, the Manuels had planned a trip to Germany, staying with family while getting a chance to watch some of the best volleyball in the world at the European Olympic qualification tournament.
“I meant everything to me,” said Manuel, who along with dad Steve settled into their front-row seats. “I got a chance to watch some of my all-time favourite players… all my childhood heroes were there in one place, and to be in Germany, with the home crowd, and how all the fans would just go back-and-forth…”
Who, in particular, was he most excited to watch first-hand?
Germany’s veteran outside hitter György Grozer, and Earvin N’Gapeth, the star French left side.
“My future coach, Brad, always gets us to watch players we want try and to be and I like Earvin N’Gapeth,” begins Manuel. “He’s my height. He seems to do everything. He’s super communicative. He’s a great server. He’s a clutch player in general.”
It’s Manuel’s way of steeping himself in the culture and the history of his sport. Challenge him and he can name the names of all the top professional suiting up for their various European club teams.
And when he pulls out a new shot and makes it work on the court?
“I’ll ask him ‘Where did that come from,’ and his response is usually something like ‘I saw N’Gapeth do that against Russia” or it’ll be a ‘I saw Gord Perrin hit that shot against Brazil’ type of thing,” says his dad, in the latter referencing the star Canadian international and Olympian from Creston who played at Thompson Rivers.
The roots of this love affair with the game?
“I grew up always watching those teams of my dad’s winning college championships, and I just wanted to someday be a part of all of that,” he explains of Steve Manuel, whose career coaching CV is chalk full of titles, including in 2008, prior to the school’s move to U SPORTS, where an impressionable Seba may have picked up strong vibes as a four-year-old from his dad win the CCAA national championship.
“My dad was always giving me pointers, and he coached every team I played on,” continued Manuel, “but I always had the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. I chose to stick with volleyball.”
Interestingly enough, at the end of that 2008 national title season, Steve Manuel was presented with the 2008-2009 Coaching Excellence Across All Sports Award, the highest honour a coach can win in the CCAA.
It’s apropos in this setting because of one thing that former UBC Okanagan athletic director Rob Johnson said that day about Steve Manuel’s overall coaching style: “His student-athletes are encouraged to push themselves, striving for excellence without the fear of failure.”
Today, it’s clear that philosophy extends to his own son, and all around Kelowna, volleyball people like Hudson see how genuine that belief of Steve Manuel’s truly is.
“You’ll catch Seba playing on the grass in the front yard, on the beach, with the provincial team, with his club and his high school team, and when you watch him in all of those places, the one thing that stands out is the well-roundedness of his game.
“He’s really good at a lot of things and what is great is that there is still so much to be determined… he’s still a young man with such tremendous potential.”
Yet even though he’s still just 17, the love Manuel has for his sport makes it a pretty good bet that years down the road, his game will still be infused with a kid’s love for his sport.
And that’s already partly true in a roundabout way.
When he was still a toddler, Sebastien Manuel had a tough time pronouncing his first name.
So instead, he came up with his own version, referring to himself phonetically as Se-bah.
“He couldn’t say Sébastien when he was starting to speak, so he just called himself Seba and it stuck,” Steve Manuel informs. “It’s confusing since in French we call him Say-bas-tien, but just Se-bah in English.”
Either way, nothing about Seba Manuel’s passion for the sport ever gets lost in translation.
At a young age, he was steeped in his family’s volleyball traditions and it has infused in him an outlook on life which transcends his sport.
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