MEI Eagles' Hunter Arulpragasam (left) and Tag Neufeld rise for a block against Lake Country's George Elliott Coyotes last Friday during the UBC Invitational at War Memorial Gym. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Boys Volleyball

MEI boys volleyball: Multi-sport players, multi-experienced coach Olfert meld to lift Eagles into B.C. AA title contention

ABBOTSFORD — The 2019 edition of the MEI Eagles senior boys volleyball team has its fair share of standouts, and none of that is a surprise for the team which last week opened at No. 1 in the first B.C. Double A rankings of the new season.

Senior Tyson Ardell spent the summer with Team B.C. as a middle, and Grade 11s Jonathan Letkemann and Hunter  Arulpragasam teamed up on the beach to win provincials in their age class.

Yet at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore a multi-sport component to their persona, one which head coach Rocky Olfert feels has not only bonded the group, but given them unique perspectives from which to hone their competitive spirit.

“It’s brought a lot of different dynamics to this team,” says Olfert of having high-calibre baseball talents like Micah Bucknam and Trey Smith on the team, and former provincial championship gymnast Michael Frew as well.

“Of course there are all the benefits of hand-eye coordination, and learning how to better work with teammates and I am a big believer in multi-sport athletes,” continues Olfert. “But there are other aspects to it as well. Take Michael, for example. He has gone from an individual sport to a team one, and in doing so, he has brought the internal motivation of a gymnast to the team.”

There’s all of that and the fact that a huge core of this year’s team is its Grade 11 group, one which last season, compiled a 50-1 record en route to winning the B.C. junior varsity championship title. Although the current Grade 11 team has a lot to accomplish before any comparisons can even begin to be made, they are following in the familiar footsteps of the school’s 2o13 JV powerhouse,  one which went on to win back-to-back B.C. senior varsity AA titles in 2014 and 2015 with players like Kaden Gamache and Jordan Koslowsky.

“First of all, it’s a great bunch of student-athletes, who have great attitudes, are very coachable and want to learn and work hard every practice,” said Olfert, when asked about the current group and why he came aboard this season as the head coach. “All of that was very appealing to me.”

MEI Eagles’ star senior hitter and blocker Tyson Ardell (left) comes together with teammate Harrison Russell during last week’s UBC Invitational. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

The season, of course has just begun, and despite every team’s talent, there is a lot of chemistry building to be done on the road to the provincial tournament.

MEI, which opened its season by winning Trinity Western University’s Spartans Baden Volleyball Festival for a third straight year by beating the rival Langley Fundamental Titans in the title match, were knocked out of title contention the following weekend in the crossover round at the UBC Thunderbirds Invitational by Vancouver’s Eric Hamber Griffins.

The Eagles biggest tests will come in league play, where they have been grouped in a league with fellow dynamos like the defending B.C. champion Abbotsford Christian Knights, the Langley Christian Lightning and Langley Fundamental, whom they host in conference action Wednesday (7:30 p.m.).

Ardell has emerged as a leader in his senior season, and post-secondary programs are watching him display the versatility which has allowed him to morph from his role as a provincial middle to more of an attacking outside hitting role on his high school team.

“To be an outside hitter, you have to be able to pass the ball and play defence, and he has stepped up in those roles,” Olfert says. “He jumps well and he is a dynamic hitter.”

As many as five of the Grade 11 contingent has seen floor time in the main rotation with Ardell.

Bucknam, the starting setter, is a baseball talent with huge upside, having already committed his post-secondary future on the diamond to the Pac 12’s Washington Huskies.

Trey Smith, the other baseball talent, starts in the middle. Arulpragasm starts at left side, Levi Kropp sees time in the middle as well, while Letkemann is the starting libero.

Zachariah Gosselin, Tag Neufeld and Dakota Janzen are the other Grade 11s on the team.

The rest of the senior contingent includes Cole Siebert, Dan Ko and Harrison Russell.

Washington Huskies’ baseball commit Micah Bucknam (4, centre) with teammates Harrison Russell (left) and Hunter Arulpragasam last Friday at UBC’s War Memorial Gymnasium. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

And if the multi-sport nature of many of the Eagles has only helped their overall team DNA, so too has the multi-level experiences of its head coach.

If Rocky Olfert’s name sounds familiar, it’s because in the eastern reaches of the Fraser Valley, he has worked at almost every aspect of the high school/college/university student-athlete experience, from coach to administrator, since the turn of the century.

Many know Olfert from his current position as the managing director of the Canada West.

Yet since coming to B.C. from Alberta to play college volleyball in the mid-1990s, first at Columbia Bible College, and later under Ron Pike at Trinity Western, Olfert has been the athletic director at both CBC and Fraser Valley, and an assistant AD at Trinity Western.

He also coached the Columbia Bible College Bearcats men’s volleyball team to the 2011 CCAA national championship title as the tourney’s No. 6 seed.

“Everyone’s experiences contribute to what we’re trying to build here at MEI,” Olfert said. “Our team is not just about wins and losses. We’re growing student-athletes.”

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