VANCOUVER — Just as she’s done in laying the academic foundation for a potential future in law school, Mackenzie Pool has brought a student’s curiosity to everything she’s accomplished on the volleyball court as one of Canada’s up-and-coming young stars.
And in keeping with that theme, it’s no stretch to say that on her way to being selected Varsity Letters 2021-22 B.C. Girls High School Player of the Year, the 6-foot outside hitter from Vancouver’s Notre Dame Secondary School aced her final exam.
In voting by our six-member committee comprising coaches from each of B.C.’s five U SPORTS volleyball schools (UBC, UBC Okanagan, Trinity Western, Fraser Valley and Thompson Rivers) as well as NCAA Simon Fraser, Pool garnered all six first-place votes in what was our 13th annual poll.
“She jumps well and is strong at the net, both as an attacker and blocker,” says UBC’s Doug Reimer, who has won eight national championships and has taken his ‘Birds teams to the national tournament in 21 of the past 23 seasons. “She is a well-rounded person who is very strong as a student as well as in her athletic talents.”
That theme of both in-class and on-court student was something Pool has lived since she first got serious about the game back in the eighth grade.
And she’s taken it to another level the past two seasons, spending what has basically amounted to the first semester of both her Grade 11 and 12 years as a true student-athlete, taking her classes and receiving world-class volleyball coaching and training at the Richmond Olympic Oval through Volleyball Canada’s National Excellence Program.
“I just feel super-blessed because it was the best opportunity of my life to play with such incredible teammates in that kind of a special environment,” admits Pool, 17, who is now back in classes at East Vancouver’s Notre Dame campus, on cue to graduate as part of the school’s Class of 2022 later this spring.
“For me, it was the best of both worlds,” continued Pool, who is planning to major in business this coming fall when she re-locates to Edmonton to both study at the University of Alberta while competing for the Pandas.
“I got to spend a half-year in this intense training environment to improve my capabilities as a volleyball player, and then I get to come back (to Notre Dame) and graduate with my friends, to have a life outside of volleyball because (Volleyball Canada) really does value balance. Too much volleyball and you get burned out. You have to preserve your physical and your mental health.”
To understand the recipe for longevity at such a tender age can’t be overstated, yet ask those who know her well, and it becomes very clear that Pool’s big-picture goals are just as much about academic achievement as they are about athletic excellence.
“There are two things that set her apart,” begins Bryan Gee, the head coach of the senior varsity girls team at Port Coquitlam’s Riverside Secondary, but also Pool’s head coach the past five seasons within the Coquitlam Ducks club system.
“She is an extremely humble athlete,” Gee says. “And then you can combine that with someone who is really a great learner… a passionate learner. So she is always getting humbly better and wanting to improve each and every day.”
To do that to the level she’s done the past two years at NEP, however, meant leaving not only her studies at Notre Dame, but surrendering her spot on the Jugglers’ senior varsity in both her Grade 11 and 12 years, as high school volleyball is played traditionally played from September through November.
From afar, Alberta head coach Laurie Eisler, who has led the Pandas to six national titles, has watched with admiration as her soon-to-be recruit blossomed within that high-performance environment.
“She is the full package, and there is no question about that,” Eisler said over the phone from Edmonton earlier this week,
“She just never left any stone unturned in that development,” continued Eisler, whose Pandas were ranked No. 1 in the latest national poll and currently lead the Canada West with an 11-1 conference mark.
“So I think the fact she made that commitment (to NEP) and not just liked it, but loved it, was important. She didn’t just survive it. She thrived in it. And you can see the growth in her over the last year. I think we really hit a home run with Mackenzie.”
And what B.C. coaches at the university, high school and club level all reference is Pool’s versatility.
“Mackenzie is that great all-around player whose athleticism and versatility will allow her to compete on the left-side or the right-side at the next level,” said Simon Fraser head coach Gina Schmidt of Pool, who began her career at Notre Dame and with the Ducks as a middle blocker.
“That, along with her excellent ball control will continue to serve her well at the next level,” adds UBC Okanagan Heat head coach Steve Manuel.
There’s also the entire aura of the athleticism, power and purpose she brings to the attack.
“Mackenzie is an exciting player to watch,” begins Trinity Western head coach Ryan Hofer. “She is a physical athlete who is a force at the net. She has great range as an attacker and is a fantastic blocker.”
And that versatility is shaped not only by her move from middle to attack but from her student-minded desire to keep learning new things.
“Mackenzie has made great strides after transitioning from the middle to the left side,” agrees Thompson Rivers’ head coach Chad Grimm. “Two years in the NEP program have helped her make this transition and her physicality at that position will make her a force to be reckoned with throughout her U SPORTS career.”
Put it all together, and her future is bright.
“Mackenzie Pool is a great representation of the results of the high-level training, competition and development in the sport of volleyball in B.C.,” explains Fraser Valley Cascades’ head coach Janelle Rozema. “She is a well-rounded and intelligent volleyball player. As a leader both on and off the court, coupled with her physical talents and volleyball IQ, Mackenzie is an athlete to watch impact the landscape of volleyball in Canada, now and in the future.”
For her part, Pool says she will continue to hold academics as high a priority as her athletics, and that is pretty high when you consider that she is prepared to put it all on the line and shoot for the stars on the court.
“I 100 hundred-percent want take my volleyball as far as it will take me,” she explains. “I want to play pro and on the national team. I want to go as far as I can. Ultimately, I want to go to the Olympics.”
And at 17, she has humbly carried a growing sense of confidence from her Volleyball Canada experiences back into the hallways of her high school.
Throughout this past season, as the high school-variety of the sport returned following the cancelled 2020-21 campaign, Pool was unable to compete with a Notre Dame team ranked No. 2 in the province at Double-A due to her commitment to the National Excellence Program.
Yet she still found a way to connect with her Jugglers as they put a storybook ending on their season with a B.C. championship title in early December.
“With Mackenzie, I am graduating 12 seniors from this group,” says Notre Dame head coach Deanna Schaper-kotter, “and they are all super close. They are so tight-knit that even though Mackenzie couldn’t compete in provincials with us, there were times when she found a way to come and sit on the bench with us at some of our tournaments.”
Schaper-kotter had coached Pool in high school through her 10th grade season, and aside from her obvious talent for the sport, it was impossible for the coach to miss her plethora of intangibles.
“That trait of just being a good teammate, to be there for your team, that was an incredible part of what she was able to bring,” she adds.
For Pool, the early steps of her journey are informative in explaining the natural ways in which she leads with her humility.
“I started out in Grade 7 and I was really bad, but then in Grade 8, it was my Notre Dame team that really inspired me to try out for my club team,” she explains.
“I was still bad that year, but my coach with Ducks, who is still my coach, he saw a lot of potential in me,” Pool adds of Gee, who also coaches another current NEP player in Riverside’s Jaime Hewlett, voted No. 4 overall on this year’s Super 15 list.
Both Pool and Hewlett have served as long-serving captains on their Ducks’ team.
“What Mackenzie does that makes her stand out as an athlete is that she is a player who can play all rotations of the game and almost every single position,” says Gee. “She can play power, middle and right side.”
Yet with all of that versatility, Gee is most happy about the fact that Pool’s curiosity has never ceded.
“I ask my players to come to the gym every day with the thought that they are the least-knowledgeable ones,” Gee continued. “That’s because I always want them to be asking questions and trying to improve.
“Mackenzie came in here as a big, tall kid who didn’t know how to play volleyball. But then she took every single opportunity she could to get better.”
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