NEW WESTMINSTER — Sure, football may be king in the land of the Hyacks, but they aren’t the only team in the provincial spotlight as the 2019 fall season of B.C. high school sports begins to wind its way towards championship conclusions.
“I haven’t seen any of them in the crowd when we play, but maybe I can get some of those guys to come out to one of our games,” smiles New Westminster’s resident volleyball star Nick Toews.
The gridiron Hyacks have played in the past two Subway Bowl B.C. Triple A championship finals, winning it all in 2017, and they are about to embark on what many expect to be another extended run through the post-season.
This fall, however, NWSS senior varsity excellence has broadened to include a rather surprising rise to prominence by another of its teams.
For the first time in 23 years, the New Westminster senior boys volleyball team is both provincially ranked and threatening to make its first appearance at the sport’s Big Dance.
“This has been a crazy year for me to be a part of this team because I have watched it progress from the worst of times to the best of times,” says Toews, the team’s 6-foot-1 senior setter who has played on the Hyacks’ senior varsity since the ninth grade, enduring winless campaigns along the way. “It has been a really great year for us progressing as a team.”
On Monday, the Hyacks wrapped up their 2019 Burnaby-New Westminster conference campaign with a 3-1 win over Burnaby Mountain, the victory capping a perfect 7-0 season for the AAA No. 13-ranked team.
How big an accomplishment is that?
Well, New Westminster head coach Billy Lee, an alumnus of the school, recently put on his Hyacks’ historian hat, and discovered some pretty interesting facts.
“Since 2004, as far as I could look back, we have never had more than three wins in a season,” said Lee. “So for the last 15 years, we’ve never finished in the top half of our league.”
Perhaps even more impressive have been their finishes at some of the province’s most prestigious invitationals.
The Hyacks were ninth at the 24-team Douglas College Royals tournament, and 13th out of 32 at the UBC Thunderbirds Invitational.
As well, the 2019 edition is virtually void of senior leadership with the exception of Toews, the Ducks Volleyball Club product whose influence within the Hyacks program goes beyond anything a coach could ever expect of a player.
“I truly believe Nick is the most decorated we’ve ever had in the history of our program,” said Lee of Toews, who last year, for the betterment of the team, relinquished his duties at setter to another player because he realized they needed more help in the attack positions at the net.
“Nick is such a leader,” continues Lee, “that during our practices, he is coaching our other setters, and he is so patient with the other players. If I am doing a drill he helps out and just does that kind of stuff.”
Aside from Toews, Lee has loved the budding culture which has begun to take shape in the program, one which not only balances academic and athletic pursuits, but shows how one can benefit the other.
“Four of our starters are IB (International Baccalaureate) students,” Lee says of outside hitter Owen Liu, libero Ian Zhou, setter Aryan Saadati and right side Brandon Chiem.
“It is unreal to see the dedication of these guys,” continues Lee, himself a Hyacks grad and at age 24, born right around the last time the team qualified for provincials. “They are studying in cars on the way to tournaments. On a lot of night, everyone has left and they are still at school studying until our 5 p.m. practices start.”
The rest of the team includes setters Sperdon Yogyog and Diego Iorizzo, middles Nikolay Kliemenkov, Josiah Driedger, Brayd Sanderson and Ezrah Glanville, right sides Vince Esperanzate and Armen Bagdasarov and outside hitter Caleb Kawaguchi.
Put it all together, and it has added up to a season both Lee and Toews figure could be one of the best in school history.
Who would have thought at the start of the season that the New Westminster Hyacks senior boys team would find itself perched in the provincial rankings with the more traditional volleyball schools like Fraser Heights and Semiahmoo of Surrey, and Riverside of Port Coquitlam, the latter a potential foe if the Hyacks can navigate their post-season path through to the deep stages of the new Fraser River North zone championships, one which sends just its top two finishers to the provincial tournament Nov. 12-16 at the Langley Events Centre.
“It’s been quite the struggle,” Toews admits. “The first two years… I look at them as a way to get in the work we needed so that volleyball could start to become a thing here.
“So now, this season, we’ve been able to come in and put our best foot forward every time. We needed to go through what we did to get to where we are today.”
And from any perspective you choose, it’s easy to see that they’re in a very good place.
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