LANGLEY — Its blueprint leads you to believe it has been designed specifically to guide its student-athletes through the unique emotional demands of the current global pandemic.
Yet the coaching co-operative which was poured as part of the foundation of the Trinity Western Spartans men’s and women’s rugby teams back in 2019 is proving itself to be built more along the lines of what is timeless than what is time-stamped.
“The way we have set this up is that we are one rugby program with a men’s team and a women’s team,” explains Andrew Evans, who brought rugby back to the Langley campus in the fall of 2019 after a 15-year absence. “I am the head coach of both teams (men’s 15’s, women’s 7’s), but myself and our entire staff coach both the men and the women.”
Although not a complete outlier, a team sport like rugby at the university level sharing its entire coaching staff between its men’s and women’s teams is certainly not commonplace.
Such arrangements happen more frequently in sports like golf, swimming, wrestling, and track and field, and specifically at smaller volleyball schools in the U.S. where the women’s and men’s campaigns are played in different seasons.
What makes it special at Trinity Western, however, is an appreciation of what the duality promotes.
“I don’t think I could say to any of our coaches ‘You’re just coaching the men’ or ‘You’re just coaching the women,’” adds Evans, a lifer in the sport and Rugby Canada’s former head strength and conditioning coach. “I think there would be a revolt if I tried to do that.”
Instead, over a soul-crushing 2020-21 season in which the promise of early-season scrimmages in the fall gave way to the challenge of social-distanced training throughout the spring, that ‘one program’ mantra became a point of solidarity for all concerned.
And in the end, its sharing spirit proved to be the bones of an unofficial support network for the two teams.
“When I was at Rugby Canada, all of these separate programs were struggling for the same resources, and it can end up ruining relationships,” Evans referenced. “So if you are sharing the resources and have a common goal, you end up with more resources and happier relationships.
“I think that is something that we have been able to show over the last two years,” he adds. “The evidence we have from our players is that it’s working well. The coaches are all feeling encouraged. Everyone is feeling valued.”
And as a testament to how relatable his beliefs are, Evans has been able to populate his staff with a trio of coaches, all of whom boast top-level international experience.
Former Canadian star scrum-half Julia Sugawara, herself a former TWU grad, along with fellow Canadian internationals Hubert Buydens and Guiseppe du Toit comprise a trio who have shown a flair in their ability to impart both technical expertise and personal experience to each of the teams.
As well, Evans has also taken advantage of the coaching talent at the grassroots level with a pair from the Langley high school ranks.
From nearby D.W. Poppy Secondary, where a top-flight rugby program for boys and girls is being built, Evans has added Stuart Crowley as a coach and Kyle Barry as manager/coach.
THE CHEMISTRY OF A COACHING CO-OP
To say that Issy Scholtens has come out of nowhere to become a factor with the Trinity Western women’s 7’s team is a huge understatement.
“It’s honestly a miracle I ended up here,” laughed Scholtens, the 5-foot-4 business major who had never played the sport before stepping on campus soil just ahead of the school’s debut 2019-20 season. “I was thinking about policing and wrestling at UFV. But this has been really cool.”
A multi-sport grad from nearby Credo Christian with a penchant for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Scholtens was urged to seek out Evans and ask for a rugby tryout after initially striking up a conversation with former Trinity Western middle blocker Jessica Bailey at a Spartans’ volleyball camp.
Evans offered her a chance that coming fall, but she first had receive doctor’s clearance to begin tackling for the first time in her life after she broke her collarbone while attempting a 20-foot table jump on an all-terrain vehicle.
That clearance came in November, quite literally on the eve of the women’s program’s first-ever match, an exhibition warm-up at the University of Victoria.
“So she used me as a tackling dummy,” said Evans. “She hammered me with perfect tackles over and over, and we all knew she was ready.”
Ever since, her improvement has been swift, aided in no small part by the depth and diversity of that shared coaching staff.
“We brought in Guiseppe this past season and he was really able to bring out some more of Issy’s raw athleticism and talent and then refine it,” Evans explained of du Toit, the team’s new backs coach who played for Canada at the 2019 World Cup and is currently playing for the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby.
And while you’d be right if you labelled it a longshot that a 25-year-old world-class international like du Toit would be working with a 19-year-old rugby rookie like Scholtens, the results were unmistakable.
“(Scholtens) is just a smarter player now, so much more technically sound,” added Evans of the multi-positional standout, who besides playing tremendous defence led the team in tries during the 2019-20 Canada West season.
A few months back, as his own professional playing career came calling and du Toit was forced to bid adieu to the Spartans in order to re-join the Arrows, a touching scene took place.
“The girls collectively gave him a present as a thank-you and they spoke to how meaningful it is to have male coaches who are extremely respectful and extremely caring,” said Evans. “Then (du Toit) spoke to how much he appreciated them. It was a really special moment and you could just see how much everyone on this team cares for each other. Men aren’t supposed to cry but that brought a tear to my eye.”
SHARED IDEALS ALONG THE DELIVERY CHAIN
The health of B.C.’s post-secondary rugby programs will always be tied, in large measure, to the health of its youth delivery model.
In rugby-rich Langley, Stuart Crowley, a man coaching the sport at both Trinity Western and D.W. Poppy Secondary, was heartened to see that the two programs had unknowingly mirrored each other in terms of the consolidation of their coaching staffs.
“This was my first year with the (Trinity Western) program,” said Crowley, who is now four years into his tenure coaching Poppy’s girls and boys from Grade 8-12 with a staff that which is co-headed by TWU manager Kyle Barry.
“Andy would often lament the fact that we couldn’t do more together this year, whether it was training together, or gathering as a team to talk strategy or to watch video,” Crowley said of Spartans head coach Evans.
“But I was just so happy to see how invested he was on both sides,” continued Crowley. “I can’t imagine running a program any other way. I don’t see it being done like we’re doing it at any other high school but I wish they would just try to tap into it. We’re much better for it at both Poppy and Trinity.”
While the precise dynamics differ from university to high school, the same feeling of unity prevails, and both Evans and Crowley, in the days before COVID, had each enjoyed occasions where their entire program’s players had gathered together on the field to train. It’s something both hope to return to next season.
This season, while working at both schools, each with their own safety protocols in place, Crowley has come to appreciate even more similarities between Trinity Western and D.W. Poppy.
“Right now we’re cohorted by learning groups and so there are guys and girls in these learning groups,” begins Crowley of what is happening over the final few weeks of the academic year art Poppy.
“We’re not running separately for our rugby training sessions,” he continued. “We’re running them all together for whomever is in that learning group — guys, girls, Grade 11s, Grade 12s. It doesn’t matter. And so to come to Trinity Western this season and to have that kind of philosophy be supported at the university level? I was all in. I just think it’s the only way to go in my opinion. It really gives you a sense of unity.”
SHARING RESOURCES, BUILDING UNITY
Andrew Evans is the first to admit that there is a lot of practicality behind his decision to consolidate the men’s and women’s rugby teams at Trinity Western under a single coaching staff.
Yet ask him if some of it might be coming from a deeper place, and he’ll share his childhood journey and the lessons learned along the way.
“Having moved 10 times when I was a kid, I had many different experiences” he begins of a back-and-forth treck which ultimately took him from St. John’s to East Vancouver before he was 19.
“I watched my parents serve in the Salvation Army, and so they would target serving people who were downtrodden in life,” he continued. “So I thinking holding that value for people, that everyone is created equal, has really been demonstrated to me to be true. I definitely bring that perspective into our rugby program.”
And it’s been appreciated by players like Josh Halladay, a home-schooled 6-foot-6 second-year lock from South Surrey, who like Issy Scholtens, had no prior experience in the sport before arriving at the school.
“In what was a pretty bleak season, where we couldn’t do much, he just had a way of finding the best in everything,” Halladay explained of Evans.
“I think the biggest thing that stands out to me about Andy is that he just has this insatiable desire to always be getting better, and that has a massive trickle-down effect to everyone of not only holding each other to a higher standard, but having the highest expectations of ourselves,” Halladay continued. “And having the same coaches makes you feel like it’s all one team, and that we all have the same goals.”
And so as teams prepare with hope for a long-awaited return to normalcy beginning in September, it seems a given that the most important plans they will carry forward won’t have anything to do with the X’s and O’s.
Instead, they’ll be the belief systems which got them through the toughest days of the pandemic, the ones which best passed muster over their most difficult season on record.
For Andrew Evans and Trinity Western’s rugby family that much is a given because plans built around sharing, mutual respect and hard work are the kind you can set your clock to.
They’re timeless. Not time-stamped.
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