When Kerry MacDonald was being interviewed for the head coaching position with the UBC Thunderbirds men’s volleyball team back in the spring of 2016, the soon-to-be successful applicant admitted he had done a little bit of research.
“I knew UBC had won some (national) titles, but I didn’t connect it too much to myself,” MacDonald remembered Sunday.
Yet as the ‘Birds quickly built themselves into a contender under his tutelage, and capped their incredible rise with a stunning 3-0 (25-22, 25-18, 27-25) win over the No. 1-seeded, two-time defending champion Trinity Western Spartans in Sunday’s U Sports national title finale at Hamilton’s McMaster University, all MacDonald had to do was strain for the earliest ever memory of his life to gain full perspective of what a 35-year championship drought is really all about.
“I’m (almost) 35,” laughed MacDonald, when asked his age. “I was born in 1983. I was born on March 24, probably about a week after UBC won the championship that year. And that is why I am so happy. We have such a great alumni. And I hope they all know that they are a part of what we did today. We get so much support from our alums, the whole community. None of this happens by accident.”
WHEN STORYBOOK-ENDINGS ACTUALLY HAPPEN
At 6-foot-2, Irvan Brar is likely the smallest front-row attacker in U Sports men’s volleyball.
Yet none of that has ever impeded the vision the Surrey-Fraser Heights Secondary grad has had for himself.
“I have dreamt this many times,” admitted Brar, who finished his university career by climbing to the top of the figurative mountain with his superb two-way play. “It’s surreal right now. But my faith never wavered, and it was because of all the guys on the court with me, the coaches, and everyone else back home. They made this believable.”
Yet perhaps in spite of a most unbelievable juncture, which came down the stretch drive of the third set.
UBC had gained momentum through the first two, winning 25-22 and then 25-18.
“I thought our serving was excellent in the first and the second,” said MacDonald, “and I thought (setter) Byron (Keturakis) and (rookie left side) Fynn (McCarthy) did a great job of establishing the edge of our block. That made it tough for them to score.”
Keturakis went on to be named the tournament MVP.
The young-and-talented Spartans, however, looked to have a confident level of control over the third set.
Eric Loeppky’s block of Brar gave TWU a 14-10 lead, and Jacob Kern’s kill a 15-11 lead.
Yet a Brar ace trimmed it to 15-13, and from there, the ‘Birds chipped away at the stone against their arch-rivals from Langley.
Then, after pulling to within 23-22, however, it suddenly began to look like what the UBC faithful had waited 35 years to claim, could well be on the verge of arriving.
And thus over the match’s defining rally, one which Calgary Dinos transfer Keith West finally ended with a spike off the Trinity Western block, Brar made three survivalist digs to knot the score.
“My toe and the my foot started to cramp up on me,” Brar would later admit of his condition right before the pivotal rally. “Coach MacDonald came over to me and he knew my body was struggling. He just said ‘Mind over matter.’ Once he said that I just went out there and tried to touch every ball.”
Trinity’s freshman phenom hitter Jesse Elser got a stuff block to knot the set at 24-24. The Spartans had set point at 25-24, UBC tied it 25-25, and then took the lead 26-25.
Finally, with Fynn McCarthy, the ‘Birds own freshman phenom serving, West was able to tip home the winning point.
SPARTANS VS. ‘BIRDS COULD BECOME A NATIONAL HABIT
“If you are going to put all your chips on the table you might lose them all, and that is what these games feel like,” said Trinity Western head coach Ben Josephson, whose team had split with UBC in the Canada West regular season. “When you win, you are excited and when you lose, you are disappointed.
“We had a great season, we are really proud of our season,” continued Josephson. “We are just disappointed that we were not able to play our best match on the last day. And with the way they played today it was going to take our best match. We just didn’t have that much perfection in us today.”
The Spartans, a team filled with blue-chip first- and second-year starters and led by fifth-year senior setter Adam Schriemer, U Sports Player of the Year, will return next season as powerful as ever.
“I was really happy that Adam got to play his final game as a Spartan on this national stage,” Josephson added. “He has had an incredible career. Four straight national finals, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, national championship MVP, Final Four MVP. He is the most decorated Spartan that we have ever had.
“It is amazing that with the youngest roster that we have put on the floor in my 11 years, that he led us to this game. It says a ton about what he has done for us this year and all the years leading up to this.”
UBC loses five players through graduation in Brar, West, Ben Chow, Matt Santema and Mat Guidi. But all of the other aforementioned are back, as are the likes of middles Jordan Deshane and Joel Regehr, and libero Tyson Smith.
And it, too, is a youthful core, setting in motion what might be the start a new rivalry, something along the lines of the SFU-UBC women’s basketball wars which saw one of the two teams win the Bronze Baby national title for seven straight years (2004-10).
AT 111 AND COUNTING, BUT THIS ONE A LANDMARK
Over at UBC, the ‘Birds longtime sports information director Wilson Wong, a caretaker of the entire athletic department’s history, has a quick and easy answer when asked just how many national titles Canada’s most storied athletic program has now secured.
“One hundred and eleven,” he says.
To all of the various teams and student-athletes who have won, each is uniquely special.
Yet this crown, like the one the UBC women’s volleyball team won under head coach Doug Reimer in 2008, is one of the landmark ones.
That year, the ‘Birds 3-2 comeback win over Montreal ended a 30-year streak of futility, and even more, was the first of a U Sports record-tying streak of six straight national titles.
Who knows what’s in store for next season’s UBC men’s volleyball team, one which MacDonald will guide with the same ‘point-at-a-time’ mentality?
In all of the pandemonium Sunday, while admitting everything was “beginning to blur together” he had nothing but clarity when asked about his first meeting with the team.
“When I took over this team, I just got this feeling right away about how much they loved to compete, how much they loved competitive situations,” MacDonald remembered. “I knew it was a special situation.”
For the next few days, coach MacDonald is still just 34 years old.
In jest we say, give him until next week, when he actually turns 35, to truly appreciate how long this championship drought had lasted.
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