VANCOUVER — When Aaron Lock and Ken Li graduated from Van Tech Secondary back in 2000, their student-athlete resume was not filled with the adventures that come with B.C. championship medal-presentation ceremonies.
Yet the two friends got still something substantial enough from their time as Talismen on the school’s senior boys volleyball team that almost two decades later, they’re still around, part of a coaching triumvirate with Paulo Pequeno which has helped give a true sporting identity to an East Vancouver school which for so long had been without one.
This season, in fact, Van Tech senior boys volleyball is sitting at an all-time high, quantifiable not only by the excitement level the team has brought its own campus, but by the No. 2 ranking it has held for the majority of the season at Triple-A, the province’s largest tier.
Of course, no Vancouver city school has ever won the B.C. senior boys volleyball title at the sport’s highest tier, at least through records which list consecutive winners for the last 60 years, from 1959 onwards. David Thompson, a Double A champ in 1995, also finished third at Triple A in 2009. John Oliver, in the single-tiered era, placed second in 1971.
Through this week, the Talismen are looking to build their best level of momentum as they compete at the Lower Mainland AAA championships being hosted at Moscrop Secondary in Burnaby, all with the hope of qualifying for the Kahunaverse B.C. championship tournament, set to begin a three-day run Nov. 29 at the Langley Events Centre.
“This group, Paulo had them in Grades 8, 9 and 10, so he put in all the real work,” smiles Lock, who this year is coaching the senior varsity team for the third straight season, taking over for Li who is busy these days as Tech’s athletic director. “So they already knew the basic structure, and so realistically, it was pretty easy for me.”
Listening to Lock speak of his fellow coaches is a big reason why Talismen boys volleyball is on an upswing.
The dynamics of a great coaching co-operative can’t ever be under-estimated, and with the trio living by the same school motto as its players (the latin ‘semper sursum’ or ‘aim high’, is emblazoned on all Van Tech jersies), it’s been onward and upward the past few seasons.
“What has really defined this group?” asks Lock, 36. “While we are a typically-Vancouver with our hard-nosed defence, this group is surprisingly tall, or on average, taller than any group we’ve had.”
Yet it’s talented height, too.
The 6-foot-5 Lachlan McBride and Karsten Nielson-Roine, at 6-foot-2, man the outside attack spots, with middles Andy Cheng and Lucas Grant each checking in at 6-foot-1.
For Lock, who will step aside next season and let the coaching cycle continue, his three seasons at the helm have been filled with talent, including 2016 when current UBC Thunderbirds’ second-year outside hitter Coltyn Liu led the team.
This season, the Talismen are composed of 11 seniors and one Grade 11 player, making them about as veteran-laden a team as you will find in the B.C. high school sports world.
NEVER FAR FROM HOME
The March 16, 1995 headline in The Province newspaper read ‘TKO for Tech’.
They hadn’t been to B.C.’s highest-tiered senior boys basketball championships since 1975, but 20 years later there they were, pulling off one of the most stunning upsets in tourney history.
As a No. 15 seed, the Talismen had beaten No. 2-seeded Terry Fox 56-46, ending the No. 1-ranked Ravens’ bid to win three straight B.C. titles.
“I would say through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Tech’s identity was through its basketball teams,” agreed Lock.
Yet the school also had a dedicated volleyball coach named Brian Wright, whom as far as Lock knows, had coached the sport at the school dating back to the 1980s.
“For sure it was the passion from Brian,” Lock says when asked for the defining reason both he and Li have stayed close to their alma mater ever since graduation. “He had a very large influence on us, and so much so that we run an alumni tournament each year in his honour. His name is even on the trophy. He was a cornerstone for volleyball at Tech and around the Lower Mainland.”
Of course if you’re rooted in Vancouver high school volleyball, any DNA swab will reveal large strains of underdog-itis.
“We were always consistently contenders at Tech for the City and Lower Mainland titles, and I want to say for 14-15-16 years, always had a senior boys team that appeared at the provincials, including my time as a player” continues Lock. “But the history (of B.C. titles) in volleyball shows the strength is in the Fraser Valley, the Island or the Okanagan. Not in the Lower Mainland.”
AN UNDERDOG’S DNA
The Talismen have held their No. 2 ranking long enough this season to prove they’re no one-hit wonder.
They have moved from one star’s chapter in Liu, to another in which the talented McBride is resonating on the radar of Volleyball Canada.
“Lachlan didn’t start playing until late in his Grade 9 year,” remembers Lock. “In Grade 10 he was very raw. But he has a willingness to get better. He wants to know and understand his sport, so he does his research and is always looking to improve. That’s Karsten, too. He is very self-critical of himself He isn’t looking for perfection but he is more than willing to try different things to improve.
“They don’t see a ceiling,” Lock adds. “They refuse to put a cap on themselves, and that speaks to their hunger.”
And all of that speaks volumes to the coachability of this group of Tech seniors, which also includes Melvin Mallari, Nathan Ho, Geoffrey Xu, Nicholas Lee, Joshua Matsui, Johnson Tang, Daniel Galindo and Preetpaul Chhoker.
And Lock has never underestimated the example that UBC’s Liu set for this group back in 2016 when the current seniors were 10th graders.
“Colton was someone for them to all look up to,” said Lock of Liu who overcame a serious childhood injury and other issues to become a true role model in the B.C. high school sports world. “He didn’t let anything hamper his growth.He was, I think to a lot of the guys, a kind of moral standard to aspire to.”
And of course that underdog’s DNA has been shaped by history, by the knowledge that no Vancouver team has ever won B.C. senior boys volleyball championship at the sport’s highest tier.
“Over the summer, these guys took their own measures,” added Lock of a group whose self-examination from last season led to increased off-season team conditioning drills. “They went to the gym, they did extra cardio workouts. It was good for their mentality. They’ve grown up and they know now, better than ever, what it’s going to take to win.”
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