North Vancouver's BCO volleyball club wins girls 18U national title

Players fight their way back one year after Norwalk virus knocked them out of Canadian championships

Sick is a slang word the kids today sometimes use to describe something that is really amazing.

In that sense, the performance of the North Shore-based BCO Volleyball Club’s 18U Elite girls team could easily be described as “sick” following a double-gold season that saw them win the provincial club championship last month followed by the Div. 1, Tier 1 title at the 2015 Volleyball Canada Championships held last week in Calgary.

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In a different sense, however, “sick” is a word that literally described the team during their attempt at winning a national title last year. Many of the same players who won gold this year were competing for a Canadian 18U championship last year and were off to a great start when disaster struck in the form of the Norwalk virus, which Wikipedia notes is also sometimes known as “winter vomiting disease.”

“Just at the end of the last match on the first day the first girl started to get sick,” explained assistant coach John McGowan. “By Day 2 we were just about out of players. We actually finished one match with two players that were throwing up.”

By the end of Day 2 it was obvious that even if the players had the strength to continue it would not have been logistically possible — it was just getting too messy. The team was forced to forfeit their final games.

Instead of bemoaning their rotten luck, however, the players decided that they didn’t want to finish their season on such a sour note. They went home, regrouped and found another tournament to play in, a U.S. High Performance event held in Tulsa, Okla. Facing top teams from around the States, the BCO girls finished a respectable fifth. It was a showing that shaped the team’s run this season, said McGowan.

“In a lot of respects it became a testament to their character,” he said. “Instead of being disappointed and shut down from (the Norwalk attack), they took it the other way and said we want to prove that we’re a talented group. They went down and played in that tournament in Tulsa and I think that continued to push them along that pathway that was needed to win the nationals this year.”

That resilience was tested in the national semifinal against Winnipeg’s Shock Volleyball Club — a team of some historic significance. BCO had made the national Tier 1 Div. 1 final once before under the coaching of club founder Mike Rockwell and had lost to the Shock. This was their chance at redemption — Rockwell, who is still BCO’s president but no longer coaches, was in the stands watching — but it didn’t start well for the North Shore team. The Shock won the first set and then jumped out to a 14-8 lead in the second set of the best-of-three match. That’s when head coach Dan Huzar called the team’s final timeout and gave what McGowan called “one of those great head coach speeches,” talking about how far the team had come and how hard they’d worked to get to that point.

“We were definitely on the ropes,” said McGowan. “In that 30-second timeout a switch got flipped because they started to play, and you could see they were playing for each other. Making big plays, big hits, big digs that were just highlight reel — not wanting to let each other down. . . . Something Dan said really resonated with them in terms of all the things we’d worked on.”

BCO ripped off a stunning 17-5 run to win the set going away and finished off the Shock in the third set for a 19-25, 25-19, 15-9 win to earn a berth in the final as well as some revenge for coach Rockwell.

“He was quite happy that after 20-some years, he got a little bit of payback,” said McGowan with a laugh.

The final was a tight affair until midway through the second set when BCO began to pull away. A 10-10 score turned into a 25-15 win and a national title.

“Words can’t even describe how I feel,” team captain, setter, and double MVP-winner Shae Harris said in an interview on moments after the national final. “I’m so proud of my team and all the hard work we’ve put in.”

McGowan said the depth of the BCO team helped them pull away in the final, the ninth match in three days for both teams.

“The Dinos were a phenomenal team and a great group of players, but you could see they had just a little bit less gas in the tank than we did,” said McGowan, adding that the strong friendships the BCO players shared helped them get to the top. “That was one of their greatest strengths — how close they all are. . . . You could really see the emotion come pouring out of them. They’ve all worked hard for lots of years to have that chance to win. When it all pays off, there’s probably no greater feeling in life.”

The team was full of standout players, led by Harris, a Carson Graham Grade 12 student who has committed to NCAA Div. 1 school Seattle University and earned a spot on the senior national B team following the tournament.

“She’s ahead of her time,” said McGowan. “She’s big for a setter — she’s six-one — she’s super strong and she is an amazing competitor. She’s got all the tools to be successful.”

Outside hitter Sarah Chase also earned a national B team invite. The Campbell River native resided in North Vancouver the past two seasons so that she could train with BCO.

“That’s just one example of how hard the girls work and how they’re committed to the sport,” said McGowan.

Nicole McNamara was another key player who came with an interesting back story as one half of a twin-sister beach volleyball team that is already one of the top duos in Canada. Nicole and sister Megan are committed to play on the sand at UCLA next year but they actually split up for indoor club season — Megan chose to focus on the beach this spring while Nicole wanted one more indoor shot so she joined BCO.

The BCO squad also contained four members of the high school provincial-championship winning Argyle Pipers senior girls team in Kendra Finch, Anna Price, Sarah Haysom and Meghan Koven. Other North Shore players included Carson Graham’s Beril Berkem, an exchange student from Turkey, West Vancouver’s Betsie de Beer and Handsworth’s Nicola Ros.

McGowan was joined by Tony Laurita and Mika Janzen as assistant coaches and between all of them — Huzar and Rockwell included — he reckoned none of them had ever seen so much talent assembled on one junior club team.

“We’ve never coached a team this talented and I would hazard a guess that I don’t know if we could ever coach a team this talented again,” he said. “It was just a perfect storm of players and we’re fortunate to have such a talented group of young women that played for us.”

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