A Storm has arrived, the likes of which this town has never seen before.
On Thursday, Nov. 9, the Whistler Secondary School (WSS) senior boys volleyball team locked up the North Shore AA volleyball championship. They went in loaded for bear, sweeping their semifinal 3-0 (25-19, 25-13, 25-18) over Chatelech and breaking out the brooms again to defeat Bodwell 2-0 in the final (25-19, 25-18).
It is not only the Storm’s first-ever North Shore volleyball banner, but the inaugural WSS title in any sport outside of skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking.
“I’ve always wanted to leave a lasting mark on my school,” said team captain and outside hitter Rowan Hardie. “And I love volleyball—I have for quite a few years now, so just winning that banner meant so much. I remember holding my teammate while he was crying, and it was just such a surreal moment.”
Setter Ben Unruh is likewise on Cloud 9. “It’s unreal to end the season off on such a high note,” he said. “It’s so significant because it really shows the hard work and dedication we’ve put in. We’ve been practising for maybe four hours on Saturday and Sunday, and then four hours in the week, so like, eight hours a week.
“It’s just so great to see that all of our hard work has paid off.”
Joining Hardie and Unruh atop the peak of victory are their teammates: Cooper Sampaio, Taje Hansen, Tyler Sopp, Teppei Onishi, Kento Takada, Sean Felius, Will Evans and Chase Kopek. They’ve become a seasoned group, with all except 10th-graders Hansen and Takada in the midst of their Grade 12 year.
WSS didn’t stop at a banner. They rolled into zone playoffs and upset Saint Patrick (the No. 16-ranked high school team in all of British Columbia) in another commanding 2-0 performance, then took a set off of Windermere in an eventual 3-1 semifinal loss.
High effort, high energy
WSS volleyball coach Conor Niwinski became acquainted with most of his team in the fall of 2021. The boys didn’t have a district league to play in, and two exhibition outings comprised the extent of their game action that year. Regardless, Niwinski saw in his juniors a palpable enthusiasm for the sport of volleyball—and for working with each other.
They jumped at an opportunity to join the North Shore League for 2022… and wound up dead last.
Volleyball is a game of momentum, and last year the Storm were full of young athletes entering their first or second competitive campaign. Naturally, they struggled at times to remain poised in the face of a decisive opposing kill or a preventable error. Hardie admits that, even near the beginning of this season, his team was prone to 10-point hot streaks and 10-point cold streaks in equal measure.
The squad that rolled into North Vancouver to vanquish Chatelech and Bodwell a few weeks ago was anything but inconsistent. Numbers don’t tell the full story, but the scoreboard shows a well-oiled unit that was never in true danger of losing either game at host venue Sutherland Secondary.
Make no mistake: the Storm expected to go home with a championship.
“To be honest—not to sound cocky—but I think we knew we were going to win,” Unruh said. “Losing wasn’t even a thought to us. We were so dedicated to winning this banner that we wouldn’t take losing as an option.”
The team’s mentality was high energy, Hardie explained.
“I remember telling the team: win or lose, we’re cheering,” he said. “Even if we lose a point, if someone made a good pass then we’re cheering about that pass. Just don’t let your energy go low, play as hard as you can, and never let the ball drop.”
They came, they saw, and they did just that.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Dramatic one-year turnarounds are rare in sport, and that’s what makes them special.
You have, for instance, the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who followed up a 4-12 campaign with a Super Bowl win and 526 points scored—the third-highest total in NFL history. The 2013 Towson University men’s basketball team finished their NCAA season 18-13: a monstrous improvement from 1-31 in 2012. Earlier this year, the New Jersey Devils tied for the NHL’s best single-season resurgence with a franchise-record 52 wins for 112 points (compared to 27 wins and 63 points the season before).
Each time something like this happens, there’s a rich story behind it, and the Storm are no exception. So how was this humble high school program able to right the ship so compellingly, despite being located in an area where volleyball never takes centre stage?
Niwinski figures it has something to do with how closely knit the team is.
“They just came together—by far one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with as far as teamwork and camaraderie goes,” he said. “Volleyball truly is a team sport, and we couldn’t have done it without help from every player. It was an honour to get to work with a team that was so committed and dedicated. They were always coming in with an attitude of wanting to work well with each other.”
Hardie is one of a few on the roster with substantial volleyball experience in his younger days. He’s also an avid mountain biker and snowboarder who has played competitive basketball before. Yet, the WSS senior boys volleyball group is the only place where he’s ever become fast friends with all of his teammates.
That experience impacts Hardie’s philosophy as a captain, too. Volleyball—like any sport—is fun if practised in the right atmosphere, and all season long he tried to make sure everyone was put in position to succeed. His upbeat demeanour went a long way in exhorting his teammates to new heights.
“Rowan’s a steady leader,” said Unruh. “He’s the backbone of the team, not just in skill but also in perseverance. He’s getting everybody to show up at practice, and he led the team in a way that’s positive.”
While Unruh frequently tees up Hardie for court-cracking kills or shrewd roll shots from the left side, the captain looks to his playmaker for other reasons as well.
“Ben has probably the highest energy out of anyone I know,” Hardie revealed. “When I ask myself: ‘I need to keep the energy up, who should I act like?’ I look straight at Ben. He’s a phenomenal player, probably one of my best friends … and he’s such a nice dude.”
‘What can be achieved’
Storm players are feeling the love from their community. Many have received complimentary texts from folks they know little, as well as warm hugs and high-fives from classmates and faculty. A local doctor even congratulated Hardie for the win during a recent medical appointment—not bad for a place so in love with skiing and biking.
In fact, the last time WSS won a banner, it was in the 2018-19 season for bantam and junior-level mountain biking.
Post-secondary life is fast approaching for this team of destiny. Hardie wants to give the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds program a shot, though he acknowledges the stiff spike in competition found there. Unruh is content with playing intramural games at whatever school he ends up in. Both hope their team’s milestone victory can leave an impact on other students.
“I think this banner is a testament to what can be achieved in three years,” said Unruh. “Since we’ve started playing volleyball, we’ve had some younger people that have taken an interest, so my hope is that they see that banner and can [be inspired] to continue loving the sport as I have loved the sport.”
Most importantly, volleyball has in this case helped develop a crop of potential-filled young men. Hardie, Unruh and their peers are active in their community, whether it’s joining leadership teams, participating in assemblies, writing poetry or serving at non-profit summer camps. Niwinski—himself only a third-year coach—believes they all have bright futures.
“They made it very easy this season to want to be their coach,” he said. “I’m confident that wherever they decide to go after high school, they just continue to develop those skills and hopefully find a place that they feel fits them well.”