UBCO ready to move into the big leagues

By Warren Henderson - Kelowna Capital News

UBC Okanagan athletic director Rob Johnson will be in Victoria in early May to make the university’s final bid presentation for inclusion into the Canada West University Athletics Association. Sean Connor/Capital News

Published: March 19, 2010 11:00 PM
Updated: March 22, 2010 6:52 AM


Reaching the end of her second year in the human kinetics program, Roz Huber can’t help but be inspired by the constant growth and vibrance of everyday life on the UBC Okanagan campus.

Now, if only the school’s varsity athletics programs could take the big step up to Canadian Interuniversity Sport, then the picture would be complete for the 20-year-old homegrown basketball player.

This May, 11 member schools in the Canada West University Athletics Association will vote on UBCO’s application to make the move out of the B.C. Colleges’ Athletics Association and into the CIS—the highest level of varsity sport in Canada.

If rubber-stamped by at least 75 per cent of the members, then the UBCO Heat men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams would begin play in the Canada West conference for the 2011-12 season.

Like most of her peers on the UBCO basketball and volleyball teams, Huber believes the continuing evolution of the local campus makes Kelowna fertile ground for big-time athletics.

“To see what’s been happening on campus, the development, the new buildings going up all the time and just how far it’s come over the last few years from being OUC and now to UBCO is all very inspiring,” said Huber.

“There’s a real buzz. It’s become a high-end university and it only makes sense that athletics should be part of that growth,“ she added.

“To be competing at the top level is what we all want. The university wants it, the athletes want it and I think the community does, too. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to do that.”

The Rutland Secondary School grad has clearly displayed the ability and talent required to play at the CIS level.

She’s been contacted by at least one Canada West coach who wants the 6-foot forward to make the move out of Kelowna to a bigger stage.

But if UBCO does gain approval this spring, then Huber would be more than happy to remain at home and wait until her fourth season (2011-12) to get a crack at Canada West competition.

The same goes for Nate Speijer, the 19-year-old all-Canadian power hitter with the Heat men’s volleyball squad, who could suit up today for any CIS team in the country.

Still, the gifted Penticton product is willing to stick it out for one more season in the BCCAA if it means his fourth and fifth years of eligibility will be spent playing in the Canada West.

“I really enjoy going to school and playing here,” said Speijer, who helped the Heat to a bronze medal at the national championship earlier this month in Edmonton.

“I want to stay here and, if we get into Canada West, that would clinch it for sure. If we don’t get in, then I guess I’d have to look at my options. But right now, I’m optimistic.

“We’ve shown we can compete close to the same level with CIS teams and once we get in, then I know we’d start to close the gap on them. It’s important to me and I know it’s important to a lot of the guys. Every team playing under the Heat banner has been striving toward this. We really want this.”

And you won’t get any arguments from Roz Huber.

“This would be a big step and it’s a challenge that I know all of us, as athletes, want to take on,” she said. “We’re ready for this.”


Last May, Rob Johnson and the UBC Okanagan athletics department had their fingers crossed for some good news.

Instead, the Canada West membership committee voted to delay its decision on new full-time applications for one year.

It meant UBCO and four other applying B.C. institutions would have to wait until 2010 for a definitive answer on their CIS futures.

While the UBCO was seeking full membership for its basketball and volleyball programs for the 2010-11 season, Canada West was offering something considerably less attractive.

UBCO—along with UNBC and Vancouver Island University, as well as probationary schools Thompson Rivers and Fraser Valley—would play only basketball, and only against each other in a five-team, second-tier conference.

It was simply too much of a compromise for the UBCO athletics department to accept, particularly with the volleyball teams not included in the proposal.

“To not have opportunities for our volleyball teams, as strong as they were, just wasn’t attractive at all to us,” said Johnson , the UBCO athletic director.

“As for basketball, the five teams would play each other all year, then the winner would compete as the eighth seed in the playoffs. We applied to play against the big schools, so to not get to compete at that highest level just didn’t work for us. It’s not what we applied for.

“In fairness to Canada West,” Johnson added, “it was trying to come up with some arrangement that would work for all the schools in the interim. But again, student athletes who have ability to compete at the highest level want to compete at the highest level and that wasn’t going to happen.”

In the end, some of the other Canada West members had reservations about whether the conference was fully prepared and had all the necessary information to properly manage the new growth.

Canada West president Sandy Slavin said the additional 12 months has given the committee time to more thoroughly examine the implications and logistics of admitting new members.

“For four of the members, there wasn’t a clarity to them as to what it would all look like as we expanded, and what does it mean for the existing members,” said Slavin.

“Issues such as scheduling, travel costs, etcetera weren’t clear to them and, without a good understanding, they struggled on how to vote.

“The extra year has given them a chance to evaluate how we can grow as a conference and what the competitive structure would look like,” she added.

“We’re inviting all five institutions to present their information to the membership in May and all applications will be seriously considered.”

Still, even with the unexpected setback last spring, Johnson said there has clearly been a silver lining for his school by the one-year delay.

It has given UBCO more time to fine tune its application bid and to get its house fully in order for the CWUAA meetings May 4 to 7 in Victoria.

“Having them defer the vote for a year wasn’t the desired result but it was sure a lot less distasteful than them saying no to us altogether,” he explained.

“It was hard to take for our athletes and coaches but now here we find ourselves again, just a month away from making another presentation. We’ve had some time to address a couple of minor deficiencies (the CIS) saw last year, so I think our application bid will be stronger than ever.”

Johnson said the Canada West site-inspection committee expressed concerns last year over the shortage of ancillary services related to the UBCO gym, such as team rooms, sports medicine facilities, and support space around the building. Thanks to a recreational infrastructure grant, Johnson said the necessary upgrades are in the process of being made.

In addition, UBCO has had an extra year to shore up its financial assistance initiatives for student athletes.

Johnson said the success of the scholarship breakfasts over the last two years and the ongoing support of the community at large should help to allay any concerns from Canada West.

As far as other criteria for the bid is concerned, Johnson believes UBCO couldn’t be on a better footing.

Putting competitive teams on the floor right from the first season is high on the list of Canada West’s expectations, and perhaps no institution boasts a stronger record of success than UBCO.

Steve Manuel and his the women’s volleyball squad have been nothing short of dominant, winning the provincial and national championships two years running.

Heat player Alex Basso earned CCAA player of the year honours and is an all-Canadian along with teammate Leigh Dreher.

The Heat women went a dazzling 21-0 this season and, in Manuel’s estimation, have left little doubt they are ready for the next step.

“We want people to take notice and to know we’re not happy with just being at the top of CCAA. We don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond anymore,” said Manuel, who in his ninth season as head coach. “We want to be the big dog period and show we belong at the next level.

“Three medals three years in a row at nationals and the program just keeps getting better. We’re ready, no question in my mind.”

The men’s volleyball team won a silver at nationals at 2008 and a bronze in 2010. Greg Poitras was named coach of the year and Speijer and Preston Tucker were named all-Canadians.

In basketball, the Heat women were provincial gold medalists in 2007 and 2010.

The UBCO men’s hoops squad qualified for nationals three straight years from 2007 to 2009.

With a winning tradition, a number of nationally-recognized coaches already in place and top-rate facilities, Johnson is confident UBCO will continue to attract strong students, who are also elite athletes—all vital selling points in the school’s bid to gain Canada West approval.

In addition, with more than 6,100 students on campus and growing each year, UBCO is becoming an increasingly enticing education option, both for homegrown talent and elite athletes from abroad.

“UBC has a strong reputation academically, and parents and students recognize that if they need a degree from an internationally-recognized institution and they don’t wish to be at a huge campus with 40,000 other students like UBC Vancouver, then this is a great option for a UBC degree,” said Johnson.

“It’s hard to compete with the Okanagan as a place to go to school and live. Students can get a summer job, enjoy the Okanagan life. There’s also a lot to offer here outside of an education.”

If UBCO is successful in gaining entrance into the CIS, varsity sports in Kelowna can expect a significant boost in profile, both in terms of public interest and media coverage.

With far more resources being poured into Canada West programs than those in the BCCAA, Johnson said there would be many other spin-offs benefitting not only the campus population but the community in general.

“It’s a big step for any institution and it would mean we would be able to provide greater opportunities all across the board…for student athletes to raise their skills and technical understanding,” he said.

“It would help with the development of officials, there would be many recreational opportunities, not only at the high level but even for the recreational child athlete in the community. Summer camp offerings, off-season leagues…the offerings would increase significantly.”


If successful in its bid, UBCO’s basketball and volleyball teams would play one more season in the BCCAA before moving on to Canada West competition for 2011-12.

In future years, UBCO hopes to bring the Heat soccer teams into the CIS, while many other local sports organizations, such as football, field hockey and baseball are likely to be lining up for their shot at university sports.

With the final verdict on the application due in just over a month, Johnson is satisfied no stone has been left unturned in his school’s attempt to take varsity sports to the next level.

“Without jinxing ourselves, we feel like the institution and the community has done everything it could to develop a plan and a really good quality application,” he said.

“We’ve had wonderful support from UBCO, our chair, our president and the community. We’re proud of our programs, our facilities and our application. We feel like we’ve done about as much as we can.“

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