Published: March 02, 2012 5:00 AM
Updated: March 02, 2012 12:43 PM
The magnitude of the step up from B.C. collegiate athletics to the Canada West university conference didn't exactly catch Ashley Briker by surprise.
The third-year guard for the UBC Okanagan Heat women's basketball team knew the players would be bigger, stronger, and faster at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level.
And that the degree of time and effort—both on and off the floor—required to compete with the country's best university athletes would also be significantly greater.
Briker and the Heat women won two games in their inaugural season of Canada West competition and, not unlike any first-year program, suffered through some predictable growing pains.
Still, when all was said done, Briker said the Heat's maiden voyage in the CIS could only be considered a success.
"For a long time, we were used to winning a lot of games in the B.C. college league, so it was interesting and, at times, really hard for us," said Briker, a graduate of Mt. Boucherie Secondary. "But in the end, we proved to ourselves and everyone else that we can compete against the highest level of competition, even as a smaller school. We had some games where we got beat by quite a bit, but we also had a lot of close games and we won twice.
"We learned a lot and, as a team, we never gave up. It was an awesome experience, and this is really just the beginning."
The Canada West experience officially began for four UBCO varsity teams in 2011-12—the Heat men's and women's basketball squads, and the men's and women's volleyball teams.
Each program experienced its share of highs and lows, and each was introduced to how dramatically different life will be in the CIS than in the BCCAA.
The UBCO men's volleyball squad did what few first-year programs have done in the history of Canada West competition by making the playoffs.
The women's volleyball team won six of 20 matches, but five of their 14 losses came in the fifth and deciding set, most often against established schools ranked in the top 10.
Like the women's basketball team, the Heat men's squad learned and improved as the season progressed, and finished with a 3-15 record.
Scores, records and standings aside, Heat athletic director Rob Johnson reserved his highest praise for the players who wore the blue and gold during UBCO's historic first season in Canada West.
"I was so impressed with how hard our student-athletes competed," said Johnson. "It was a really big step for all of us, some more than others. To see our younger student-athletes compete against these seasoned, hardened CIS athletes was pretty inspiring. And to see none of our people step back or give up, was really impressive. No matter what the score was or how much they were down, they didn't stop. The determination was always there."
Johnson also commended the coaches of the respective Heat programs for making the transition as smooth as possible under challenging circumstances.
"Our coaches prepared our student-athletes very well, both mentally and athletically. I think the fact that we didn't get completely blown away is a testament to them. They were instrumental in us getting membership, and they've proven themselves, that they can coach at this level. I heard from a number of athletic directors who have congratulated our program for how we performed. We have the people in place that are so committed to our student-athletes, it's all pretty encouraging as we go forward."
From an athlete's perspective, Ashley Briker was aware of the level of commitment needed to compete in the CIS well before the Heat's first season began.
Now, with a full season under their belts, Briker has an greater appreciation of what it means to be a Canada West-calibre athlete.
"We started earlier this year (August) and we still haven't really stopped," said Briker. "You find out how hard you have to work to compete at this level.
"Every game in Canada West is like playing the best teams from the college like all the time, so just can't relax. It takes a toll on your body so you really have to take care of yourself.
"Even with road trips, you leave on Thursday and don't come back until Sunday night. You've got to get caught up on school, but all you want to do is sleep," Briker added with a laugh. "It's an eye-opener just how intense and physically demanding it is. But, you know what ? It's been a lot of fun, too. And people have been great in supporting us."
Like Briker, Heat men's volleyball coach Greg Poitras is encouraged by the positive feedback the arrival of Canada West sports has generated on the Kelowna campus.
Poitras said interest and support from the university, the student body and the community has been strong.
"The response we got from our administration, the university, the local volleyball community, the fans was excellent, probably even more so than when we won a medal at nationals a year earlier," said Poitras. "We had quite a few followers, even a bunch of my family members started come to the games, and they're all sold on it. The support system is in place, our brand is out there, and the buzz is out there, too.
"Having said that, I still think it's a long process," added Poitras, whose team posted an 8-12 record during its inaugural season. "It's not going to all happen overnight, but opportunities will arise in the years to come and hopefully we can take advantage of them."
So with the experience and growing pains of one full season of Canada West competition—and the second year of a three-year probationary period—now in the books, the UBCO athletic department is ready to take the next steps in building the Heat program.
"It's one of those things where we've now been through the cycle, we can look back and see where the rough spots are smooth them over," said Rob Johnson. "At the same time, there's no slowing down. Coaches have to get out there and recruit; they can use this year to their advantage in the recruiting game.
"We knew we'd be in tough this first year," Johnson added. "Now the kids have been out there, they have a much better understanding of what to expect."
With the basketball and volleyball teams now competing at the CIS level, one of UBC Okanagan's next orders of business is gaining Canada West approval for the Heat men's and women's soccer teams.
Johnson said the Heat will deliver its official application in May at the Canada West meetings in Calgary, with a final vote to be held at the CIS meetings in June in Ottawa.
If approved, the men's and women's soccer teams would join the big time for the start of the 2013 season.
"I don't really have a good sense of our chances, but in terms of how competitive we've been, that's pretty positive," Johnson said. "The women won a silver medal in BCCAA, and the men had a really good year with a bronze, their first medal ever.
"We have Nonis sports field, one of the best facilities in the valley, and we have the team rooms in place to meet the requirements.
"Until you can tell an athlete you have a Canada West program, it's pretty hard to recruit," he added. "We're hoping in June we can say that our soccer teams are in."
As for the potential addition of football to the Heat's roster of Canada West sports in the future, Johnson said the subject of a partnership with the Okanagan Sun remains on the table.
But until new UBC Okanagan deputy vice-chancellor and principal Deborah Buszard arrives on campus this July, Johnson said it's difficult to predict the speed or direction discussions regarding a football program will take.
"Until she comes and has an opportunity to see what we've done and what our vision is, we really won't know a whole lot," said Johnson. "A lot will depend on her vision and whether the resources of the institution allows us to move forward."
Still, Johnson said there continues to be plenty of interest in a football program at UBC Okanagan, from several different perspectives.
"There is interest in this within the community, from the Okanagan Sun and from UBC Okanagan," he said. "It's a very interesting opportunity, but one that comes with considerable costs. It's the largest and most expensive program an institution can run.
"At the same time, from a community perspective, it would be a wonderful thing," Johnson continued. "The Sun has had very good support from the community in the past. In terms of school spirit, football would be a huge addition.
"Our discussions have always been about a partnership with the Sun and I expect it to continue that way."
Johnson can't forecast when local fans might see a football team in Canada West, but said if UBC Okanagan does get the green light, it would take the Sun about two years to properly prepare the organization for a move to the CIS level.
The future of varsity sports on campus aside, Johnson and the rest of the Heat athletic program are catching a collective deep breath now that a hectic, challenging and mostly rewarding inaugural Canada West season for UBCO is complete.
All in all, Johnson is encouraged with what he watched unfold on campus over the last six months.
"It's a pretty good start, but we're hungry to do better," said Johnson. "Anyone who saw our athletes this year should be very proud of how hard they worked."