After two decades on the court, coach Semeniuk hangs up the sneakers
‘Family comes first,’ is the motto of UBC Okanagan’s Heather Semeniuk, who has spent the past 21 years coaching the Heat women’s basketball team.
The game has always been a passion for Semeniuk, and her on-court and off-court contributions will be remembered for years to come by former players and colleagues who refer to her affectionately as “Coach Sem.” Deciding to put away the whiteboard and speeches hasn’t been an easy decisions and Coach Sem says, despite her passion for the game, it is the people and the relationships, not the game, that brought her back to the gym year after year.
“We as people are important, not as numbers, not as anything else,” Semeniuk says. “I don’t consider this a business. I consider it a career, something that I am passionate about, and that’s who I am. And that’s why I say this is about people and not anything else.
The basketball genes are strong in Coach Sem’s family. She is the mother to four children, all of whom have played basketball to at least some extent. Two of her boys—Darren and Mark—have served as head coach and assistant coach, respectively, for various lengths of time with the Heat as well.
Semeniuk’s final games on the sideline for the Heat are at home Thursday and Friday February 12-13.
Developing a program
Semeniuk was no stranger to coaching before taking up the position at then-Okanagan University College in 1994.
“The exciting part was that I was going to get to coach kids who were working towards a college degree,” she says. “The idea of being able to travel and have new experiences with them…and the gymnasium had just opened. It was beautiful.”
Semeniuk would go on to win her very first game coaching varsity—a 57-54 road matchup with the Langara Falcons—a college team that she would see for many more years to come.
“I really enjoyed playing against Langara because I have so much respect for Mike Evans,” she says. “The spirit of the competition was always very compatible against us.”
During her first year at the helm, the Lakers would go 7-11 to finish 7th in the BCCAA. From then on the team would steadily improve, qualifying for the provincial championships just two years later and claiming its first medal, silver, in the 1999/2000 season before finishing fifth at CCAA National Championships.
In 2005/06 the OUC campus officially became UBC Okanagan and in 2007 Semeniuk guided her new-era Lakers to a top league finish and a gold medal at provincials, ultimately reaching as high as fourth at nationals.
“UBC coming into Kelowna was a really big deal,” Semeniuk said, recalling the school’s transition. “It was great for sports on campus, and also great for the city of Kelowna, and for the young people around here.”
The team would continue to make the playoffs each season, medaling in five of those six seasons, until their last year in the BCCAA. Coach Sem would capture two provincial golds and two top league finishes during the school’s stretch in the BCCAA.
“Obviously when you’re successful the girls feel good about themselves, about what they are doing,” says Semeniuk. “The sport is what it is. You play it, there’s a winner at the end, at the end of the night, the end of the week, the end of the year. There’s a winner, and there’s one winner, but that has never been my focus.”
The Heat played their first season in Canada West for the 2011/12 in the Pacific Division. Semeniuk would guide her team of developing college players against a league of veteran CIS schools towards an impressive two wins to finish sixth in the division.
Semeniuk is seen as a great mentor to many who have come through the program, and she has always been ready and willing to help where she can. The coach could not stress enough the strength and power of familial bonds.
“Even though academics does come first, and basketball comes second, I have always told the students that family really comes first. That’s just what I believe. Family is where they came from, and it’s who they lean on. That’s the foundation.”
She admits that her role as a mentor has grown as much as her coaching style and knowledge of the game of basketball grew.
Semeniuk stresses the importance of building relationships with players, family, and colleagues is based on trust.
“If I can help them with a problem, then they know they can rely on me, then I am building a relationship where there is trust. We can believe each other because we’ve got each other’s backs, just like on the court. And I like that.”
Heather has helped a total of 125 players who have come through her program over the years, from a total of 61 different high schools. All of her players throughout the years have come from varying and diverse backgrounds, and Semeniuk again credits the coming of UBC to the Okanagan as a big factor for keeping and growing the program’s diversity.
“I love walking around campus and seeing the diversity,” Semeniuk said emphatically. “It is just fantastic. If I were to go back, and I was going back to school, this is where I would want to go. I really love the feeling here.”
Creating a legacy
Twenty-one years is a long time for anyone to remember all of the details therein, but regardless, Semeniuk stresses her memories and her legacy will rest primarily on the shoulders of her relationships and experiences with everyone she had the opportunity to interact with along the way.
“To be honest, I don’t remember records, I don’t remember championships,” she explained, “I remember the feeling, and the experience, and the sharing of both.”
“There have been so many fantastic women,” she continued. “The relationships, the friendships, and the connections you make, they’re now life-long for me. Girls are having families, getting married, having children, life is just evolving for everybody. Now I get to share in their lives in a different dimension.”
Sounds just like family.