Kamloops, BC—If you look on the stats sheet, a record of 2-22 wouldn’t be considered a success. But if you explore deeper, you’ll find in the case of the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack men’s volleyball team it was.
The WolfPack underwent a major shift in their ‘culture’ under the direction of former player and assistant coach Mike Hawkins. The native of Lethbridge, Alberta returned to the TRU program after coaching in the Alberta College Athletics Conference in 2015-16. He spent the last season as the interim head coach of the ‘Pack while Pat Hennelly worked on his Master’s degree.
“I knew it was going to be a bit of a reset of the program with the graduation of Brad Gunter and having a lot of inexperienced guys,” Hawkins said. “It was a great challenge for me. I think being with this type of roster helped me learn and grow the most rather than if I took over a veteran laden crew. It allowed me to do a lot of things.”
Canada West is considered by most to be the top university men’s volleyball league in the nation. So, taking over running a team in your late 20’s might be nerve wracking. Hawkins said that he saw it as a challenge and wasn’t overwhelmed.
“I wasn’t nervous because there were very little expectations with the group. I came in with a sense of what we could do. I think the style that I wanted to play. The systems of what I wanted to run with this group would fit in a certain way but a lot of things had to go well. If I hadn’t had the experience the year before in Lethbridge, I wouldn’t have been able to handle all the day to day operations of the team. There is quite a big jump from college to university. Going into this year with that experience—and the fact Pat allowed me to do a lot of things during my two years here as an assistant—made the job easier.”
When he looks back at the year, he knows the record isn’t the tell-tale sign. It was the development of his athletes. “ I think what I am most proud of is the culture that we set. Based on the research I’ve done for the Master’s Thesis project: I really focus on the identity of the group in the program. We were very clear with the type of culture we wanted to set based on the type of personalities. We don’t have the guys who are very ‘in your face’ and very aggressive. To try and mold guys into people they are not isn’t possible. We tried to take these young, fairly quiet personalities and find a ‘group identity’ which fit them and would push them to be more competitive. We had to find different forms throughout the year.”
Hawkins says at first, the players were trying to over compensate and he had to reign them in. “I remember a few practices that the guys were taking personal jabs at one another. I had to stop them and say that wasn’t our style and how we play. On the flip side, we went on the opposite end of the spectrum and were way too nice. Everyone was ‘rainbows and butterflies’. I told them we could do that either and had to find a middle ground. “
Hawkins says the players found that ground since Christmas where they are supportive. “That is our foundation-our brotherhood support system—when you do challenge someone it isn’t out of a personal vendetta. You appreciate that person but you want something better out of them, for them and for the group. A lot of the guys felt that is the best way for the group to push themselves and the team forward and reach their full potential..”
He adds that this supportive culture will be a corner stone as the WolfPack move towards 2017-18 and hopefully a return to the upper echelon of Canada West.
Looking at the returning personnel, Hawkins says a few players are poised for breakout seasons. “ I used this example a few times: Sam Taylor Parks (2nd year, middle, Kelowna, BC). He has blown me away the past few months as a leader. For a guy who had success last year, it would have been easy for him to ‘mail it in’ when things weren’t going well. But he was our most consistent athlete. He took it upon himself to a better leader. It wasn’t a position he was first comfortable in. By the end of the year, he was taking charge during time outs when I asked him.”
He added that Tim Edge (3rd year, outside, Langley, BC) and Kyle Behiels (2nd year, middle, Edmonton, AB) also emerged as leaders. “Tim would be the first to admit he didn’t see himself in that position when he first came to TRU. He has developed into a leader.”
“It would be really narrow minded not to look at this season based solely on wins and losses,” Hawkins added. “Sure it’s the end result of success in sport. For us as a program, success can be defined this or next season is making sure these guys can develop technically in terms of their personality. By the time our core group are in their fourth and fifth years they are legitimately vying for a national championship. We have that caliber of athlete in this program. It just takes time to grow it.”
Running a University program is a dream of Hawkins. A dream that hasn’t changed over the last year. He says there are two moments that stand out in his mind. One was winning against his alma mater of Mount Royal. The other came the opening weekend when the ‘Pack hosted Alberta. “ I felt that way because of the connection to those programs. Growing up in Alberta-the U of A has been the perennial power house. I coached with Brock Daviduk (Alta Asst. Coach) this past summer and we became pretty good friends. That was a fun way to jump right in. Having a familiar face on the other side was great and we enjoyed relatively good success against them. “
When asked what the highlight of his year as interim head coach was, Hawkins found it hard to pinpoint just one. “One of the aspects that really appealed to me was recruiting the right personalities to mesh together. I know with Landon Currie (libero, Vernon, BC) coming in: he is absolute perfect fit for this group. He is intense and passionate. He will compliment some of the other personalities that we have here. We are talking to a few other athletes that will help us complete the puzzle of what we are lacking.”
With Hennelly poised to return to the head coaching position soon: Hawkins’ future has reached a fork in the road. He says he would like to take over a program on a full time basis if it came up; but he is also willing to continue to have Hennelly as his mentor and see the seeds that he planted with the WolfPack this year blossom.
And of course, to finish his Master’s Thesis.