Written By: John Short
Improvement in Alberta college volleyball is always difficult but explaining the difficulty is always easy.
"Progress is slow because the ACAC (Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference) is the strongest in Canada, depth-wise," NAIT Ooks head women's coach Benj Heinrichs explained recently. "It's hard to move up in the standings when every team in your league is extremely good."
These words were spoken comfortably, as befits a man whose team produced 16 wins against only eight losses in the 2017-18 regular season, finishing third in the ACAC North. "It was our best year in the last five," he said.
Essential in reaching this impressive level, made more impressive by bronze medal in the provincial championship tournament,
The good news is that nine veterans from last year will return, but it's equally pleasant for Heinrichs and all the Ooks players to consider the bright prospects facing Smith and Bain. "This is a rewarding part of coaching," said the head coach. "My goal is to help my athletes become the best they can be.
"Everyone (in the program) is happy to see them get another opportunity at the next level."
Heinrichs, who spent 14 years coaching the Medicine Hat Rattlers before becoming part of the NAIT staff, has ample experience at the highest playing levels: after graduating from Red Deer College and the University of Calgary, he spent three years with the Canadian national men's team. "When I quit, I went directly into coaching at Medicine Hat."
This experience gives him a balanced view of volleyball's growth in Canada. "We're (men's team) sixth in the world right now," he said. "We won bronze in the World League and finished fifth in the Olympics. "That's progress."
As for the women's team, "they have a ways to go."
In almost every discussion of his job, Heinrichs reveals that quality of life ranks beside discipline and other coaching fundamentals as basic necessities. "Our team last year had tons of fun and lived up to high expectations. You can have both in a program."
His approach bends, when necessary, to accommodate academic schedules. "We practice three times a week; a lot of teams practice four times.
"We have a (very good) 3.3 team GPA in the last three years. A lot of our players make the honour roll every year."
And he expects more of the same, starting this fall. His recruits – "we're well along" – must be prepared to work hard, understand that everyone on the team will have a role and recognize that "we're going to succeed because everyone understands the value of being part of something bigger than the individual."
In conclusion, coach Heinrichs summed up his team's total focus: FEAT – Focus, Effort, Attitude and Talk (Attitude).
"We want players who ask themselves 'how do I get better?' As coaches and teammates, we'll work to help them."
2017-2018 Award Winners
Rookie Of The Year – Laura Bodnarek
Leadership – Emma Norenberg
Silver Torch (MVP) – Lauren Smith