Volleyball: Top York House players started at the bottom

York House Tigers channel ambition into process

There are two players on the Tigers volleyball team, both of them stars on a roster that includes three athletes who have already signed on at top North American universities, who were once — if you believe them — the worst players the sport has ever known.

Kaleigh Matheson, a six-foot outside hitter, had incredible physical intelligence as a gymnast but no idea how to use her strength, co-ordination or agility to bounce a ball.

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“I took a chance and tried out for the Grade 8 volleyball team. I was probably one of the worst players the coach had ever seen,” said Matheson. “There were multiple times I’d go up and swing at the ball but just have it land beside me and, in the end, I’d never touch it.”

Then there’s Siobhan Finan, a lithe left-handed power hitter who shot up from five-foot-four to six-foot by the start of Grade 8.

A competitive skier who could visualize every part of downhill course, was selected for the senior team in Grade 9. “I wasn’t particularly skilled but they saw height and, I hope, a bit of potential,” said Finan, whose teammates took to the court while she spent hours on a different drill.

“At the beginning of the season, all I did was throw a tennis ball against the wall in a desperate hope to develop arm swing. Apparently it was that hard for me. I had so much arm I didn’t know where it was coming from,” she said. “And I would do spike approaches across the gym floor in a circle for about two hours.”

Finan was never embarrassed about taking a different route. “I had accepted my role as the lanky goof and so I played it well, I guess.”

When she finally saw court time in a game, the ball flew over the net at Finan — and she caught it. Then she threw it back over the net. The rookie move didn’t hold her back.

“When I started to be able to hit hard, the competitive spirit in me sprang out. I loved that feeling and that still is my favourite part of volleyball when you get that hard, crisp hit.”

Then there’s Laura Worsely. According to coaches, including UBC head coach Doug Reimer, for whom she will play next season, it’s possible Worsley has never known a sport she didn’t excel at.

A vertical game of power and speed, volleyball is rife with stories of players’ growth spurts and lanky lack of co-ordination. What’s remarkable is what the York House Tigers have done with their potential.

Finan and Worsley will play for UBC next season. Matheson is also good enough to play post-secondary but hasn’t committed to a school. And six-foot-three middle Dayna Kern will play in the NCAA Div. 1 with Tulane.

“I don’t know that I’ve had a team that has this many players who are going on to play post-secondary,” said head coach Chris Ruse.

Undefeated in 10 league games, York House also won the Western Canada independent school tournament for the second time and is the No. 2 AA school in B.C. The players know they are good enough — if everything falls into place — to win the school’s first B.C. volleyball title. York House, already known for a tremendously successfull basketball program, could add volleyball to its athletic highlight reel.

“We knew coming in we’d be a strong team and it was a question of making sure we can perform when it comes time to perform,” said Ruse.

The coach, a UBC Thunderbirds alum who has also coached the Thunder volleyball club, can turn most moments into a coaching opportunity and he’s scaled back the team’s ambition to win into a season-long lesson about mindfulness and focus.

“It’s not so much about the winning,” said Finan. “That’s something we’ve had to adjust throughout the season. What we really want to focus on is the process and if we play to our potential, I believe we will win provincials. But if we play our absolute best and there’s nothing else we could do, I wouldn’t be completely demoralized if we lost.”

Added Matheson, “Sometimes, as a team, we can get lost in the idea of winning. In this half of the seasons, we’re trying to bring it back to the process and enjoy every moment of the game. We’ve broken it down to not determining our goals by a win or a loss or a trophy or a medal but whether we can come out of every game feeling like we’ve given it our all and if we’ve played as smart as we could and, essentially, whether we had fun.”

The Tigers compete this week now for a berth at the Lower Mainland zone tournament.

twitter.com/MHStewart

mstewart@vancourier.com

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