The annual match begins in five hours.
On the Friday of reading week, the PAC is deserted. A stroll through the Blue North corridors hears nothing but one’s own footsteps and Olympic hockey whispering on televisions behind closed doors. The loudest sounds though, echo through the glass window. On the gym floor below, 16 students are practicing: running, jumping, hitting, always in communication.
This is the Waterloo Warriors men’s volleyball team.
Coach Chris Lawson, arms crossed, stoic, and just-crowned OUA Coach of the Year, stands courtside observing his players. Dressed in yellow, seven tall Warriors stand per side, balancing four balls in play; each one is served, received, and volleyed off, where it’s returned to service.
For the third straight year, the Warriors will play the Western Mustangs in the OUA semifinals. In two hours, they’ll board the bus to McMaster University, the host school. The time, place, and opponent are familiar: last February — 364 days ago — the Warriors suffered a 3–1 loss to the Mustangs in Hamilton. Two years ago, a 3–0 loss.
The four practice volleyballs fly, constantly in motion. Serve, dig, set, and repeat. After 20 minutes, Lawson concludes practice. The team sits down to perform cool-down stretches. They’re relaxed and chatty. Some shoot a stray basketball. Middle Jordan Dyck bounces the ball off the backboard and collects it for an emphatic dunk. At 6’ 5”, he’s the median height of the volleyball team, and fit to play power forward on a varsity basketball squad.
Back in the stretch circle, left side James Evans rolls up the rim of his Tim Horton’s cup, declaring the result an omen for this evening’s game. He finds a free coffee awaiting him underneath.
“Drinks on me tonight!” he calls, waving the winning tab.
A group of three passes me en route to lunch. They are libero Erich Woolley, James Evans, and setter/team captain Scott Thomson. The trio will each receive awards later: Woolley as OUA libero of the year, Evans as a second-team All-Star, and Thomson as a first-team All-Star. Up close, they’re even taller — as I shake the 6’ 5” Evans’ hand, I only manage to introduce myself to his tie knot.
Evans and Thomson represent two of the team’s fifth-year players. Along with left side Aleks Poldma and middle Tyler “Crush” Motherwell, the quartet leads the team as senior voices and elite athletes. They’ve worn a Waterloo uniform since year one, and today’s semi-final is potentially the last time they suit up in black and gold.
During their five years, the four have enjoyed a cumulative record of 61–32, transforming an unknown volleyball program into the ninth-ranked team in Canada. A national rank was unfathomable in first year. Now, they’re 16–4 and riding into the OUA Final Four.
“When we got here, just to get in the playoffs was a big accomplishment for us,” Thomson says. “Now, we’ve got to be contending for the top of the league instead of being satisfied with being okay. We want to be the best.”
I meet another group coming out of the locker room. Aaron Wiersma (left side) and Jordan McConkey (middle) are two of the team’s seven first-years. The rookies didn’t see game action against Queen’s, but they practice all the same.
“We have a good group of younger and older guys,” says Wade Wilson, the team’s psychology consultant. “Everyone helps each other out.”
“Myself and Aleks, we’re both engineers,” Motherwell says. “We have a couple of first-year engineers on the team. I had one of them come up and ask me questions about some school stuff. It got more into me telling him little tips about how to balance that pretty heavy workload with the also heavy workload of playing on the volleyball team.”
At 2:30, three hours before game time, the team and staff board a white short bus. As they depart for Hamilton, someone brings out speakers. An explicit Steel Panther song blares, and the team joyously sings along with the profanity.
The bus comfortably fits all 22 staff and team members. More than enough pre-travel energy fills the open space.
“If that song doesn’t get you pumped up, I don’t know what does,” Motherwell cheers as “Girl From Oklahoma” concludes. This group is undeniably excited, loose, and undaunted.
After a round of Lil’ Wayne’s “Right Above It,” the volume lowers. It’s a cloudy one-hour drive, and the liveliness dissipates in favour of small conversation and naps. Most opt for the latter; the remaining students chat with the assistant coaches and team therapists.
Varsity volleyball demands a full-year obligation, comprising of practice, workout, psychology visits, and video sessions. The athletes commit the equivalent hours of a full-time job, and they develop close relationships with the coaches and therapy staff.
“Everything you do is for volleyball,” Poldsma says. “Get proper sleep, eat properly, eat at the right times, miss class, go get physiotherapy to ensure high performance — everything you do revolves around volleyball because you are committed to the team.”
The graduating four are accustomed to that yearly grind. While Western has stood between Waterloo and an OUA Finals berth, the Warriors aren’t intimidated.
“This is the best team that we’ve had in our five years here,” Thomson says. “This year, we’ve run the best offence and our defensive blocking has been incredible.”
Over half of Waterloo’s current roster played in the semifinal loss two Februarys ago. Today’s game is their second chance to reverse that result.
For Motherwell, Evans, Thomson, and Poldsma, it’s their last chance.
The sun emerges from the grey as the bus turns into McMaster’s campus. First-year middle Trevor Coathup is tasked with carrying the bag of uniforms to the visitor’s dressing room. With two hours until game time, the speakers reappear, and dance tune “Project T” leads off the pre-game playlist. Some groove, some sit still, some immediately change into their warm-up gear.
The music invigorates the dressing room. Within half an hour, most have changed into their black uniforms. The room is loud and animated. Small groups chat; some yell across the room. Empty Gatorade bottles are casually tossed around. One trio stands in triangle formation, using a bottle as a volleyball proxy. Dyck is attempting to fancily lob his into an empty plastic crate.
If a stranger walked into the dressing room, he’d see sixteen guys simply enjoying each other’s company. He wouldn’t observe nervousness in anyone’s expression. He wouldn’t think a huge volleyball match loomed for them.
The game has higher stakes than any other this season, but the team is prepared, mentally and physically. They’ve done this dozens of times. They’re ready.
Burridge Gymnasium shines McMaster maroon, but Waterloo’s fan bus has arrived and a dozen new spectators paint the centre bleachers black and gold pre-game. They’re equipped with taunting yellow signs (the simplest message: “YOU SUCK”). A legion of Western purple counters them; fans, kids, and parents are all present for the third straight year.
After warm-ups, Western jumps out to a 12–5 start, prompting Lawson’s first timeout call. His first word is “relax.” It’s early and the lead is far from insurmountable, so it’s a quick pep talk. But out of the timeout, every Warrior attack attempt seemingly finds a Mustang defender. Every Warrior block falls just out of bounds. The Mustangs extend the lead and win the set, 25–15.
The teams swap sides. After sitting out the first set, Motherwell joins his fellow fifth-years to start the second. Waterloo enjoys a brief advantage, 3–1, but service errors quickly drop them into a 7–4 hole and Lawson calls timeout.
The Waterloo supporters have tripled to over three dozen. Despite the deficit, they’re cheering hard. Sloppy volleyball ensues after the timeout, as both teams commit several service errors in a set scored primarily by side outs. Waterloo and Western trade points until the technical timeout with the Mustangs leading 16–11.
After letting Western attacks hit the floor in the first set, their defence has improved, but block attempts continue landing inches out of bounds. Unlucky bounces. Motherwell screams in frustration as he walks off the floor.
The troubles persist post-timeout. Justin Scapinello of the Mustangs catches fire on offence, increasing the lead to 20–13. After a second Warrior timeout fails to curb the Mustangs’ momentum, Western pulls away, taking the second set 25–15.
Two sets have flown by, both dropped. Set three awaits. It could end the Warrior season and the varsity careers of four gentlemen.
If Motherwell, Evans, Thomson, and Poldsma feel an end coming, their expressions don’t reflect it. Poldsma, who’s played every second, appears calm and confident. Evans leads the team in kills thus far. Thomson stares down his Western opponents. Motherwell, who’s shown the most emotion, stands taller still. They take their positions, along with third- and fourth- years Woolley, Dyck, and Zachary Doherty.
The seven would play the entire third set.
Lawson flashes his first smile of the match when the Warriors lead 6–5 to start the third set. A Mustang attack attempt lands out of bounds, giving Waterloo their first three-point lead of the match at 11–8. Western calls timeout. The Warriors charge toward their bench, energized.
Forty Waterloo fans paint the McMaster bleachers black and gold. With the team’s third-set resurgence, they cheer like 80.
Out of the timeout, Motherwell serves. Poldsma’s attack brushes the left sideline for a kill: 12–8 Warriors. Western inches back to tie it, 19–19, before Doherty fires a service ace: 20–19 Warriors. Poldsma blocks a Mustang spike, winning another point. Backs against the wall, varsity careers hanging in the balance, Motherwell and Evans contest every Western attack at the net. Doherty serves another ace: 22–19.
With momentum on Waterloo’s side, Western calls their last timeout. The Warriors lead by three. They may live for another set.
As the timeout clock winds down, the gym rumbles. Eyes fix upon the scoreboard. The buzzer sounds.
The Mustangs regroup with OUA first-team All-Star Garrett May serving. Ace. He soon ties the game at 22, before Scapinello puts them ahead. May serves for the match, and off a Waterloo return, Scapinello finishes it with a kill through Dyck and Motherwell’s arms.
Even the footsteps are silent on the walk back.
Inside the dressing room, no one is changing. No one is speaking. They sit absolutely still, some staring ahead, some staring down, all staring at nothing in particular. After 70 minutes of constant exertion, they’re motionless.
They’re living inside their own heads, sealed in the reality of the end. A three-point lead, wiped away in minutes, along with their OUA championship hopes. Motherwell holds his head in his hands. So does Poldsma, whose pout is the first departure all day from his usual confidence. Evans is slumped against the wall, his legs outstretched, frozen. Officials named him Waterloo’s player of the match, but the game ball he received is thrust aside.
It’s over for these fifth years. They’ve played their last year, last game, last point.
Lawson paces in, surveying the tears and listlessness. He addresses the team intently. He’s proud of his team despite the result. He knows how much it hurts for them, but emphasizes their year of accomplishments. Playoff appearances, national rankings, and All-Star awards will decorate and strengthen the Waterloo volleyball program now.
“It’s okay to feel negative, to feel bad for a while. What that means is that you were committed. You were invested,” Coach says. “If right now, you’re not feeling anything, then that’s a negative sign. You weren’t invested in us. You didn’t put your heart and soul into this.”
A few sob softly.
For the rookies, it’s the conclusion of their first eight-month journey. Some of them begin stirring. Across the room, it’s the last for Motherwell, Evans, Thomson, and Poldsma. From young upstarts to a national ranking, they’ve lived and breathed volleyball these five years, only to miss their goal by a few games.
“It is a huge physical and mental commitment. For the last five years we have put so many things aside for the team,” Poldsma laments later. “[That’s] a huge part in why it hurts so bad, how so quickly all that was gone.”
They haven’t moved, but they must; awards will be handed out at the gym, and assistant coach Shayne White insists they dress in team jackets and look professional.
“You do everything you can to leave here and not look defeated. So go out there, respect your teammates. Libero, coach — those are great honours, those are team honours. And come back here, and you can let even more raw emotion out ... Don’t let Western enjoy this moment any more than what it is.”
The Warriors shuffle back into Burridge Gym, still trapped in their own thoughts. A top 40 tune blasts through the loudspeaker, but it’s just white noise to them.
The team sits among two rows in their grey jackets, elbows on their knees, hands supporting their heads. White said to not let Western enjoy their moment, but it’s impossible to miss the pain on their faces.
Soon, the floor clears, and the awards are announced. McConkey is first to collect his All-Rookie selection. He’s an integral player as the fifth-years graduate. Dyck follows when second-team All-Stars are called, and the gym’s applause for him heightens. Evans accepts his second-team selection with a slim smile. Thomson hugs each of his teammates as they return. The mood has lifted, temporarily.
Warriors stand as Thomson receives his All-Star award. Waterloo has been represented on the first team for three straight years now. Woolley jogs to collect Libero of the Year. He’s led the OUA in digs the past two years. Finally, every Warrior stands and applauds as Lawson receives Coach of the Year. He’s transformed the volleyball program at Waterloo into a success.
Unlike professional sports, players leave the varsity game after their fifth year of eligibility. There’s no choice involved when the time comes. The day they try out, the clock begins ticking, and only so many chances are given at the championship. Many don’t hoist the OUA trophy before their clock strikes five. Five years, spent practicing, bonding, competing. They’ve made a lifetime of memories, played a generation of games, but it’s not enough for those wanting one more chance, one more game.
Motherwell sits in the same spot when they return to the dressing room. White announces the bus leaves in half an hour, but that doesn’t urge him. Neither does it Evans, nor Poldsma. Thomson is angry they’re not staying for the Ryerson-McMaster semifinal. The players around them change. Light chatter and duffel bags zipping have replaced the silence.
One by one, team members exit the dressing room. They’re recovering. The fifth-years haven’t moved though. Poldsma’s expression is empty. He’s staring at the pile of discarded jerseys on the floor, his own yet to join them.
Thomson is signing a game program. He passes it to Evans, who signs and passes it to Motherwell. The page displays the team photo, along with their game results and statistics. Sixteen wins, four losses. The fifth-years who’ve committed their lives for that record are among the few left in the dressing room.
“Never won a game in this gym in five years,” Motherwell idly comments, still sitting, legs outstretched, hands in his lap.
“Some places are just…” Wilson shakes his head.
Dyck is next to send them off with hugs and back-pats. The lone fourth-year on the team, he’s played with the graduates longer than anyone else. He’ll reach his fifth year next season, but at least he has one more chance.
Volleyball will never die for Thomson. He still wants to watch the other semifinal.
But it’s time to go.
“Jersey’s off for the last time,” he pronounces.
“Yep,” Motherwell says, finally getting up.
“I’ve been living in this little dream world for the last month, basically putting, not everything on hold instead of volleyball, but just not really thinking about anything else,” Thomson says. “Now, I’ve got to start focusing on the real world.”
He’s now telling a story from his second year, when he received the team MVP award at the athletic banquet.
“I was so fucking drunk when they announced my name that I was like, ‘Coach, what do I do?!’ I’m meandering through the tables and for the MVPs, there’s a little table set up beside the stage with all the plaques. I wheel out there, oblivious to anything that’s going on, right past the table and onto the stage. And I’m just standing there, waiting for something to happen.”
The other fifth-years laugh. No one can talk about the game yet. They’re looking back instead, and plenty of stories flood their minds. Five years of happy memories to soften the pain of the loss.
“I’m really proud of everyone on our team, particularly these three here, because we’ve been together so long,” Poldsma says later. “We just fought five years. [Motherwell] was a walk-on in first year and became a dominant middle. Windsor guys said, ‘Watch this guy. This guy is how you play middle.’ That makes me feel so good, to be a part of all that.”
The fifth-years sit in the back on the returning bus ride. It’s quiet, but the silence is comforting now. Each of them occasionally mutters to themselves. It’s an hour of introspection in the dark.
“I’m going to miss coming to work every day with these guys,” Motherwell later says. “I even felt that way in previous years … damn, I’m going to miss that guy, or I’m going to miss those couple guys. But now, I’m going to miss these other 15 guys.”
Evans recounts a story from his first year, when a senior was trying to push him around. That doesn’t happen anymore. The team is cohesive.
“Back in first year, we didn’t work out that much, it was optional. I wouldn’t say it was an amateur operation, but it kind of was, by comparison,” Motherwell says. “That’s definitely something I’m really proud of, helping to change the culture of our team.”
At the front of the bus, the younger players buzz quietly amongst themselves. They’re the future now. A long road lies before them, but the graduates they’re replacing have shown them the way.
“I helped build something that is somewhat of a dynasty, as much as we don’t have that fairy tale ending,” Evans says. “They’re still building, but you can’t build a perfect team, even in five years. Where we are leaving it is miles ahead of where we started.”
Cover photo by Yousif Haddad from The Silhouette
Photography: Juil Yoon and Yousif Haddad/The Silhouette
Web layout: Gabriela Grant and Winona So
Sports Editor: Caz Spidell