Sunday, May 26, 2019

Leading the charge on gameday and in the classroom: The players and coaches of the Camosun Chargers look back at 25 years of college athletics

March 6, 2019 by Fred Cameron, features writer

Recently, the men and women of the Camosun Chargers volleyball and basketball teams experienced the sort of pressure only rivalled by the most daunting of all midterms as they stepped onto a gymnasium floor and got ready to play in provincial championship games. 

And none of the teams even had home court advantage.

It’s all part of being on a college sports team. The Chargers teams—men’s and women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, and golf—are made up of student athletes: Camosun students like you and me who fill their free time with intense training to get to provincial and national championships; who juggle an athletic career with their schoolwork; who earn themselves a second education while at the college.

It’s not always easy. For every victory there is a practice where things aren’t going right, where player and coach are clashing; there are devastating losses on important game nights. But it’s all part of being on a college sports team, which in many ways isn’t that different from being on a pro sports team.

This season marks 25 years of Camosun Chargers athletics. The Chargers have persevered and hit the quarter-century mark, with that same laser focus and determination that the players use when the chips are down, the practice is behind them, and it’s go time.

Most current students are too young to remember the Chargers’ first seasons, but Camosun College Recreation and Athletics coordinator Graham Matthews has been working with the Chargers since their inaugural season. Matthews says it was fun but a bit of a struggle getting the programs off the ground in the first place.

“We started our first year in the Carey Road gym,” says Matthews, referring to one of Camosun’s former campuses. “It was quite old, but at least we had a facility to start with. We had to bring in seating, so we bought some portable chairs from the Commonwealth Games. Every game we had to set up the seating and then take it down and put it in storage.”

That only lasted a year, because the college consolidated into two campuses, says Matthews.

“We had to reach out into the community to find the gym space for our four programs,” Matthews says. “Lucky for us, the Victoria school board came forward and helped us out. We managed to arrange gym time at Spectrum Community School, but we had to move around to a number of different schools. Every time, we had to pack all of our event stuff into a college van and set it up at whichever school we were playing at. We would have Friday and Saturday afternoon games, and then we would pack it all up and take it back to the college to store it. We did that for about 14, 15 years, until eventually we got the facility we are in now, PISE [the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence].”

It’s been an interesting adventure getting to this point, says Matthews. He says the Chargers have been highly successful over the years, but they couldn’t have done it without a ton of community support.

The Camosun Chargers men’s volleyball team during the recent PACWEST championships (photo by Camosun Chargers Athletics).

“We have gone to the PACWEST [Pacific Western Athletic Association] championships numerous times,” Matthews says. “If you come out to PISE, be sure to come and see our wall, because we have the banners up on the wall permanently. We are almost covering one whole wall now with PACWEST and CCAA [Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association] achievements. I guess big ones for us would be winning national championships in golf and men’s volleyball.”

Among the highlights for Matthews is a golf tournament that the Chargers hosted and won.

“We hosted the inaugural Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association golf championships in 2000,” says Matthews. “We split the event between Arbutus Ridge and Olympic View. It was a three-day tournament and we had 14 teams. It has since gone on to evolve into a national championship.”

Since the addition of the PISE facility, Camosun gets the opportunity to host the PACWEST championships.

“In the past 10 years, we’ve hosted three championships,” Matthews says. “Just recently, we have had the opportunity to put in a successful bid on the women’s national volleyball championship. Our women’s team went all the way to the gold medal game and picked up a silver in front of a packed house.”

The Chargers recently finished the regular season in front of a crowded house for their 25-year anniversary celebrations.

“It was really rewarding to see,” says Matthews. “We won three of the four games. All of our teams [men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball] are preparing to go to the PACWEST championships.”

(The PACWEST volleyball championships happened after interviews for this story had been completed; the men’s volleyball team took home silver, and the women’s volleyball team finished fourth in the PACWEST standings. The women’s basketball team and the men’s basketball team both took home bronze.)

Charles Parkinson has been coaching the Chargers men’s volleyball team for so long he can’t remember when he started, but he thinks it’s been 11 or 12 seasons. Parkinson is also an instructor in Camosun’s Centre for Sport and Exercise Education and the Sport Management program leader. Parkinson developed his love for volleyball through a 30-year playing career; having peaked as a member of Canada’s national volleyball team, Parkinson says he always wanted to give back to the sport, so he went out and got his advanced coaching diploma.

“I’ve been coaching now for about 35 years,” says Parkinson. “I got my level 4 under the old system, and I did a master’s degree in high performance coaching and technical leadership because I wanted to be able to provide these athletes with both technical and tactical skills, and I wanted to provide the mental support and physical training they require. I wanted to be able to give the insight that I had gained, having played the sport for 30 years. I can actually impact kids more than just as volleyball players, but in terms of life in general.”

After all these years, Parkinson says he is still excited to go to work in the morning.

“I can have the worst day in the world, and I go into the gym with the guys, and I just kind of bathe in their testosterone and their energy and positive attitudes,” Parkinson says. “I find it refreshing and renewing.”

The Chargers men’s volleyball team has been very successful over the years, Parkinson says.

“We won the championship six out of the last 10 years, and we have won the last four, and we’re trying to make it five in a row,” says Parkinson. “That’s something that’s never been done before, and I think that’s something that’s worth getting behind.”

Chargers men’s volleyball team captain Doug Waterman is pursuing a degree in the Sport Management program. He says the team has suffered some tough losses, but they’re steadily getting better.

“I think we’re really starting to find our team play, which has been nice,” he says. “It’s definitely something you need going into playoffs. We haven’t had an astonishing win record or anything this year, but it’s all a process. We’re coming to the end, so hopefully we peak at the right time, and we can pull out a victory when the time comes.”

Cait Haggarty is behind the bench of the women’s basketball team as coach. Haggarty says she found her love for the game through her playing career, which found her playing at UBC for five years, and playing pro in Germany for a year. Haggarty took an indirect route to Camosun, including a stint where she went through firefighter training.

“Things were up in the air and then this opportunity came to my plate,” says Haggarty. “I thought it would be a good time to give it a go. I think the island has incredible potential. There have been some great basketball players who have come out of Victoria, and there are a lot of up-and-comers on the island.”

Fourth year Sport and Fitness Leadership student Tessa Lannon-Paakspuu is one of those up-and-comers on the Chargers women’s basketball squad. After playing on her high school’s basketball team in Penticton, Lannon-Paakspuu tried out for some teams and decided to come out to Vancouver Island and play for the Chargers.

“I just love the island, and the school itself drew me in,” says Lannon-Paakspu. “I didn’t know exactly what program I wanted to get into. Originally, I was just going to come here for a year and do the University Transfer program. Then I found the program I’m in now. It’s health and wellness and exercise, and that drew me in, so I’ve been here ever since.”

The life of a student athlete involves a lot of juggling, says Lannon-Paakspuu.

“Trying to balance practice, school, and our course load, and then eating and sleeping well… It’s a struggle, but you have to manage,” says Lannon-Paakspu. “You figure out when to do homework, and what nights you can get a good night’s sleep. Because I’m in such an athletic program, all of my instructors are really good about it. They’re really understanding when it comes to missing classes for sports.”

Lannon-Paakspuu is registered in five courses this semester; she says that she’s busy, but so is every other student. 

“It’s different pressures. A lot of full-time students work and have other things to juggle. I just have to learn to juggle things myself. It’s not impossible,” she says. “The average student might have a little bit more free time, but they fill that with something else. I choose to fill my time with basketball.”

Haggarty says that student athletes have to stay on top of things if they want to succeed, both on the court and in the classroom.

“I think regular students have their challenges as well; sport is just another dynamic that’s thrown into the mix,” she says. “We practice four days a week and play two days a week, so time is definitely limited. I think there is a lot to be gained from it, as well. It’s a really neat experience to be a student athlete.”

Everyone I interviewed agrees that student athletes are given a unique opportunity to combine the team experience with a formal education. The impact of the Chargers at the institutional level is significant, Parkinson says, adding that at the individual level, student athletes are learning that there are no shortcuts to mastering a craft.

“Being good in anything that you do, whether it’s academics or athletics, requires commitment and hard work,” says Parkinson. “They learn about those things through their training. They learn about working together as part of a team to try to achieve something that’s greater than any individual.”

An unexpected lesson Waterman learned as a Charger is how to manage different people and different personalities.

“You kind of learn how to deal with a wide range of different people, and how they perceive things, how they work, and how they take in information—or don’t take in information, for that matter,” says Waterman. “It’s been a great personal learning experience.”

Being part of a team, players really have to interact with people in different ways and learn to break barriers, says Waterman.

“Sometimes in practice you have to get in a guy’s face a little, and it’s nothing personal, but we want to get the best out of each other,” says Waterman. “Charles, our coach, will get into us because he’s trying to exploit the best out of us and he knows what we’re capable of. It’s good to be able to have that kind of relationship where we call each other out, but know that it’s nothing personal. That is definitely a good life skill.”

Student athletes also learn a lot of life lessons that translate into the marketplace, Parkinson says.

“There are very few companies that want to hire people who can’t operate as part of a team,” says Parkinson. “I think athletes have a distinct advantage because in order to be successful you have to work together. You have to figure out how to overcome the opposition and put your strategy and tactics into practice.”

Student support is very important to the success of the Chargers, and Matthews says that the teams get that support.

“We get a good turnout from students and within the college community,” says Matthews. “We have a natural rivalry with Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. Whenever we play each other we have a packed house. The rivalry is always strong and the gym is electric.”

Haggarty hopes it’s a fun experience for the fans.

“We try to play an up-tempo game with a lot of running and back-and-forth,” says Haggarty. “It creates an exciting atmosphere, and that makes people want to come back and watch. The games are usually close. The girls do a good job of connecting with peers and getting some friends out, so it’s a pretty fun environment when we get a good crowd. We just try to keep the game high-tempo and exciting.”

Being a part of the Chargers community is something that stays with you for the rest of your life, says Parkinson.

“People come out to cheer for us, and it provides an incredible motivation, a burst of energy, and a little adrenaline for the athletes, which allows them to do things that they didn’t think they were capable of,” Parkinson says. “It’s a pretty awesome phenomenon when you see that happen, and you’re a part of that experience. That’s kind of why I do it, and why I will continue to do it.”

Lannon-Paakspuu says she gets pretty nervous when she sees a big crowd.

“I’m quite the nervous Nelly when it comes to game days, but once the game starts that goes away, and I can really feed off the energy of the crowd,” says Lannon-Paakspuu. “For the big home games like the season opener, if you hit a shot the crowd goes wild, and it’s such a great feeling.”

Waterman says he’s pretty good at staying focused on what he has to do on the court.

“Sometimes you want to get the crowd involved and use them to your advantage, but when it comes down to gametime, we need to stay focused on doing our job,” he says. “But, yeah, hometown advantage is huge, and having friends and family coming out to the games every weekend is definitely a plus.”

More fans than ever before are able to watch Chargers games, says Matthews.

“Through the years, technology has really helped us to meet our fan base,” Matthews says. “We stream all of our games now. We have international coverage online, which is great because of the number of international students playing for our teams, as well as graduates who are living out of the country, and it allows parents to watch the games.”

Because of the nature of the competition, the Chargers golf team tends to fly under the radar—the team didn’t play one home event this year. It’s tough for students to get out to see them play, says head coach Doug Hastie, who adds that the team has a very good history.

“Camosun has won some national championships,” says Hastie. “They’ve had individual champions. They’ve won the PACWEST numerous times.”

And Hastie, who started as coach last year, says the team is continuing to succeed.

“We play a schedule, pretty well right from when school starts, so early September,” says Hastie. “We have five events, including the PACWEST championship, and the top two teams in the conference qualify for the national championship, which was in the second week of October. This year we weren’t expected to make nationals, but we did. We finished second in the PACWEST, and we finished eighth at nationals.”

College golf is quite unique because of the team format of competition, says Hastie.

“Five guys play and the top four scores count,” says Hastie. “They do name an individual championship, but the main thing is the placement of the team. College golf is one of the only team golf competitions. It’s great.”

Hastie, a well-decorated professional, brings decades of experience to the Chargers program, having been assistant coach of the UBC Thunderbird golf teams.

“I’ve been around golf, whether it’s teaching or playing, for a long time,” he says.

There are some very good golfers playing in the PACWEST, says Hastie.

“Most of the guys are playing in their provincial amateur championships. There are some guys in the PACWEST conference that I would say are at the national level. They have to shoot low 70s in competition to make the team. These are not casual golfers. The level of play is just below the NAIA [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics], which is where we played when I coached with UBC. Our team actually won some of the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] tournaments. We are just below that, and not far behind.”

The golf team spends a lot of time together, and teammates develop a close bond, says Hastie.

“When you go into a tournament, you drive on Friday, you play a practice round, you’re staying together in a hotel, and then the tournament is Saturday and Sunday,” says Hastie. “The guys are together for three straight days for five weeks in a row, and then the sixth week they are together for a week for the national championships. They get along really well, and push each other to get better.”

Maybe Parkinson can’t quite remember when he started with the Chargers, but he says he’s going to be around a little longer, and he’s looking forward to next year.

“We have another really good recruiting class,” he says. “We should have another great team… Right now we’re just gearing up for our own championships this year. It’s one step at a time. We’re focused on finishing this year. I remain excited about the school, and the sport, and about the athletes. It allows me to live my dream, as well. It’d be great to talk about another championship next year, but one season at a time.”

Over on the golf course, Hastie says he doesn’t expect a lot of change between now and next season.

“We don’t do a lot of recruitment because we have a lot of students who want to come to the college to play golf,” says Hastie. “We have a pretty young team, though. We only have two guys moving on, so we have six returning. We have a tryout process set up for when we get back to school.”

Waterman wants to finish this year before making any decisions on his future. He says he’s really not too sure what he’ll do as far as volleyball goes.

“If I worked as a coach I’d want to be in it full time,” says Waterman. “If I can find the time to make that commitment that’s something I might look into, but I also have other plans. I want to start working and making some money and doing my own thing in the music world. I make music, and I produce my own stuff. I sing and rap.” (See our full story on Waterman’s music on page 4.)

Lannon-Paakspuu has one season left with the Chargers, and says she will likely need a break once she graduates and makes her next step.

“It’s funny, but I don’t think I’ll end up using my degree,” says Lannon-Paakspuu. “I actually plan on being a police officer. Hopefully Saanich or Victoria police, but I’ll see once I graduate where I can apply. My program kind of led me into it. One of our coaches, Niki [Sundher], is a police officer with Saanich, I believe, and she loves her job, and that really made me keen.”

As far as the future of the Chargers goes, Matthews says there is definitely potential to expand, and mentions bringing in a new sport entirely.

“The original plan was to have men’s and women’s soccer, but because of how things evolved, and a lack of facilities and funding to get them going, they were always kept on the backburner,” says Matthews. “It would be good [to have them] because soccer is quite strong in this community. We’re always fielding interest from students wanting to play soccer for the college. I think we’ll be able to field fairly strong teams. There is a good pool of coaches that we could bring in. It would give us a nice balance to our athletic program.”

The Chargers golfers hope to continue to have success, but there is definitely room to expand the program, says Hastie, pointing to a rather obvious missing link in the golf program.

“We would love to have a women’s team,” says Hastie. “We have had one in the past. We would like to get the program going again if we can get enough interest. I would love to take on the coaching duties if I could.”

One of the greatest rewards of working with the Chargers is seeing how successful some of their former student athletes and coaches have become, says Matthews.

“Many have gone on to professional careers, whether in the medical field, policing, or teaching,” says Matthews. “Some have continued on to get their master’s degree. Sometimes we see ex-athletes come back with their families to show their kids where they came from.”

The experience is much bigger than the sport, Parkinson says.

“There are friendships that last forever,” says Parkinson. “You can couple those life experiences with an education. We all know that volleyball is a moment in time, but education lasts forever.”

Waterman says that his Chargers experience has completely changed his life.

“The last five years, playing as a Charger, has been the best chapter of my life, for sure,” says Waterman. “I remember my first year very clearly, just watching my captains, and the older players, and now it’s switched. Being able to grow as a player and become a leader… I’m the guy who’ll be going out the door soon. It has been quite an experience, and it’s definitely something I’ll be happy to look back on in the future.”

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