Royal Bay's Parker Stewart spikes the ball against a block by Belmont's Jakob Ivanisevic in league play at Belmont last week. The fledgling Ravens won the match 2-0.

Belmont, Royal Bay seeing new enthusiasm for volleyball

West Shore sides’ coaches each pleased with teams' growth

It’s amazing what a colossal new gym and a handful of enthusiastic players can do for a school sports program.

Belmont boys volleyball is a case in point. With most undergrad players from last year’s senior team moving over to Royal Bay this season, Bulldogs coach Kris Walushka was uncertain whether there would even be a program at his school.

“Coming out of the summer, I thought that we’d have no teams,” he said. “I had an open (workout) in the last week of the summer and one guy came and that’s when I thought no one was coming. But then we just had a bunch of basketball guys who were always in this gym … guys just like playing the game, I can’t explain why.”

Three weeks into the schedule, Belmont has a junior and a senior team. “We have a couple of guys from the juniors who have been playing (up), but we have enough seniors now that we could play all seniors if we wanted to.”

You’d never know from watching the opening sets in last Wednesday’s city league play at Belmont that this program pretty much started from scratch in early September.

The Bulldogs, whose newbees jumped in with both feet in week 1 playing current B.C. AAA No. 8-ranked Oak Bay, Pacific Christian (B.C. No. 7 in AA) and always tough Reynolds, showed improvement and patience in week 3 by hanging with the far more experienced Royal Bay side. The Ravens had to work hard to win both games, taking each by just a handful of points.

While Grade 12 middle Zack Claus is the lone returning senior for the Bulldogs, Walushka and co-coach Jaxson Creasey are excited about how word-of-mouth among friends, and adventurous basketball players hanging around the gym have helped boost the numbers.

While Oak Bay (18-0 in sets won/lost), Claremont (14-4) and Reynolds (11-5) are off to a good start among the AAA teams in the city, as is Nanaimo’s Dover Bay (No. 5 last week in B.C.) in the north, the Bulldogs (3-13) are fourth in the city. Walushka said making Islands should be doable for the Bulldogs, whose gym hosts the AAA Lower Islands Nov. 9. “I think top four in the Islands would be a good goal,” he said, adding, “it’s going to be tough to beat a couple of those teams.”

“There’s so much potential,” said Creasey, who helped coach the past two years, when the roster was filled with experienced players. “It definitely fun having the start in a new school. It’s a much different group this year.”

Added Walushka: “The sky’s the limit.”

Belmont is at Stelly’s today (Oct. 14) for a play day against Lambrick Park, Mount Doug and the host team.

Meanwhile the Ravens’ Kris Johnson, who, like many former Belmont teachers and coaches moved over to Royal Bay to start the year, is also excited about her team’s prospects for the season. As a slightly smaller school, Royal Bay will compete in the AA division come playoff time, but so far they’re holding their own in the combined-level city league, putting together an 8-8 sets record heading into tonight’s play day at Reynolds.

With only Dunsmuir as their official feeder middle school now, the future player pool may be smaller than Johnson is used to. But having the bulk of the Belmont squad slide over to Royal Bay has given the program a good head start, she said. And as with Belmont, the new school and gym have created plenty of enthusiasm for volleyball.

“There’s some inexperience, but a lot of guys are coming out and have a passion for the sport and decided to be really committed,” she said.

A couple of very experienced players are leading the way for the Ravens. Grade 12 team captain Ben Ousey, a 6-1 setter/right side, can play every position; and Grade 11 Mitchell Whittla, a 6-3 left side player with a powerful leap and hitting stroke give the team a solid core. “He’s our young hotshot and big banger,” Johnson said of Whittla, who played senior ball as a junior at Belmont.

The Ravens, who are sure to get better as they move toward Islands, are looking to host that tournament in their new gym next month. They are already scheduled to host the Lower Island AA playoffs on Nov. 9.

As for season goals, Johnson said the team is shooting for a berth in the provincial tournament. That’s different than when the group first got together, she said.

“As a new team and not knowing our numbers at the time, we all came together and made a goal that we wanted to make Islands, but our new goal is to make provincials,” she said.

There definitely grit in the Ravens lineup. Included are a handful of former Dunsmuir players who, as a bare bones, six-member team, qualified for Islands a few years back. “This is the little group that could,” Johnson said.

Watch upcoming Gazette editions for features on senior girls and junior teams at Belmont and Royal Bay.

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