It’s the burden carried by every sports program of championship pedigree. Yet, power programs relish the challenge. That’s what makes them so good.
Every other team is out to get the Island’s provincial-champion high school teams of the recent past — which includes the likes of Belmont girls’ volleyball, Oak Bay boys’ volleyball, Reynolds boys’ soccer, Brentwood College basketball, Mount Douglas football, Oak Bay and Shawnigan Lake School rugby and Oak Bay track and field.
“We talk about having an X on our backs,” said Mike Toakley, head coach of the two-time defending B.C. Quad-A champion Belmont Bulldogs girls’ volleyball team.
“Every team gets up to meet us. It would make their seasons to beat us. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
The next such challenge comes tonight in the Belmont Gym when the host Bulldogs entertain Claremont and Reynolds in a Lower Island Quad-A league play round robin starting at 6 p.m.
Belmont started out at No. 3 but is again ranked No. 1 in B.C., despite graduating players from last year’s provincial championship team that included Savannah Purdy now at Trinity Western in Canada West, Hanna May and Olivia Godek at Camosun College, Miranda Cyr at Douglas College and all-rounder Sydney Belton, who walked onto the Camosun basketball team.
“We’re maybe a little surprised to be ranked No. 1 again because of our graduation losses from last season. But our core returnees [Taylee Pomponio, Gracie May, Jocelyn Sherman and Aspen Nemeth] have provided great leadership and our younger players joining the team have bought in,” said Toakley.
So much so that the Bulldogs have won both the major girls’ high school tournaments held on the Island this season — beginning with the Vancouver Island University tournament in Nanaimo and then the Camosun tournament last week at PISE gymnasium to climb back into the top perch in the provincial rankings, shunting former No. 1 Earl Marriott of Surrey to No. 3, while the Kelowna Owls moved into No 2.
The Bulldogs beat Oak Bay in the Camosun tournament final, setting up what should be a great rivalry this season against the B.C. No. 9 Breakers. The No. 10-ranked Roadrunners of Reynolds will also bear watching.
“It’s a really strong year on the Island,” said Toakley.
“Dover Bay [which will host the Island Quad-A championship next month] always has a tough team and this season Oak Bay, Claremont and Reynolds are also very strong. So much so, that all of them are possible medal contenders for the B.C. championships [to be hosted by Penticton High School].”
When you examine dynasty high school sports programs, you always find that one coaching cog that keeps it going — Toakley with Belmont girls’ volleyball, Mark Townsend with Mount Douglas football, Tim Murdy with Shawnigan Lake rugby, J.J. Atterbury with Reynolds boys’ soccer, Al Carmichael with Oak Bay boys’ volleyball, Blake Gage with Brentwood boys’ hoops and Mike Sheffer with Oak Bay track and field.
“Any program that endures year after year will have very good coaching, that dedicated person who puts in the time and has the skill sets and is a motivator,” said Toakley.
He could have been describing himself. Toakley, who has coached volleyball at Belmont since 1987 and the girls’ team since 1999, retired from teaching in the spring but continues guiding the Bulldogs volleyball team now as a volunteer community coach. But he sloughs off the personal accolades and puts the spotlight on where he feels it belongs.
“I have been lucky to identify some girls who are very athletic, but it’s the players who have built our success,” he said.
The Island is represented in all girls’ B.C. top-10 polls, with Belmont No. 1, Oak Bay, No. 9 and Reynolds No. 10 in Quad-A, the Carihi Tyees No. 3, Timberline Wolves No. 9 and Nanaimo Islanders No. 10 in Triple-A and Brentwood College No. 5 in Double-A.
It’s a notable Island cast in boys’ volleyball as well with the Claremont Spartans No. 3, Oak Bay Barbers No. 8, Dover Bay Dolphins No. 14 and Royal Bay Ravens an honourable mention in Triple-A and Lambrick Park Lions and Gulf Islands Scorpions honourable mentions in Double-A.