The rapid rise of UBC Okanagan’s varsity athletics program
It’s summer 2005. Imagine the opportunity and the challenge ahead for the brand-new UBC Okanagan campus in Kelowna: build a university athletics program destined to compete – and win – at Canada’s highest level of amateur sport.
When UBC Okanagan opened that September a decade ago, Athletics and Recreation Director Rob Johnson and his team of coaches, a small staff, and an enthusiastic community of supporters, set out to transform a successful BC collegiate athletics program into a highly competitive program at the national level in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS).
“We had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – build CIS a program from the ground up,” Johnson recalls 10 fast-moving years later. “A project like that requires a large team, significant resources and a lot of patience. I had total confidence in the team – I knew it was comprised of talented coaches, administrators and Board members at the University, and from day one we all knew the community was with us.”
For the first three seasons, the UBC Okanagan teams played as the Okanagan Lakers – a legacy program which included players from both UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College – competing in the BC Colleges’ Athletics Association (BCCAA). The Lakers fielded strong teams in men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball, bringing home BC championships and national medals in 2007-2008, their final season.
“It was the end of an era we’re very proud of, and the beginning of an exciting new tradition at UBC Okanagan,” says Johnson.
The transformation begins
With much fanfare in March 2008, the university athletics program embarked on its first major transformation with the official launch of the UBC Okanagan Heat.
Several winning seasons followed as the Heat continued competition in the BC collegiate system. Behind the scenes, though, preparations that began in 2006 were under way for the program’s next and most significant transition: an application to join the “big league” of Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s Canada West Athletics Association.
In March 2011 the UBC Okanagan Heat were admitted as the 52nd CIS member-institution. Later that year, in November, UBC’s two volleyball teams – the UBC Thunderbirds from Vancouver and the UBC Okanagan Heat from Kelowna – played the first all-UBC Canada West league varsity game at the UBC Okanagan Gymnasium.
The men’s volleyball pre-game report noted “The Heat have quite the mountain to climb this weekend as their opponent is not just UBC, but perhaps one of the most dominant programs in any CIS sport currently competing.”
The Heat women lost their first test against the Thunderbirds that weekend, but the Heat men defeated their Vancouver campus counterparts and in doing so, they secured UBC Okanagan’s first Top 10 national ranking in the CIS.
“It was a remarkable feat for a brand-new entry in Canada West, and we’ve had many remarkable achievements in our program over the first three seasons of CIS competition,” says Johnson.
Fans are watching Heat history in the making with every game.
“The women’s volleyball team, under head coach Steve Manuel, only missed the playoffs by a single point in their first season,” notes Johnson. “They finished each of the past two seasons among the Final Four, and were nationally ranked among the top five teams for the majority of the past season. It’s one of the most impressive starts ever for a new entry in the league.”
Community helps build the Heat
Establishing teams and maintaining competitiveness at the national level takes a commitment from the University, talented student-athletes, skilled coaches, and a community that cares about the wellbeing of the teams and the program. In April 2006, the Valley First/UBC Okanagan Athletics Scholarship Breakfast brought together more than 350 community partners in a fund-raiser for student-athlete scholarships.
Supported for the past 10 years by title sponsor Valley First Credit Union, the breakfast has now raised more than half a million dollars for the scholarship endowment. It’s just one example of the tremendous community support for athletics and recreation at UBC Okanagan, says Johnson.
- UBC Okanagan’s state-of-the-art 75m x 153m artificial field was made possible by the Nonis family of Kelowna and opened in 2008. Home to the Heat men’s and women’s soccer teams, Nonis Sports Field can be also configured for football, field hockey and lacrosse. It’s also popular with the region’s youth soccer programs on weekends.
- A successful application to the federal government’s Western Diversification Fund in 2009 helped build much-needed team room spaces.
- In 2014, the campus opened The Hangar Fitness and Wellness Centre, an 850-sq-m new facility substantially funded by a $3.5-million gift from the Lapointe family, honouring the employees of Kelowna-based KF Aerospace. (Yes, the name The Hangar pays homage to the aviation business founded by the Lapointe family – and the building itself takes on an airfoil shape reminiscent of an aircraft wing).
Today, the Heat program fields men’s and women’s basketball, soccer and volleyball teams in Canada West, with golf and cross-country teams competing in PacWest (collegiate) action, and men’s and women’s rugby teams in the BC Rugby Union.
VIDEO: 2015 Heat Athletics Awards presentations
VIDEO: 2008 official launch of the UBC Okanagan Heat
VIDEO: 20132 introduction of UBC Okanagan Heat mascot “Scorch”
UBC Okanagan Varsity Athletics website