Pat Hennelly has built a pipeline between Prince George and Kamloops recruiting volleyball players for the Thompson Rivers University Wolfpack in the last nine years.
The Wolfpack head coach has five players from the Prince George Youth Volleyball Association Kodiaks on his 2013-14 Canada West roster - Colin Carson, Spencer Reed, Nic Balazs, Jared Mitchell and rookie Jordan Foot. Hennelly brought his men's team up to Prince George for an exhibition match against their CIS rival UBC-Okanagan Heat on Friday night at the Northern Sport Centre. It's the third straight season the Wolfpack have made the trip up Highway 97 to play a preseason game in Prince George.
More than 1,300 volleyball fans turned out at the UNBC gym to cheer on TRU and the hometown players and they didn't disappoint sweeping the Heat in straight sets 3-0 (25-18, 25-14 and 25-21).
"I love it that we're here," said Mitchell, a second-year player with TRU whose main job will be to serve this season. "I was a little bit nervous, shaky at first, but when I came in I kind of looked at the crowd and thought they wanted me to come in, they love me. It's my family, my friends and they wanted me to have fun."
The 20-year-old said off the court the Wolfpack and Heat players are all good buddies but once they get on the court it's all business. It may have been an exhibition game, but the Kamloops team always wants to beat their rivals from Kelowna. Both teams entered the Canada West together during the 2011-12 season, which say the Heat finish with an 8-12 record while the Wolfpack were 3-17. Last season, it was the Wolfpack who had the better record 8-14 to the Heat's 2-20. In fact the Wolfpack came within one win of securing their first playoff spot.
Mitchell said with most of the team back this season TRU is hungry to get into the playoffs and try to earn a spot at nationals.
"We should be able to compete," said Mitchell. "I think we can win it. I think we'll be very good this year."
Both Carson and libero Reed are in their final season of eligibility with the Wolfpack, while Balazs is in his third season. Foot is a rookie.
Fueled by the partisan crowd cheering for them, the Wolfpack built an early 13-5 advantage in the first set, but the Heat battled back and eventually closed within three points at 16-13. After a timeout, TRU regained their momentum and went on to a 25-18 set win. All five Prince George players rotated into the lineup throughout the set.
In the second set, the Heat started strong and built a slight lead, but the Wolfpack rebounded out scoring their Kelowna rivals 15-7 in the back half of the set to take a 2-0 advantage with a 25-14 win.
The Wolfpack trailed most of the third set until the technical timeout when they took a 16-15 lead, which the refused to relinquish. Former Duchess Park Condor Mitchell entered the game to serve for TRU with the Wolfpack up 20-18 and much to the delight of the fans put his team on the verge of victory before serving into the net. Eventually the Wolfpack spiked out the set and match win 25-21.
"I came in and put four serves in right away and got the crowd going and then tossed up a spinner," said Mitchell. "It was a lot of fun."
When Mitchell subbed in it was the first time all night four of the five Prince George players were on the court together, with Foot being the odd man out on the bench.
"I love being on the court with the P.G. guys," said Mitchell.
Hennelly said in the last nine years he's handed out $50,000 in scholarships to men's volleyball players from Prince George, including former TRU players Tim Flannigan and Graham Allard. Even though it would make recruiting more difficult, Hennelly said he'd love to see UNBC get into volleyball.
"With the amount of players that go to Kamloops, Prince George would be unreal having a CIS team," said Mitchell. "It's still up in the air whether they're going to do. I'd like it because I wouldn't have to pay rent living at home, but personally I like being away from my parents to."
The Wolfpack and Heat open the Canada West volleyball season with a home and home series Oct. 25-26, starting in Kelowna on Friday followed by a match in Kamloops the next night.