When the University of Toronto women’s volleyball team travels to Kingston to take on Queen’s on Saturday, it will kick off Kristine Drakich’s 34th season as head coach of the Varsity Blues.
“Every season and every generation leaves a mark and influences me,” Drakich told CBC Sports. “I can’t remember everybody, but over my 30-plus years, I can pretty much recall every season and something wonderful, magical, horrible, sad, incredible or uplifting in every season.
“Every season, no matter how successful results-wise it was or not, there were always some incredible moments and learnings. And yet my memory in terms of games is not that strong.”
It is easy to understand why Drakich’s memory of game results may be lacking. Her resume is one that requires a significant trimming of accolades and accomplishments simply for the sake of brevity.
Since taking over the head coaching position, the Varsity Blues boast a 484-143 record, a 22-year streak of making the playoffs — as well as an active 10-season streak — and 11 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships, which matches her 11 OUA coach-of-the-year awards.
Under her leadership the U of T won its first national championship in program history in 2016, just a year after Drakich was named U Sports national coach of the year.
If one brings those accolades to Drakich’s attention, she doesn’t seem to give them much thought.
“Each season is about how we can maximize the abilities of our team,” Drakich said. “How do we co-create along the way with the athletes? How do we move this from A to B?
“Maybe it’s because I was an athlete for many years, but you don’t look at the score, or think about the next play, or the next thing I have to do, or the next moment. You really have to be in the moment. And so I think it’s about simply, truly being in the moment. And to do that every season.”
The team’s results are reflective of her mindset; only once in Drakich’s career has her team not qualified for the playoffs.
But, like all campaigns, that 2010-11 year where the Varsity Blues finished 5-14 and missed the playoffs has its own story.
“There was a big group [of players who] continued on after that 2010 season,” Drakich said. “With losses, we grow. It’s how you take those challenging moments and turn them into opportunities.
“In that season it was Charlotte Sider and Sarah Chapin’s first year, who stayed right through to the [very successful] 2014-15 years. We had some incredible people that year such as Malena Rapaport and Julia Bellehumeur, who invested a tremendous amount and were the curve of that team.”
Sider became a four-time OUA all-star and two-time all-Canadian with the Varsity Blues, returning to the team in 2021 as part of the U Sports Female Apprenticeship Coaching Program before becoming head coach with the Lakehead Thunderwolves for this upcoming season.
Charlotte Sider (<a href=”https://twitter.com/Varsity_Blues?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Varsity_Blues</a>) has benefitted from strong female leadership this season as part of the U SPORTS Female Apprentice Coach Program. <br><br>The 2021 edition begins Apr. 1!<br><br>➡️<a href=”https://t.co/UQiElQCW5E”>https://t.co/UQiElQCW5E</a><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ChaseTheGlory?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ChaseTheGlory</a> | <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ViserHaut?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ViserHaut</a> | <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/IWD2021?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#IWD2021</a> <a href=”https://t.co/YsgCU337AM”>pic.twitter.com/YsgCU337AM</a>
Sider joins York’s Jennifer Neilson — who played for Drakich from 2011 to 2015 — and Acadia’s Jennifer Wood as former Varsity Blues’ volleyball players now steering their own U Sports squads.
Heather Bansley graduated alongside teammate Wood in 2010, the final year of the Varsity Blues’ 22-year playoff streak. Their departures marked just part of the reason the 2010-11 team found it difficult to repeat the success of a provincial title in 2009-10.
And in September of 2021, the Waterdown, Ont., native found herself back in the fold for the Varsity Blues as an assistant coach.
“It’s such a privilege to have people who want to continue to support the program and grow in their own way,” Drakich said. “Aside from working with us, [Bansley] is the interim national coach for Volleyball Canada’s next-gen beach volleyball program.”
Forging new stories, on and off the court
Bansley is now helping to oversee the current iteration of the Varsity Blues, who are experiencing their own sizeable departure from last year’s team with middle Jenna Woock graduating. Woock won OUA East MVP and was a first-team all-Canadian in her final season.
On the technical side, players such as fourth year Elizabeth Bilawey or graduate student Lisa Wedel — who was co-captain of the Gryphons in her time at the University of Guelph — will look to fill that void in the middle, while 2022-23 recruit Thea Ziesmann will be a factor in the Varsity Blues’ future.
The team also has the benefit of a star outside hitter in Julia Murmann, who collected U Sports rookie-of-the-year honours in 2021-22, as well as being an OUA East first-team all-star.
National impact! 🇨🇦💥<br><br>Julia Murmann wins U SPORTS rookie of the year and Jenna Woock is named an All-Canadian!<br><br>🗞: <a href=”https://t.co/VimKaRyXoC”>https://t.co/VimKaRyXoC</a><br><br>WE ALL <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BLEEDBLUE?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BLEEDBLUE</a> | <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/WeAreTO?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#WeAreTO</a> <a href=”https://t.co/pbxDIMmQUR”>pic.twitter.com/pbxDIMmQUR</a>
But there is no pressure or expectation placed on just one player, just as there isn’t for any one graduate that has moved on.
Whether graduates pursue a career in volleyball like Bansely or Sider, or something else entirely is just the same to Drakich, who is quick to bring up Dana Collins, a student-athlete who played for the Varsity Blues from 2006 to 2009.
Collins was named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women in 2021 for her work supporting ‘the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in Canada’s forest sector.’
“That’s one of the reasons why I continue to coach, to see where these people go,” Drakich said. “These are incredibly bright, curious, hard-working people who have the ability to focus on tasks, translate information and enjoy what they’re doing.
“Some of it continues on in volleyball, but some of it continues on in the academic or career path that they’re on. There are just some incredible journeys and I work with incredible people.”