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Great kids from Churchill

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I’ve rarely enjoyed doing a story so much as Friday’s piece on the Duke of Marlborough Storm boys volleyball team from Churchill.

Yes, even with the drive to and from Elm Creek through whiteouts that frightened the living Dickens out of a city dweller with Perimeteritis — thanks for your driving, photog David Lipnowski, I thank you, my wife thanks you, my children thank you.

You can read the story here.

These boys were also among the easiest interviews I’ve had in a long while. Just chilling in their designated hangout classroom at the A level provincials, totally at ease with being interviewed.

Young Kendall Spence was chugging a juice and talking about how he hopes to play volleyball in the U.S. Kendall said he learns volleyball by watching Destinee Hooker on the U.S. Olympic women’s team. Why would the lads laugh at that?

Quinton Hart, a wilt veteran who played a year of JV in Thompson, did most of the talking, not in the least bit nervous. Compared to the previous year’s zone playoffs, when the boys jumped off the bus in Lynn Lake and had to run straight to the court, a flight down the day before and eating their body weight in chicken wings at Garbonzo’s before a night in a hotel was pretty leisurely.

The Storm came in seeded 10th, they won one match, and that was good enough to reach the quarter-finals before being eliminated. But the story was not about the volleyball, it was about their 933-kilometre journey to the zone playoffs, six days of travel and two days of competition, all those nights of sleeping on school floors and eating cold groceries.

I’m hopelessly naive about life in the far north. Teacher/coach Tim Brock told me he doesn’t even own a vehicle in Churchill, because he can walk to everywhere he wants to go.

Brock and his players told me they’d stocked up on groceries in Thompson, because there’s no restaurant in Grand Rapids. I looked online — only 336 people, no restaurant that I could find, though it says there’s a gas station out on Highway 6 that serves meals.

And the two days they spent in Gillam waiting for the train back, the Internet again suggests there are as few options to put in time as the team had reported.

When Duke of Marlborough hosts, the visiting teams who come in by train stay on classroom floors if they don’t want to go to a hotel, but there are restaurants in Churchill, and Brock pointed out that the school opens up its home economics area so teams can cook their own meals if they wish.

Maybe people who live in that world can let us know — if you host, are billets not possible? Could a community rise to a giant pot of chili for the visiting teens? At the end of play the first night, could you not show a movie in the gym, something for all these young people to do for a couple of hours? Maybe asking such questions simply demonstrates how naive I am.

After the first match Thursday, Brock told me his boys were competitive with the field, which is certainly true. The major difference he saw is that in the north, players tip at the net, in the south, they swing.

Watching Rosenort, the eventual provincial champion, I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that some of them drive into Steinbach or Winnipeg for club — when they fed the left side power, the ball was driven down, hard.

You could dig out all kinds of stats. The 10 schools at the A level had about 640 students combined in grades 9 to 12, boys and girls, and none of the mainly K-12 schools has even 100 kids in high school grades. Duke of Marlborough put its team together from 30 boys. Probably two-thirds of the high schools in Winnipeg, Brandon, Steinbach, Selkirk, and Winkler, all the AAAA schools, probably any one of those schools has more boys in just grades 11 and 12 from whom to choose a varsity team than all these 10 schools combined have in 9-12.

But the passion is just the same, even if they’re not playing in Duckworth or the Investors Group gym.

I haven’t been in that kind of atmosphere in ages. It felt like a junior high setting, with far bigger players — the ceiling was fairly low, parents were sitting on chairs along one wall, and parents and students were sitting on chairs on the stage, with the other teams in the tournament watching from the weight area up above on the one side.

There was no one in sight who could be easily made as a CIS or NCAA scout.

But the rest of the volleyball world could certainly learn something from Elm Creek School — those were the biggest bags of tacos in a bag I’ve ever had, and university marketing schools could learn from the canteen’s wafting the seductive smell of the simmering taco meat sauce throughout the school.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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