Back in August, Jeremy Lieuwen was asked how he thought his Mennonite Educational Institute senior boys volleyball team would fare in the fall.
Lieuwen, at the time, downplayed the Eagles’ chances, noting that he was one of a handful of seniors on an otherwise-youthful roster.
Fast forward three months, and the MEI boys are where they always seem to be – in position to contend for a B.C. title. They’ve been ranked anywhere between first and fifth in the provincial AA poll – they moved up from fifth to second in Wednesday’s latest rankings – as they work to extend a one of the more remarkable active dynasties in B.C. high school sports. The Eagles have medaled at AA provincials each of the past nine years, winning seven golds and two bronzes during that span.
“It was definitely a surprise, even to myself,” admitted Lieuwen, the Eagles’ captain, speaking of his team’s terrific start to the season. “Coming into this year, I hadn’t really seen the guys below me play a lot. I remembered them from when they were younger, and they weren’t that good.
“A lot of people said it would be a weaker year for us, but it’s been contrary to that. The young guys have been stepping up, improving a lot. Even the games we’ve lost, we’ve been right there. We have a great shot at winning again this year, and it’s really exciting to see.”
Last year’s Eagles team sent stars like setter Tyler Koslowsky (Trinity Western) and middle Connor Nickel (Columbia Bible College) on to the post-secondary ranks, but MEI’s thriving middle school and junior programs have delivered another crop of top athletes to the senior squad.
Returnees Lieuwen (left side), Zach Funk (right side) and Angelo Alvarado (libero) have been joined by four new faces in the starting lineup. Jordan Schmidt and Caleb Penner are the duo in the middle, and Grade 11 Caleb Conrad runs the offence from the setter spot. Ben Lieuwen, Jeremy’s younger brother, is a Grade 10 phenom who starts at the other left side spot.
The Eagles have proved their mettle by making it to the quarter-finals at a trio of elite tournaments, and during league play last month, they came within a whisker of beating current AA No. 1 Langley Christian, falling 15-12 in the fifth set.
Eagles coach Jeff Stel attributed the program’s staying power to MEI’s deep roster of volleyball coaches at the younger age groups.
“Throughout the school, we have awesome coaches who instill the love of the sport in the kids,” Stel noted. “The skill development of the kids is getting better and better every year.”
Stel said the 2011-12 edition of the Eagles have great chemistry both on the court and off.
“We just have a bunch of really good guys who want to work hard and desire to achieve – not only on the court, but also in school,” he said. “Faith-wise, too, they want to see our team dynamic be strong, not just our team be strong. That’s one of the big things I love about these guys, and as a coach at a Christian school, that’s obviously something you want to see.”