By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It’s a club that formed at a time, Ted Carson recalls, when Kingston “was a hockey and fastball town.” Its current president, Brenda Willis, defines us as a hockey and basketball town.
Nobody would ever call Kingston a volleyball town, and yet 30 years after its modest beginnings as a club for some men who simply wanted to keep playing after high school, college and university, Pegasus continues to thrive as an organization that supports competitive teams and a house league for young people.
As it celebrates that anniversary, though, Pegasus finds itself at another crossroads. “Finding that marriage between creating a participation opportunity and still striving for development is a struggle with a community-based club,” Willis says.
The game was non-existent outside the scholastic framework before a group of men, many of them former intercollegiate players, formed what they called the Kingston Old Boys in the late 1970s. After a few years, the original group was joined by others, such as Mark Pizzinato, Tim and Tom Worthy, and Steve Burtch and by 1985, there was a movement afoot to create a junior team. With some support from a downtown restaurant, Pegasus was formed. The club’s home was the Anderson Gym, on CFB Kingston.
In 1996, a man named Neil Muchmore took over the junior program and a teacher, Gord Hawkins, came on the scene started an entry level girls program. “What a great man,” Willis said. “Gord was the heart of youth girls volleyball. It wasn’t performance-based any more, it was community sport.”
Willis, who is also the varsity men’s volleyball coach at Queen’s University, recalls how Hawkins wouldn’t cut anybody from a team. “If he had enough girls for three teams, he’d try to coach three teams.” A fund the club maintains to provide financial assistance to those who may not otherwise be able to play is named in his memory.
“Gord was a wonderful guy,” said Carson, a retired teacher who Willis describes as “the glue of the club.”
“Kids who couldn’t afford to play, Gord would pay out of his own pocket,” Carson continued. “He wasn’t a high performance coach, but he was one of the coolest, nicest men you’d ever meet. He talked me into getting involved and then, when I retired, I jumped in.” That was 2001. Carson’s been with the club for 16 years.
Willis said Carson and Chris Galbraith, the club’s technical director, “are the really hands-on guys" of a not-for-profit organization that today puts 13 competitive teams into provincial competition for boys and girls and operates a house league for children between the ages of 9 and 12 that has reached capacity at 108 players. Pegasus also maintains a centre of excellence, where players can receive supplemental training where those who aspire to one day compete at a higher level may refine their skills.
Its teams generally compete in the second tier of provincial competition, though there have been some who have been competitive at the national level.
The club’s popularity hasn’t come without its challenges, Willis said, and the organization has undertaken to address one particular issue that has troubled its executive above all others: retention. The dropout rate from one age group to the next “was really hurting us,” Willis said.
“If we had 12 or 14 kids on a U-14 team, and five of them wouldn’t come back the next year, now you’ve got a group of nine, which is not really enough for a team, so you’re having to pull in kids who are at a lower development level because they’ve missed that year of training. You put them together, and then the same thing would happen (the following year).
“It was very difficult to build a strong program.”
The executive determined to find out why players were leaving, and they discovered the reason was simple: ‘I wasn’t playing.’
“It was all about playing time,” Willis said. “As the president, the only complaints I ever get are about playing time.”
That led to some collective soul searching.
“Defining success and high performance is about getting kids to achieve their potential, to play at the highest level possible, to put kids on college and university teams, to inspire them to want to get into coaching or officiating—to get good, but to stay in the game for life.
“We don’t think kids can get good if they never get to play. Just practising doesn’t do it.”
The club set out to make sure everyone got the kind of opportunity they were looking for. It was mandated that playing time would be equal for players on rep teams in the 13- and 14-year age groups. It would be relaxed to 60-40 for those on the U-15 and U-16 teams, and 70-30 on the older teams. Score sheets would be monitored to make sure it was happening.
“As an executive, we don’t care if a team is third in a championship or fifth in a championship,” Willis said. “What we care about is that everybody is getting better and they’re working hard and there’s a level of satisfaction in the parents and the kids and they want to come back.
“That’s how we define ourselves.”
Over last three or four years the club has moved in that direction, and that’s been long enough, Willis said, to assess the impact of the program. The dropout rate has been reduced as a result, she said, “not super-substantially, but it has reduced it.
“It’s also reduced the number of parent complaints.”
Not all the coaches embraced the idea, fearing they were being put in a framework that was competitively restrictive, but Willis said that was never the idea. “We hate to cut kids and close doors for them, but at the same we want to compete on a provincial stage.
“If it’s about commitment or work ethic, you have licence to vary from it,” she said, explaining that diminished floor time can be a function of such things as poor attendance at practice, “but don’t tell me that’s the case when it’s a kid who comes all the time and just isn’t as good. You picked them.
“If you choose to have them on your team, you need to create opportunities.”
The club is striving, Willis said, to find its place on the continuum that has fair play on one end, and win at all costs on the other. “The idea that the athlete is a person first and their wellbeing and their development are first and foremost, versus a kind of piece of meat, there to perform, you’re going to whip them into shape and when they walk out the door it’s not your problem.
“We’re not running these teams and doing so much travel to just be a recreational, let’s-just-have-fun (kind of program). We want the kids to try hard and learn. There’s a fair bit of physical training involved, but somewhere in between there is where you need to be.”
Carson finds himself coaching a team that perhaps straddles that line as well as any. “We’re weak,” he says, “but we’re happy.
“We got one medal, early in the year, more on luck than talent, but the kids are having fun.”
He speaks of what he calls the Pegasus concept. “We are trying to supply a high performance component for the kids who really want to go to the next level, but for the majority, they’re just kids who love volleyball and want to play more. They won’t go to university to play. That’s a very small percentage that makes that leap.
“Our club is supplying a spot for kids to pursue their passion.”
That passion, he says, derives largely from being exposed to the game through their parents, or friends of their parents, and that’s fertile ground. He estimates there are close to 90 recreational men’s, women’s and co-ed adult teams in a handful of leagues in and around the city. “The strength of Pegasus is the kids coming to us want to play," he said. "They really want to play.”
Carson says his fondest memories are not of victories or championships, but of the young people he’s coached. “The ones who come back years later and remember the good times,” he said.
“There’s a few who can look back and say, ‘We won this championship,’ or, ‘We won that,' but most of them just remember their teammates. That’s the positive thing. Kids that I coached 10, 12 years ago, they’re on Facebook with me, and I’ll see that they’re still playing somewhere.”
As Pegasus has moved slightly to the left of being a hard-core competitive program, another volleyball club has formed in the city and it has drawn some of the players who used to be Pegasus members. The future of Pegasus, Carson said, depends in no small part on how the two organizations come to co-exist.
“A lot of cities that have two clubs are competing for athletes, and unfortunately the kids are the tool,” he said. “I don’t want to get into that, and I don’t think it will.”
The secret of Pegasus’s longevity is simple, Carson says.
“Kids are looking for a chance to play up a little, be a little more competitive, get a little extra training,” he says.
“That’s what the club offers. It’s tossing the product out there and saying, ‘Who wants to play?’”