Athletes put cap on captivating sports year

by Don Wells
Thunderbird Athletics

World-renowned wine writer Hugh Johnson constantly warns his readers not to become slaves to vintage charts. For even in a so-called non-vintage year, inexplicable quirks of nature allow certain vineyards to yield captivating wines.

To the men and women who coach UBC's 600 varsity athletes, 1996/97 could perhaps best be described as a non-vintage year. Having harvested only a single Canada West conference championship (women's cross country), 1996/97 won't be recalled with the same reverence as other years, but to say it yielded nothing memorable would be as grave an oversight as concluding that the last great Bordeaux was produced in 1990.

The vintner's reserve, so to speak, would have to be the women's volleyball team, which provided a sold-out crowd and a national television audience with more than two hours of superb sport entertainment, battling the Alberta Pandas in a five-game spectacle in the national final. Add to that Doug Reimer being named Canada West Coach of the Year and Jeannette Guichon winning the TSN Award for academics, athletics and community service, and the 1996/97 women's volleyball team will go down in history as one of UBC's best ever.

The year began with dentistry student and international track athlete Lori Durward leading her team to the Canada West cross-country championship. Durward followed that up with a gold medal in 1000 metres at the national track and field championships.

Although UBC's football team lost to the Saskatchewan Huskies in the Hardy Cup final, the T-Birds provided by far the best competition for Saskatchewan, which subsequently steamrolled its way to a Vanier Cup win. When the Canadian college draft came around, the B.C. Lions' first pick was Thunderbird Athletes' Council president and All Canadian offensive lineman Bob Beveridge. All Canadian running back Mark Nohra was picked up by the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

Men's soccer finished first in the conference but lost to Victoria in the CWUAA final. Meanwhile, in women's soccer, all the talk revolved around the SFU squad, which claimed the U.S. NAIA Collegiate title, but somehow couldn't do better than a tie against UBC in their annual showdown at Swangard Stadium.

UBC's men's alpine ski team, competing against some of the best technical racers outside the World Cup circuit at the U.S. Collegiate Championships in Lake Tahoe, placed second in men's slalom and third in the combined event. Just a couple of weeks earlier the men's swim team took second place in the national university championship behind a University of Calgary squad led by double Olympic medalist Curtis Meyden.

Both UBC basketball teams qualified for post-season play but bowed out in the semifinals to the University of Victoria, whose men's team went on to win the national championship. And when the season came to a close, fifth-year senior Eric Butler landed a professional contract in Paris.

There was also a bumper crop of individual performance highlights, such as the record setting offensive production of volleyball power hitters Jenny Rauh and Mike Kurz, the high flying debut of first-year quarterback Sean Olson and the selection of Jenn Dowdeswell as Canada West Rookie of the Year in women's field hockey. There was the presentation of the Thunderbird Athlete's Council's Leadership Award scholarship to track's Jennifer Keefer and soccer's James Prescott.

And very soon, some 60 athletes will be named Academic All Canadians, for maintaining a grade point average in excess of 80 per cent in a course of full-time study while competing as varsity athletes.

Hugh Johnson's caution about vintage charts is absolutely correct. For even in the rare absence of a new CIAU national championship banner to add to the 31 currently hanging in War Memorial Gym, 1996/97 yielded ample notoriety for UBC and its student athletes.