Volleyball: RMC's rapid rise

When Melissa McCoy found out her RMC volleyball team had qualified for this year’s OUA Final Four championship tournament, she was on a chairlift in Quebec — and she was stunned.

Her team’s season had ended just days earlier, or so she thought, when they lost the quarterfinals in straight sets to the York Lions. What she was about to find out on that chairlift was that the Lions had used an ineligible player in that match and, as a result, were forced to forfeit. York was out. RMC was in. For the first time in team history, the Paladins had advanced to the Final Four.

The instructions on McCoy’s phone were simple: Get back to Kingston. She didn’t waste a minute. Her spring break had come to an abrupt end, but it didn’t matter. A Final Four appearance in her senior year was a dream scenario, especially since three years earlier, in her rookie season, her team had posted an 0-19 record. For the fifth straight year.

The story of the RMC volleyball team’s relatively rapid rise, from 0-19 to 9-9 in four years, is one that has a lot to do with recruiting — a process made infinitely more difficult for their coaching staff by the general nature of the military college and its rigorous application process. (Women's volleyball is certainly not the only RMC team that has found it hard to compete in OUA play.)

Head coach Carolyn Welden began to understand the challenge inherent in recruiting players to RMC when she took over as head coach in 2003. She realized it wasn’t as easy as going to games, assessing players and recruiting top talent. She had to find quality players that were also likely to be drawn to RMC’s regimented culture and the perks that went with it — free schooling, an hourly wage and a guaranteed job upon graduation. She had to find athletic, ambitious women that were equally excited about playing volleyball as they were about partaking in military life, and could pass the battery of tests the school’s admissions team administered.

Given the familial nature of the military and, consequently, the school, she opted to go to communities that had higher volumes of Canadian Forces.

“Four or five years ago it finally started making sense to me,” she said. “How to attract these people. How to explain what a great opportunity this is to represent your country.”

After that string of 0-19 seasons, one of the athletes she was able to attract was Melissa McCoy, a Kingston native who had excelled as a middle blocker with the Kingston Pegasus and National Capitals club teams.

Although McCoy didn’t commit to RMC’s regular officer training program, she did commit to the school as a reservist, paying her own tuition with no mandatory service after graduation. Her first season with the team, the 2008-09 year, proved tough. She was used to winning. RMC didn’t win a single game.

“There were definitely days where I questioned why I was there,” she says. “After one of the games I broke down and cried and said I didn’t know if I could do this anymore but Carolyn assured me next year would be better. I had faith in her ability to recruit people.”

Her coach didn’t disappoint.

Melissa McCoy (4) and her teammates celebrate following
RMC's first OUA win on Feb. 7, 2010. (RMC Athletics)
The following year, five top players committed to the team and their impact was immediate. Norah Collins was named to the OUA's all-rookie team and the Paladins won their first ever OUA game, beating the Windsor Lancers 3-2 and bumping their record to 1-18. While that achievement may have been laughable to some, since they still lost most of their other games in straight sets, it was a milestone for McCoy.

“It was the most relieving feeling when we scored that last point,” she says. “There was a picture taken after that last point and I’m jumping in the air. It’s my favourite picture of our four years.”

The upward slope continued from there: a gentle rise, but a meaningful one.

In 2010-11, Welden added more highly-regarded recruits, including the 6’2 Litjens twins, Mallory and Chelsey. Stars with the Ottawa Mavericks, they were drawn to the school because of their father’s stories of RMC student life — a life, he explained, that could only be understood by attending. They were also drawn by the career prospects. Like their father, both girls wanted to pursue military careers as French-speaking engineers.

The twins helped the team to a 7-12 record, six more wins than they had the year before. In December, when they were 2-5, the Paladins were identified here as a potential playoff team. They indeed made the playoffs, though they lost 3-0 to York in the first round.

In 2011-12, the team’s goals changed drastically. It was no longer just okay to participate. It was time to compete. Despite having a roster of only 11, the team vowed to make the Final Four.

“Losing a game this year was a big deal,” Chelsea Litjens explains. “This year we went into games expecting to win them, not hoping to win. There was a big shift in mentality.”

They won half their regular season games, relying heavily on just seven of those 11 players. Early on, they started a three-game winning streak with a 3-0 victory over Waterloo on November 11th, just hours after marching in a Remembrance Day parade with a Waterloo-based unit to honour both their fallen soldiers and their military obligations.

That need to constantly balance military and sport is what makes this team unique. The players are driven to persevere by a passion for the work they are doing, regardless of whether their ties to the military are years old or newly-forged. While the Litjens twins are the only two players currently on the roster that have direct family ties to the Canadian Forces, the team as a whole takes pride in their connection to the military.

“Being able to serve my country makes me feel like I am truly doing something important with my life,” Mallory Litjens says. “Our coach says it best: ‘We aren’t a normal team. You’re university students during the day, but after that you’re in the military, you serve your country.’”

As for the Final Four, the team finished fourth, losing in straight sets to both the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the Toronto Varsity Blues, but their presence was a victory in itself.

Although they did not win their way into the tournament, not one person quoted in this article considered their Final Four appearance to have an asterisk. It simply didn't matter to them how they got there, an understandable sentiment considering where they came from.

They've realized their goal and have set the bar even higher for next season.
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