They've had their share of sweet rewards and harsh lessons. Now, for four members of the Heritage Woods Kodiaks senior girls volleyball team, this summer is all about using those lessons to shape their future. Madison Burt, Alessandra Gentile, Emma Jennings and Alison McKay have said their goodbyes and celebrated graduating from high school, all while preparing for the next stage of their athletic and educational lives.
Each is going a separate way - Burt to the University of Guelph, Gentile to UBC, Jennings to the University of Toronto, and McKay to Simon Fraser University - but the bond of volleyball will remain a strong tie.
"It's been really exciting but I'm happy to move on with my life," said Jennings of the past few months. "I've wanted to do this for so long."
A leftside power with the provincial AAAA silver medallists, Jennings says last year's heartbreaking five-set loss in the final to South Delta is still a powerful memory.
But so are the moments where the team gelled, thrived and prevailed.
"The most important thing was to learn from it," she said. "We gave everything we had and left it on the court - and just to see how much respect we got from that crowd was incredible. I keep that in my mind more than the result."
Their shared journey, which began with Gentile and McKay playing together in Grade 6, is packed with so many great moments that last year's five-set finish isn't the defining moment, but a chapter of a lengthy, enjoyable book.
In fact, the team is still the theme that they will carry with them along their own path.
"Definitely, it was tough," noted Burt. "It still haunts me that we lost, but we went through it as a team and I couldn't have asked to be with a greater group of girls... We grew as the season went on."
They ladle a lot of credit onto head coach Alex Seres, who guided them throughout their high school years. His calm, steady demeanour created a great environment in which to thrive, said Gentile, a two-time provincial all-star.
"Alex has taught us a lot of life lessons as well as volleyball," she recalled. "He taught us to be calm on the court and respect our teammates. He was my coach in high school and club so I owe him a lot."
Gentile, Jennings and McKay played under Seres with the B.C. Olympic Volleyball Club (BCO), which finished fourth at the nationals recently.
Burt, meanwhile, played for the Fraser Valley Club, which went on to edge BCO for third place at the nationals.
McKay said the team aspect of the sport has always been one reason why she chose it over other sports - her father Dave McKay is a former national wrestling coach.
"It was a four-year process that we worked towards. I really like the team chemistry we had, we came together as one and when you looked at your team you knew what each person was going to do," recalled McKay.
Shifting to new places, new schools and new roles will be an incredible test that each is eager to take on. The past four years battling side-by-side, that saw them finish fourth and second in the past two provincials, has prepared them well.
Gentile anticipates a smooth learning curve as she transitions to UBC and a new position as setter for the six-time defending Canadian university champions.
"I feel the first year is about getting yourself settled into a new life, being a student-athlete at university," said Gentile, who was chosen as the top high school player in a poll of B.C.'s CIS coaches. "I'm looking forward to settling down as a setter, as I did both (power) and setting. It allows me to be calmer on the court."
Burt and Jennings will be leaving home to play on the Ontario university circuit - and earn their stripes on their respective teams.
"This (past) year I worked so hard, sacrificing everything for school and volleyball. I'm so happy to be going to U of T, it's a great school. It makes me feel so good that I've taken it this far," said Jennings.
While they will be scattered in two very distant provinces, Burt believes the bonds built over the past four or more years will endure, and help them make the next adjustment.
"We are extremely tight and bonded," the middle said. "Volleyball has always been my passion, but I'm ready to experience being on my own."
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