Written by

Shaun Smith


A Different Kind of Loss: Lancer Men’s Volleyball and COVID-19

Published On: Tue, Mar 9th, 2021, 1:12PMLast Updated: Tue, Mar 9th, 2021, 1:16PM12 min read
By Published On: Tue, Mar 9th, 2021, 1:12PMLast Updated: Tue, Mar 9th, 2021, 1:16PM12 min read

Photo Credit: Robin Kasem

By Shaun Smith

The Lancer men’s volleyball team was primed to make a run at the 2020-21 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championship. They never got the chance.

Rewind the clock to February 29, 2020. 11 pm, Kingston. Coach James Gravelle and his Lancers, ranked third in the OUA West, had just lost a tough quarterfinal match against the defending OUA champions Queen’s. In spite of the immediate disappointment, optimism for the future of the team, and the next year, in particular, remained high. In 2019 the Lancers had won the OUA bronze medal, and a strong contingent of the team were set to play their final season this year. Success seemed assured if such a thing can be said about sports.  Pierce Johnson would be named a U Sports first-team all-Canadian, and terrific seasons seemed likely from Nolan Langley and Dami Alalade (OUA West second-team all-stars), and Steven Abrams (OUA West all-rookie team). However bright the future seemed, a headline from the very same day ended this title challenge before it even began. The two cases of COVID-19 in Ontario had jumped to five. It was the beginning of the end for the 2020-21 Lancers.

Photo Credit: Gerry Marentette

“I had it in my head that it was gonna be cancelled, but it was extremely disappointing, still is. With it being my last year and having that taken away from me was pretty disappointing,” –Nolan Langley

Langley has his OUA bronze medal hanging on his wall. He considers participating in the Nationals and winning that medal to be a great accomplishment, one of many in his varsity athletic career. Langley is the first to admit that he’s undersized, and in a sport where height offers a significant advantage, those who are five foot nine inches tall are usually restricted to the role of libero. Langley didn’t care, and stuck to his guns as a setter, a position that Gravelle gave him a chance to play at the University of Windsor.

After fighting for his starting spot, Langley became one of the key players for the Lancers, with his teammate Johnson referring to him as “the unsung hero.” After receiving second-team all-star honours, there was one thing left on Langley’s list.

“The one that was left was the OUA championship, which we didn’t get, knowing that my career is ending on a quarterfinal loss from last year is pretty disappointing.”

The respect Langley commands from his coach and teammates is obvious. He’s going to continue on with the Lancers in a coaching role moving forward. Nevertheless, ending a varsity athletics career is never easy even in the best of circumstances, and 2020 was far from that. For Langley, staying in playing shape only to practice with his teammates was difficult, knowing he’d never play another varsity game. He’s moving forward though, remarking that there are things he wanted to do that were limited due to his volleyball commits that are now coming into focus. “You sacrifice a lot to be a student-athlete, training, travel, going to play…when I did that I still wanted a social life, I still wanted to watch Netflix…I’d still rather be playing volleyball, but it’s helping the grades, so that’s a plus.”

Photo Credit: Peggy Johnson

“There was no closure. You go into every game thinking that you’ve got to play like this is your last one, but in the back of your head you know [that it is not]. We can always try again next year, and when you find out that you don’t have that chance anymore…you feel a lot of regret. If I had known this was going to happen, I may have done some things differently.” –Dami Alalade

Alalade strikes a thoughtful figure. He ought to; completing a degree in engineering is challenging enough without the commitment of a varsity sports career. Now in the process of completing his MBA, he looks back at his now-ended career with the wisdom of hindsight. He speaks of his reaction to his final season being cancelled, calling it “more than upsetting” and like Langley and Johnson, refer to it as being “taken away.” As often with hindsight, there comes regret.

Changing the outlook on how he viewed his varsity career was not unique to Alalade. Team members interviewed for this story, especially Gravelle, expressed an enhanced appreciation of volleyball. “It makes you realize how precious it [volleyball] is,” the coach said, “something we took for granted.”

Photo Credit: Peggy Johnson

“It definitely hurt having my last season taken away. Still to this moment I don’t think I’ll ever get over this really. My recruiting class that came in with Nolan, Dami, Adam, and Mark…that was the class that was brought in to produce in our fifth year, you know this was the year that we go for the title, we go for it all.” –Pierce Johnson

Johnson didn’t get to play for the fifth year, but he squeezed an awful lot into the four years that he did. Two all-Canadian selections, accolades, medals, and everything in between. Yet he’s dismissive of individual honours, noting that the outside gets more attention and that his success is (literally) set up by Langley’s sets.

Team honours are what Pierce prioritized, and as one of the team leaders, he felt a responsibility for their performance. Not getting the chance to play in his last season irks him considerably. Viewing their quarterfinal loss as an underperformance, he was excited to compete again, saying that if the Lancers had lost every game of their season, it would have bothered him less, because then it would at least be their fault. Not being able to try, how do you deal with that?

For Johnson, he’s turned his gaze to the future. With aspirations to go professional in Europe next year, his agent has been in contact with some of the teams he’s interested in and optimism prevails. “It’s looking good now, but it’s a while away still.”

Photo Credit: Gerry Marentette

“No one really wanted to say anything but we were all thinking ‘oh no, what if it gets cancelled?’ And then it did and it was.” – Steven Abrams

Abrams is coming from a very different place compared to Langley, Alalade and Johnson. As a sophomore, he has his best years as a varsity athlete still ahead of him. He ponders what it would be like, putting himself in their shoes and can only come to one conclusion: “devastating.”

Abrams’ energy, even over a video call, captures the attention instantly. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given a combination of youthful exuberance and a self-described identity that “lives and breathes volleyball.” Currently, in Gatineau training with Johnson and a select group of players at the 2021 National Excellence Program hosted by Volleyball Canada, Abrams is living his dream. With professional aspirations, and already an OUA West all-rookie selection, he’s more than on track. While the pandemic has been a setback for us all, Abrams remarks that having seen what his life is like with less volleyball only drives him harder.

Photo Credit: Peggy Johnson

“It was hard for us to process in the beginning, but afterwards we definitely wanted to stay a team as much as we possibly could.” – Dami Alalade

Each person handled the pandemic differently. The Lancers were no different. Early on, Gravelle held some team training sessions on Zoom, which kept the team meeting together, and the Sunday video chat in which the whole team participates was referred to regularly by the players in our conversations.

“My impact over the team has been greatly diminished, just because of the lack of contact,” says Gravelle. Regarding the integration of new players, he went onto say, “it’s really been player-driven in that regard. A lot of guys are seeing each other more than they’re seeing me, so the leadership within the team has been a lot more important.”

With the limited influence of Gravelle and the lack of competition or training keeping the team together, how did the team members manage? For some, like Johnson and Abrams, volleyball went on, receiving invites to the National Excellence Program. Even prior to that, Abrams played beach volleyball daily on a court in his friend’s backyard. For Alalade, the will to play as much volleyball as possible was ever-present, as well as the solace of his teammates.

It was also an opportunity to do some soul-searching. When the season was cancelled, Dami realized that he had to “hunker down and figure out what I really wanted to do for myself.” He wasn’t alone.  Johnson reflected that he’d spent the last five years in a standard routine doing the same thing at the same time, and then “all of a sudden, it was gone.”

Nearly everyone commented that mental health played a part in the last year. Langley described it as “extremely tough.” Alalade experienced discontent at the lack of experiences beyond volleyball, such as convocation being cancelled and being isolated from his classmates. Even with his start in the MBA program in the fall, he has yet to take an MBA class in-person resulting from our new virtual reality. Johnson described his own mental health as having “dark times that I went through during this.” But he also credits his support group, team, friends, family, and girlfriend for helping him through those stretches. Discomfort is the new norm perhaps, but so are new opportunities.

High-performance athletes they may be, but students they remain. Each member of the team took the time to spend more effort on academics. Alalade and Abrams both took up reading for fun, with Steven impressively crushing through the entire Percy Jackson series. Langley’s grades went up, and he taught himself chess, inspired by a binging of Queen’s Gambit. Alalade summed it up best: “This is the most free-time I’ve ever had in my life and it’s kind of weird. I’m used to there always being something to do and I can’t just, like, take a nap.” But he also reflects that while it’s nice in a sense, “I also know that it’s only because I didn’t get to play volleyball. So it’s a weird sort of happiness.”


“It’s not like we’ve lost a year of our lives but it kind of feels like it in some ways.” –James Gravelle

That all these positives occurred only through a lack of volleyball weighs heavily on the team. Abrams, the youngest player interviewed, mused, “we tried to look at it without a negative lens but it’s really tough.” For the fifth-year players, the lack of closure was highlighted by all. The empathy between them on this point was clear to see even as someone outside the team. Johnson lamented that Langley probably lost the most out of them all in the cancelled season. Langley, for his part, seemed resigned, “I knew my playing career was done.” Alalade expressed a similar perspective, but also acknowledged that focusing on what could’ve been was not the healthiest mindset. Moving forward is paramount.

Photo Credit: Peggy Johnson

“I think by September we’re going to have a season of some sort. If other teams aren’t ready, they’re going to have a really terrible time playing against our team.” –Nolan Langley

Gravelle and the Lancer men’s volleyball team will be ready to go and compete whenever a new season begins. New recruits will be key, with around thirteen first-year eligibility students making up the team. Johnson notes that this is a very high number, considering seven of them would normally be a lot.

“They’re going to outnumber the old guys,” Johnson laughs. “But as long as Gravelle is coaching, he presents such good leadership as a coach, players see that and that’s the standard. So I see them doing what we’ve done the past five years.”

Langley, already embracing his coaching role, realizes that a year off of varsity competition will have an impact. But he emphasizes that the Lacers are ready to go. Everyone else is in the same boat after all. Gravelle appears to take it all in stride.

“My playing days are way behind me,” he acknowledges. “But I’m not running out of eligibility as a coach.”

With the full confidence of his players, the coach is ready to compete, when and if an opportunity to do so decides to present itself.

Photo Credit: Peggy Johnson

“I had a great four years and I wouldn’t have wanted to go to any other university. Windsor was awesome and there are so many great memories. It sucks I’m not going to get that extra year of memories that I could have got. But, the four years I did get were so amazing that I’m OK with only having the four, it was more than enough, definitely.” –Pierce Johnson

For the players not returning to the team for the potential 2021-22 season, they look back at their time with conviction, pride, and gratitude for the things achieved, accolades won, friends made, and a team banner carried for the better part of five years. While all acknowledge that they lost a lot this past year, Gravelle knows his team better than anyone else. Acceptance, he says, has prevailed.

Perhaps the final word is best offered to Johnson, the talisman of the team and one of the most successful athletes in the University’s history.

“I’m always going to be a part of the Windsor Lancer program. It’s given me so much that I’ll never be able to repay it fully. But whenever I have time in my pro career to make time for them, I definitely will. Whatever I can do for the program, I will.”

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About Shaun Smith