For more than a decade, Bill Wedlake was the athletic director at the University of Winnipeg. But in place of a well-deserved retirement he’s decided to help the enthusiastic coaches and athletes in an obscure college sports league reach the national stage.
Wedlake — pictured here outside the Bill Wedlake Fitness Centre, at the University of Winnipeg — has taken on the role of commissioner of the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference.
Aside from being the athletic director at the University of Winnipeg for almost a decade, Bill Wedlake has just about done it all.
He coached high school and university basketball in Manitoba for 32 years, he was the vice president of volunteers for the 1990 Western Canada Summer Games, he was the Vice Chair Volunteers for the 1999 Pan American Summer Games, he was venue chair for the 2002 North American Indigenous Games and he was assistant coach of Canada’s national basketball team under the legendary Jack Donohue.
He’s been the president of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association, Basketball Manitoba, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches of Canada. He‘s written two books, served as national basketball commissioner of the Canadian School Sport Association and produced a cable TV show for more than a decade.
This guy has even starred in a trio of basketball coaching tapes.
So when Wedlake hung it up a year ago to go into the hanging-around-the-cottage business, no one was surprised and no one could blame him.
Trouble was, he really wasn’t ready to retire. At least, not in the traditional sense.
So when his son, Adam, the executive director of Basketball Manitoba, let him know that a very interesting job opening had appeared on Sport Manitoba’s website, Wedlake made a couple of phone calls.
The first call, turned into a second and the second turned into a job. Suddenly, Bill Wedlake was the commissioner of the semi-obscure Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference.
“It’s wild, sometimes, how these things work out,” Wedlake, 62, said with a wide smile. “But I got this job with a phone interview. Now, young Ryan Ratushniak, the vice-president of the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference, is my boss. I was Ryan’s soccer coach when he was a kid. He’s always been friends with Adam. It’s kind of cool, the way things turn out.”
Indeed. In fact, this situation says a lot about both Ratushniak and Wedlake. Ratushniak had a problem and he couldn’t think of a better sports administrator, anywhere, to handle the work necessary to correct the situation. For besides running the day-to-day operations of an eight-team sports league, Wedlake was called to duty to help these teams get back to the national stage.
“In 1985, the last Manitoba college, Red River, dropped out of the Canadian College Athletic Association,” Wedlake explained. “When they hired me, one of the most pressing responsibilities was to help the Manitoba schools get back into the CCAA.
“I’m confident it will happen, but it won’t come without hard work and a $10,000 non-refundable investment, just to apply for membership.”
If you haven’t heard of the MCAC, it’s no surprise. Wedlake has met with the newspaper of record in Manitoba and it told him bluntly that it has no interest whatsoever. This is a league that is not covered by the mainstream media in this province and as a result, not many casual sports fans know of its existence.
So, as a simple introduction, the MCAC is made up of Brandon’s Assiniboine Community College, the Salvation Army of Winnipeg’s William and Catherine Booth College, Winnipeg’s Red River College, Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University, the College Universitaire de Saint-Boniface, Providence College in Otterburne, Man., Steinbach Bible College and Oak Hills Christian College in Bemidji, Minn.
Obviously, not all of these schools will move on to become regular members of the CCAA. According to Wedlake, four members of the MCAC will immediately become full members of the CCAA – Red River, Assiniboine, CMU and Providence. Wedlake feels that St. Boniface, and its improving programs, will eventually reach full membership status while Booth and Steinbach Bible will probably only become associate members because they are so small and the costs required to run a national program are significant. Oak Hills Christian, meanwhile, is a U.S.-based school and because the CCAA has a rule that says the majority of players on any team must be Canadian, it’s unlikely they’ll join the league.
“I like most things about the MCAC and the CCAA, but what I like most about this situation is that we give high school students a bridge between high school and university sports,” Wedlake said.
“For most high school kids, the level of play – from the standpoint of skill, speed and experience – at the university level is so much higher than it is at the high school level. So, as a result, many good athletes miss out on university sport because they aren’t ready to make the jump. Now, they’ll have a chance to play at a level that is in the middle, between high school and university athletics.”
During the first weekend of February, the MCAC held its annual volleyball championship tournament at Canadian Mennonite University and the undefeated Red River Rebels were absolutely outstanding en route to victory. According to Wedlake and Ratushniak, the quality of play has reached, “an extremely high level.” Now, it would appear, the MCAC just needs an opportunity to show what it can do against the rest of the country.
“The level of play in our league varies from team to team because there are some very small schools in this league,” said Red River volleyball coach Dan Gilbert. “We were a very strong team and if our team played a CIS team like the Bisons or Wesmen, we wouldn’t likely win, but we would give them a competitive match.
“Now, having said that, while we were undefeated this season, we did have a really tough match at the end of the year against CMU. They actually had it in hand, but we were able to rally down the stretch and win in five sets. So I think the top players in our league, could all be successful university players. We probably aren’t as deep as university teams, whose top players are clearly the best in the country, but we are competitive.”
Tronrud (left) and Gilbert are convinced that Red River College would field ‘one of the best teams in the country, if we were given the opportunity.’
One of the best players on the MCAC champion Rebels was all-league middle blocker John Tronrud, who came out of a Double A high school in Teulon and is now a welding student at Red River. Tronrud called the Rebels, “the best team I’ve ever played on.”
“We went to Ontario in early January and played in a major CCAA invitational,” Tronrud said. “We played well early, but by the time we reached the semifinals, we just started to dominate. In the final, we just stomped Fanshawe College (of London, Ont.), one of the best teams in Ontario, in three straight games. We would give any college team in Canada and some university teams a run for their money.”
On the women’s side, Canadian Mennonite University battled back from a first set loss to Assiniboine Community College, to win the title 3-1. All-Conference setter, Jodi Plenert, who had previously been in the B.C. Colleges Athletic Association, called her season with CMU one of the most satisfying in her career and she’s now considering heading to the University of Winnipeg to play next season.
“No team I’d played on before had ever improved as much as we had,” Plenert said. “We weren’t that good when the season started but everybody worked very hard and we just got better and better as a team.
“By the end of the year, I think we would have been good enough to compete with any team in Canada. The teams in this league will only get better if they have an opportunity to play at a national level for a national championship.
“I’d never been a setter before. We were without a setter at the start of the season and I volunteered to move from middle to the setter’s role. I learned the position and started feeling comfortable with it. Now, I’m going to seriously think about moving on and playing at the U of W. This is a great league for young athletes coming out of high school who aren’t quite ready to play at the university level, to improve their skills and one day play in the CIS.”
Ratushniak, Gilbert and Wedlake all believe that the Manitoba loop is strong. However, they also agree, that the only way the league will improve over the long haul is if it can play against national competition.
“I’m happy with the level of play in our league and the players I coached this year,” said Gilbert, “but if we could play for a national championship it would completely change the players’ focus. Having a national final to look forward to would definitely increase the level of play.”
“It would also help us recruit better players. We have lost some good players from Manitoba to Alberta and B.C., because they can get good technical courses in the colleges there and play volleyball at a national level.
“And I’m convinced, we’d be one of the best teams in the country, if we were given the opportunity.”
“Our schools will be even better when they get a legitimate national league to play in,” he said, enthusiastically. “When I started, these teams needed a legitimate league and we’re going to give them a legitimate league. I believe we’ll be accepted by the national body because it needs a bridge between the West and Ontario.
“Make no mistake, our current league in Manitoba will have a great future. If you look at the geography and how spread out the schools are, there is probably a chance we might be able to recruit Briercrest Bible College in Caronport, Sask., and even Celebration College in Thunder Bay, into our league.
“I have to tell you, there is certainly excitement at the table. We’ve had some growing pains but there is no doubt we’re going forward.”
By Scott Taylor, http://www.manitobascore.com/