The evolution of Pat Hennelly is far from complete.
Hennelly, now in his ninth season as head coach of the TRU WolfPack men’s volleyball team, has his troops rolling as they enter the second half of the Canada West season. TRU is 8-4 and tied for third in the conference leading into tonight’s match against the Brandon Bobcats (7:45, Tournament Capital Centre).
Through his first eight seasons with the WolfPack, Hennelly has brought more success to TRU since it joined the CIS than any other coach. His teams have reached the playoffs five times, and also have qualified for three national championships, winning bronze in 2008.
But the WolfPack hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011, and Hennelly is quick to take some of the blame for the hiatus.
“There was a realization that I have to adapt,” Hennelly says. “I was trying to work with this group like I was working with the other group in those (2007-10) years.
“This is a different group of guys. . . . This team gets along great, whereas the other group, there were a lot of confrontational guys . . . I thought that was good, the way the team was operating, but this group isn’t like that — it’s taken me awhile to realize that and adjust.”
So Hennelly evolved, not only as a coach but as a person.
His disposition changed a little, even if his competitiveness never waned. He became more patient with his players, in practice and in matches, and remained calmer in tough times.
He also started enjoying life away from volleyball, making sure he always had time to spend with family. It’s not a coincidence that the change happened around the time his wife, Heidi, gave birth to their daughter Tosca in 2011.
“With a young child, I’m trying to find a pace where I can do this job and have a family life,” Hennelly says. “Not that I didn’t have that before, but a lot of times I would go home and hit the video right away. I’m trying to put aside time for work and time for family.
Even the players saw this.
“He definitely calmed down when Heidi had Tosca,” says setter Colin Carson, who has been with the WolfPack since 2009-10, when it last appeared at nationals. “That was a situation where he realized he was a dad and he had to tone it down a bit, maybe a little less swearing and angry rampages and stuff.”
This doesn’t mean that Hennelly is now perfect.
He was suspended for the WolfPack’s season-opener against the UBC-Okanagan Heat in Kelowna after what the conference called “the use of inappropriate language toward game officials” at a home exhibition tournament in October. It was the fourth suspension of Hennelly’s career, three of them for on-court issues.
He’s an emotional man, and doesn’t hide it. But he felt it best to allow assistant coach Mike Hawkins to lead the bench for the first six matches of the regular season.
Hennelly was still running things, but Hawkins was the man who talked to the officials and players on the court during the matches.
“I just wanted to take a step back,” he says. “I get emotionally charged and I feel that walking around sometimes gets me more agitated than sitting there.
“I just wanted a break, a mental change.”
Regardless of how it gets done, Hennelly gets his teams to win.
He’s hard on his players, and he doesn’t accept lack of effort. But he’s quick to reward the players who do what is asked of them.
“He’s a super-intense guy, which I really like as a player,” Carson says. “As long as you’re working as hard as you can and he sees that, he’s going to be happy. All he wants out of his guys is 100 per cent all the time.”
Hennelly’s wrath isn’t limited to his players or the officials, however. He has been front and centre for the WolfPack’s rivalries with the Trinity Western Spartans and the Bobcats, often as a sparkplug for confrontations.
TRU and Brandon always seem to meet in big matches, with the rivalry starting in 2008, when the WolfPack went into Brandon and beat the Bobcats in a playoff series. Over the years, things intensified, with Hennelly and former Brandon head coach Russ Paddock trading harsh words during a match in 2009.
Paddock is now in the athletic director’s chair in Brandon, and most of the players from those 2008-10 teams are long gone. But this weekend will again be an important one for the WolfPack, which is ranked No. 7 in Canada, and the 7-5 Bobcats, who are ranked No. 5.
And Hennelly, as has been the case since about 2008, has his eye on finishing in the top four in the conference and earning a home playoff series.
“This team (Brandon) has the best chance of taking the home playoff date away from us,” Hennelly said. “If we can sweep this team, then I look at it like we’ll be at home for the playoffs for the first time ever.
“It goes to show you, where this team is now and where we started, two different places.
Everyone in the conference had us finishing eighth in the preseason, and we’re a legitimate third right now.”
The teams also will play Saturday, 6:45 p.m., at the TCC.