TORONTO â€” In Theanna Vernon’s first year at Ryerson University, the standout volleyball player didn’t appear in a single game.
The 22-year-old was forced to red-shirt what should have been her freshman season because her grades weren’t good enough to be eligible.
Three seasons later, Vernon will lead the Rams women’s volleyball team to its first national university appearance, and credits a program called “Spanning the Gaps” for turning her life around.
“Absolutely amazing people, I still talk to them on a regular basis, they’re like my second family. They’ve helped shape who I am right now,” Vernon said.
The goal of the program is to increase post-secondary participation for those who might not otherwise experience it. According to its website, its core belief is that education can break cycles of inter-generational poverty and social exclusion, and that higher education can transform lives.
For Vernon, it meant a year of taking extra classes at night and meeting regularly with a mentor. She emerged from the program a far better student, she said, significantly more motivated and with a much higher work ethic. She applied to Ryerson’s social work program and was accepted.
“I’m really proud,” she beamed. “To me, it’s a huge turnaround. I’m happy that I can not only make my family proud but I know Dustin (Reid, the Rams’ head coach) is really proud of me as well and that’s a big deal for me. I never thought I would be able to get this far, especially going through a program like that. But I’ve stuck with it and I’m getting better as a student and a player. Improving all around, so I’m really happy about that.”
The middle blocker helped Ryerson to a 15-4 regular-season record, earning Ontario conference first-team all-star honours. The 22-year-old led the country in hitting percentage and was third in blocks per set.
Vernon grew up in the rough and tumble Toronto neighbourhood of Malvern, and still makes the 90-minute commute to and from school each day. She played numerous sports as a kid, finally settling on volleyball in Grade 8. Vernon, her six-foot-one frame folded into a cafeteria chair in Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre, said she felt at home among the reedy girls on her club team.
“What really kept me interested in volleyball was when I was in elementary school I was the only tall girl in the school, so you could imagine how insane that would be,” she said. “But when I got into the volleyball tryouts for my club, I was surrounded by a bunch of girls that were my height, and I feel like they all felt the same way and that’s how we all built a friendship and how we stuck with volleyball.
“I just loved the feeling, it was amazing.”
Vernon has two younger siblings: a sister who plays at Centennial College and brother who’s with Volleyball Canada’s national training centre in Gatineau, Que. She’d originally committed to Purdue to play NCAA Div. 1 volleyball before having a change of heart and staying home.
Reid, who’s in his ninth season as Rams’ head coach, was thrilled to hear that. He knew Vernon through his previous job with the Ontario Volleyball Association, when he said she was a “very young, somewhat raw but very promising prospect.”
The coach, who played more than 120 international matches for Canada’s men’s team, said she’s grown in three seasons at Ryerson.
“When you watch her play, her unique physical traits are obvious to see, but she’s really improved her skills particularly this season, it’s been evident on the court that her attacking and blocking and serving. . . are all I would say at the highest point in the league at her position,” Reid said.
Ryerson is hosting this weekend’s national championship, and is the No. 8 seed after finishing fourth at last weekend’s OUA championships.
“Since we’ve gotten the bid for the tournament that’s probably been the most common (remark), ‘Well, it’s great that because you’re hosting it that means you get to go,'” Reid said.
But the Rams, who open Friday against No. 1-seeded Alberta, plan to play like they belong there.
“We feel we can compete with the teams in the tournament,” Reid said. “For me the focus has always been: we want our program to be in a different place exiting this event than we were going into it. And if that’s learning what it takes to play with the best teams in the country, if it’s learning what it’s like to be playing at this (late) time of season. . . if it’s part and parcel with all that, then it’s fine. But it’s always been my approach that we want to show the rest of the country that we’re serious about high performance sport.
“Moving forward we see ourselves wanting to be in this environment every year.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press