Unknown soldiers

In Sports /

By Jeff Jurmain 

As the spinners white volleyball ricochets off the forearm of a diving Queen’s player — the aftermath of a vicious spike gift-wrapped by a member of the Ram’s women’s team — and hurtles off the court, there is a celebration.  The six Rams gather in the centre of the court, jumping and cheering, enjoying the silence, which has for the moment washed over the Queen’s bench.

From the far side of the court, visible between the excited hopping bodies, sit two women on a low row of blue-padded chairs.  Also decked in Ryerson volleyball uniforms, they sit melancholy, elbows resting firmly on their knees and hands clasped.  The tedium is interrupted only when they clap their hands or let out the occasional “Go Rams.”

They are a part of the Ryerson athletic machine that is often ignored, maybe even under-appreciated.  Courtside, they are spectators to the games in West Kerr Gym, except, unlike the fans in street clothes, they dress in uniforms like those on the court and are rewarded with the best seats in the house.

They are the benchwarmers.  Even though they never play much in league games, they are still important to the team — the enthusiasm and vocal energy they create on the sidelines translates into adrenaline rushes for their teammates.  The role they fill is more emotional than physical.  In practice, they help their teammates prepare for games.  However, during games they play the role of cheerleader.

Beside the basketball court where the women are battling the University of Toronto, the young Rams who never remove their white warm-up jerseys seem quite enthusiastic.

Kiley Fleming, a rookie benchwarmer (although she maintains she is injured, that’s all), explains the loud chants for “defense” and the heckling they spout encourages their team.

“We have fun; we try to pay attention to the game,” Fleming says.  “But it gets boring, so we call out nicknames and make new ones up.”

As she explains, the game-time role of the benchwarmer is to relieve the starters, provide fresh legs.

For those whose only real job is to draw a foul late in the game when a starter can’t afford one, life could become frustrating.  But on this night, it doesn’t’ appear on the women’s bench.

They’re too busy laughing, making fun of opposing players and dancing to the music played during timeouts.

“We don’t just sit there you know,” Fleming says after the game.  The rest of the team is still in the dressing room, showering and relaxing, but Fleming is out of the room right after the coach is finished speaking to the team.  She stands off the court with her coat on, still wearing her warm-up pants.  “We’re the motivators, but it’s cool, we make up songs on the fly.”  She walks back toward the court and after meeting up with some of her friends, takes a seat in the bleachers to watch the men’s game.

From the melodious women’s bench, the spotlight turns to the men’s basketball game versus the big bad boys from U of T.  There, coach Terry Haggerty displays another facet of the bench warmers role — to accept the verbal punishment from fiery, roaring coaches.

“Come on guys!  Are you seeing this?”

“Get in the game!  This is unbelievable.”

The coach explodes in a flurry of expletives, directed at nobody in particular, but in the end, fall onto the closest available players — those sitting on the bench.

A timeout is called and a sweaty body staggers from the court and brushes aside a perfectly dry benchwarmer before falling heavily on the blue padded chair.  The chair is empty because the benchwarmer has given up.

During the timeout, players from the bench stand at the back of the circle, trying to peer over their tall, greasy teammates to whom the coach’s instruction is directed at anyway.

The timeout ends and the benchwarmers resume their careful guarding of the sidelines as the starters walk back onto the floor.  The benchwarmers, with mostly expressionless faces, lounge back into their seats with their arms stretched, and some even yawning.

Life from the bench appears relaxed, with the monotony broken by momentary bass-filled chants of “defense,” and muttered advice like “make the easy pass.”

Some suck back cold water on the sidelines as they become dehydrated on those soft blue chairs.  There is the odd moment of enthusiasm though, like when their teammate steals the ball from a U of T guard, takes to the air, and skies over a defender before slamming the ball down through the hoop with authority.

The crowd erupts.  Fans stand, arms raised, shouting demeaning comments toward the U of T defender who just watched a jet take off above him.  The benchwarmers also love this, as they cast aside their blank stares and begin laughing, smiling and enjoying the moment.

On the volleyball court, upon which the rebuilding men’s squad is being pummeled by a strong York team, voices desperately try to stay positive for those playing on the court, in a time of frustration.

“Let’s go Rams!” one benchwarmer yells with a hint of annoyance in his voice.  “Let’s go, hit the floor.  Make him pay.”

Mike Harkness, who hold s a firm position on the bench, says his job is to pump the team up, even on this night which he labels a “complete disgrace.”

“Our role is to be vocal, to lift the spirits of the guys on the court,” Harkness says.  “We have to give them energy and must be ready to come off the bench cold.”

That may be the reason people on the Rams’ bench are usually not sitting down at all, rather they job on the spot, or run in circles in the corner.

Coach Mirek Porosa says volleyball is different than other sports, and the substitutions he makes are “tactical.”

“I basically have one or two subs a game,” Porosa says.  “If you make a lot of subs in volleyball, the flow of the game becomes difficult.”

It is only on nights like these, when a blowout is nearing its completion, that the benchwarmers see the court, because Porosa says in a close game he would not have substituted.

“Guys look at benchwarmers as unimportant,” he says.  “But we can shift the momentum of the game with one good serve or one dig.  We try to dictate the energy of the game.”  Harkness actually gets a chance to play on this day.  He played in the last half of the final game, and he was flawless.

On the women’s volleyball bench, one of the two benchwarmers still hasn’t moved.  She continues to chew her fingernails, scoreboard watch, grunt as if she was bumping the ball … oh wait, she’s been called in.

She enters into the action and is greeter with the handshakes of her teammates.  Her shining moment ends tow plays later when she is replaced after a Queen’s player’s serve falls in at the corner of the court, just behind where she had judged the ball to be heading out-of-bounds.  She heads back to her blue-padded chair and decides to watch the game instead from the best seat in the house.

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