Photo: Nick Dunne

Academics, volleyball and the need to succeed

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By Devin Jones 

For her entire first season playing with the Toronto Diamonds volleyball club, Theanna Vernon — 14 at the time — couldn’t serve the ball over the net. Seven years later, she’s a silver medal-winning, first team OUA all-star for the Ryerson Rams women’s volleyball team.

“I went back for a serve and I could not get the ball over the net at all,” Vernon said. “It took me all season to get it over and once that finally happened I felt so very accomplished.”

And for Vernon, just like that, her love for a sport she barely knew began.

In her childhood she ran track and field alongside her siblings until the age of 13. Vernon had never paid the slightest attention to volleyball. It wasn’t until a friend suggested she give the sport a try that the leather ball and net came into frame.

“I knew nothing about the sport, didn’t really know how to play even, but after trying out I fell in love with it and from there it just took off,” she said.

Early on, Vernon engaged with the sport the way any teenager would, enjoying a newfound hobby with friends. It wasn’t until Toronto Diamonds head coach Clayton Carimbocas saw her potential and began working more extensively with the now two-time all-star, that her skills took off. Vernon cites Carimbocas’ fair but tough attitude as a factor in her early development, pushing her -— whenever she stepped on the court — to be a better player.

“Her mom brought her out and was convinced her sister [Kadeshia] was the volleyball player. I had to say, ‘No it’s Theanna who’s going to be the real player,’” Carimbocas said. “Theanna I kinda knew was going to be  special.”

Vernon reminisces about the moment she realized volleyball was more than an extracurricular activity — something she could know inside and out, a sport that she could dominate if she dedicated the time.

“When my club team finally won our first gold medal in the premier division, the top division in the OVA (Ontario Volleyball Association) at the time, I just felt amazing,” Vernon said. “A lightbulb went off and I realized I could see myself doing this for the rest of  my life.”

From there she chose Ryerson because it had both the program she was interested in (social work) and allowed her to play for long-time Rams coach Dustin Reid.

Yet her transition to Ryerson was met with initial disappointment, as a struggling grade point average made her ineligible to play for her entire first season.

“I think she knew what she was getting into, but what’s more significant in my opinion is that she was willing to do it,” Reid said. “She was willing to go a year without being able to compete so she could focus on her academic side. Very few athletes would have the patience or desire to do that.”

Vernon found herself watching from the sidelines. But after readjusting and continuing to train in both the gym and on the court, Vernon came back with a vengeance. And at the end of her 2014-2015 year at Ryerson — her rookie season with the team — Vernon came away with the country’s highest attacking average, the title of OUA east rookie of the year as well as a spot on the OUA rookie all-star team.

“He (Dustin) makes you want to be a better player and a better person when you aren’t playing and I don’t think you can find that everywhere,” Vernon said. “He is such an awesome coach, I don’t think there’s anyone better to represent me or the team as a whole.”

Following a quarter-final playoff loss to the University of Ottawa and a season that saw the team finish with an overall record of 18-8, the pressure was on for Vernon and the Rams to produce next season.

And produce they did, with a season that culminated in the team achieving their first silver medal since 2001 and four different players receiving OUA honours. On a personal level, Vernon surpassed her own achievements, earning a higher attack average than the one she had set before.

“It’s easy to see how dominant she is as a volleyball player but when I look at what she’s doing away from the court, I’m even more proud of her for that,” Reid said.

And as Vernon continues to dominate the OUA, one day planning on playing professionally in Europe overseas, one thing is certain: Theanna Vernon will continue to be successful in the best way she knows how, by setting her form and serving that leather ball over the mesh net.

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