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All For the Love of the Game Sports

U Sports and opportunities: The beginning, middle and end

By Alex Wauthy

Second fiddle. Last resort. Graveyard.

Publicly and in the media, U Sports seems to take a back seat to its American counterpart—the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).  

Many may perceive its competition level, training and educational offerings as a consolation prize for athletes unable to net Division I consideration. However, whether an athlete is at the beginning, middle or end of their U Sports career, the education and developmental opportunities provided to them in Canada’s collegiate circuit transcends its public perception. 

First-year women’s basketball guard Catrina Garvey said she remembers her first Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) Bold home game.

Swaths of elementary school students flooded the floor and stands of the Mattamy Athletic Centre’s (MAC) basketball court. Cowbells ringing, popcorn crunching and playful cheers chanting exuded a youthful atmosphere as Garvey suited up against the University of Victoria Vikes—a rare cross-nation matchup as part of the 35th Annual Darcel Wright Memorial Classic. 

While the energy at the MAC was high-spirited and fun, Garvey’s first-half performance drew criticism from her head coach Carly Clarke.

“Carly was not the happiest with me in the first,” Garvey said. “I don’t like to disappoint people or make people think less of me—she wanted more
from me.” 

Garvey’s parents sat among the hoards of screaming children at the stands in the MAC. They made the four-plus hour trek from Ottawa to see her play. 

“I didn’t want them to leave and say you could have done more,” she said. “I already hold myself to a high standard, so at some points, it’s not disappointing the people around me but disappointing myself.” 

With her coach, parents and herself expecting more, the first-year kicked it into high gear. Garvey drilled 20 of her game-leading 30 points in the second half. Each dagger—three-point or two—came with an eruption of cheers and stomping of feet from the young audience. 

After her breakout game, everything became clear for Garvey. 

“I’m here. This is the school I chose to go to,” Garvey said. “This is what I’m going to represent myself as.” 

Garvey fielded offers from other U Sports and the NCAA programs before deciding on TMU. Despite the schools reaching out, she chose to stay close to home for convenience, education and mental health.  

“From what I know about Division I, it’s very athletic—who can jump the highest, who can do this, who can do that,” she said. “[U Sports] does that, but it also makes you think a lot and understand the game at a higher rate than wanting to worry about if they are going to push you until you vomit.” 

Her commitment to TMU meant a change in position and growth on the court by making her a three-level scorer while improving her defensive game. Her impact helped TMU to a berth in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) semi-final before being swept aside by the Queen’s Gaels.

Garvey earned U Sports Rookie of the Year honours for her efforts, which is a step forward as she hopes to use her time at TMU to grow as a person and chase a professional career. 

“I’ve always wanted to play overseas since I was young—in Spain, Scotland or Australia,” she said. “I think I can get there in a couple of years once I’ve grown a bit more.” 

The Canadian collegiate circuit is a unique intersection between education and athletics, according to U Sports CEO, Pierre Arsenault. He emphasizes putting the students first and building pathways for them beyond their sporting careers.  

“The unique opportunity with U Sports is at this level of your career, you’re jointly pursuing and participating in the elite level sport, while at the same time, you’re challenging yourself and building a future through your education,” he said. 

Fourth-year midfielder Chris Campoli didn’t receive NCAA offers like Garvey. The TMU men’s soccer star was one of many high school graduates who had to look elsewhere due to the absence of Division I offers and
European interest. 

“It’s easy to overlook U Sports but there’s a lot of players that don’t get the opportunity to go to these big schools in Division I,” Campoli said. “That happened to me. I wasn’t put in front of the right people to get recruited to the NCAA in my final year of high school, so I ended up resorting to U Sports, and it’s been amazing.” 

U Sports birthed a soccer star in Campoli. As a member of the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks, he led the nation in goal-scoring, was named to the All-Canadian team and won U Sports Player of the Year in 2022. 

Before the 2023 Canadian Premier League (CPL)-U Sports Draft, the Campoli family huddled around their television. Campoli sat with his dad and two brothers, with his mom standing behind him. Campoli knew he was getting drafted, he just didn’t know when or where. 

Following being selected on two separate occasions before in the CPL-U Sports Draft, the Woodbridge, Ont. product didn’t have as special of a feeling during his third go-around. But that didn’t take away from the excitement when his hometown team, York United FC, called his name fourth overall. 

Campoli participated in his third professional pre-season, but, just like his last two attempts at going pro, he didn’t snag a spot on their final roster. 

Eight months after he was drafted, the Ontario Tech star left his home of three seasons by transferring to TMU. He liked the Bold’s possession-based game and the schooling it offered. 

Upon arriving, Campoli wanted to “do something special.” However, their season ended in disappointment, leaving him without the two things he was missing—an OUA and a national title. Now, Campoli has one last dance in the U Sports arena before he closes this chapter of his career. 

“Last year to get that thing I’m missing,” Campoli said. “I’ve been an OUA all-star and scored the most goals in the OUA and U Sports two or three times…[All] I’m missing is an OUA and national championship.” 

Campoli entered U Sports as an 18-year-old and matured into “a man on and off the field.” His career isn’t over yet, but as he enters its twilight, he is thankful for what he’s accomplished over the last few years—no matter how bittersweet the thought may be. 

“Without U Sports, I wouldn’t have been as known as I am,” he said. “It’s developed me as a player—maturing, growing, finding out what works and how you can be the best.”

Kate Grasman knows what it’s like to leave U Sports behind. The former TMU women’s volleyball player started like Garvey—she was highly touted and fielded offers from the NCAA and U Sports clubs.

She said she remembers her mom opening her first NCAA recruitment letter from the mailbox. North Carolina State University wanted the then-15-year-old’s talents. Grasman searched up their roster but didn’t fully comprehend the letter and didn’t view this level of collegiate success as attainable—in her mind, she was simply “bopping around the court with her friends.” 

As years passed and more offers came, she said she remembers post-high school volleyball being a potential. It was in Grade 12 where Grasman realized she wanted to stay in Canada and, after a visit to TMU, her decision was final. 

She said she remembers the drive home from TMU, then Ryerson. Grasman talked to her dad about her recruitment visit, just as they did with every other school that showed interest. As they drove down Dundas Street toward the highway to head back to London, Ont. with coffees in hand, they noted the inclusive environment, coaching and the prospect of living in a big city. The anxiety surrounding the recruitment process was gone and Grasman felt like she belonged. 

Her time with TMU prepared her for her next stages in life—one that features a professional career, an ambition for coaching and confidence when barrelling headfirst into the unknown. 

The pandemic changed her outlook on playing professionally. Grasman pursued professional volleyball in the summer after her final season with the Bold. She fell in love with Europe while travelling with her friend and former teammate, Julie Moore. 

U Sports prepared the two for the pro level, and after seeking jobs to afford to live abroad, they landed on professional volleyball. Moore now plays in Sweden, while
Grasman is in Germany. 

Grasman got an agent, signed a contract on the last day of September, and arrived in Germany in the first week of October. Her team, VFL Oythe, in Germany’s second division, had already begun their season by the time she landed. 

None of her teammates—ranging from 17 to 37 years old and representing seven countries—talked to her during her first practice, and her coach doesn’t speak English. The language barrier continues to make comfort on and off the court a challenge, even six months later. 

Grasman said she isn’t sure what her professional career will entail or when she will make the move to coaching. 

But right now, despite its challenges, her professional career allowed her to rediscover why she continues to chase her passion.

For her, it all traces back to how U Sports grew her love for the game.

“I had to think about ‘why do I play?’” Grasman said. 

“I play because I love volleyball. I love the sport.” 

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