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North Okanagan volleyball couple earn Hall of Fame call

The man nicknamed Slick, for his trademark crewcut, makes it clear to a reporter and former player visiting his North Vernon home.

He – Denis Murdoch – was more a teacher than a man who coached volleyball at the club and school level for 27 full years, and parts of another five years after retirement when three of his granddaughters move to the region.

Coaching is his hobby, along with fishing, golfing and organizing boxes of photos, notes and game sheets from a lifetime in the sport.

Murdoch and his beloved wife Barb have been named inductees in the builder category for the B.C. Volleyball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.

“I’ve coached hundreds and hundreds of kids and I was happy to coach those playing simply because they enjoyed playing volleyball as much as those who would go on to play at college or universities, or even professional,” said Murdoch, 81, warming up after shovelling his freshly snowed upon driveway.

“I was as happy teaching the game to young players at the bantam level. I didn’t care if we didn’t win (pause)…very often.”

Born in 1939 in “Little Los Angeles” – insisting the reporter write that down, referring to his hometown of Kelowna – Murdoch never touched a volleyball until his second teaching job at the old Clarence Fulton Secondary School in Vernon in 1972.

A shade under five-foot-five in his coaching days – he would stand on the bench at times to looks his players in the eyes talking to them during a timeout or between games, and was routinely photographed in many team pictures standing on a bench – Murdoch had been a swimmer.

He won a marathon race in Penticton that included swimming from Okanagan Lake, down the river channel to Skaha Lake and then swimming a mile across Skaha to beat the second-place finisher by 24 seconds. He swam in another race in Kalamalka Lake, 18.5 kilometres, Oyama to Vernon, finishing seventh in 6.5 hours.

He trained for distance swimming in the Shuswap River when he taught at Enderby’s A.L. Fortune Junior-Senior Secondary School in his first job prior to moving to Vernon.

At Fulton, he was asked to coach the girls volleyball team in the fall of 1972. That summer, Murdoch enrolled in a B.C. Volleyball Camp in Lake Country led by Canadian women’s team coach Moo Park, originally from Korea.

Best move Murdoch could have made.

“I signed up to learn about volleyball and learned so much in three days,” he laughed.

How well did he learn, and how well did he teach the knowledge he gained? Murdoch’s Fulton junior girls would win three of the next five Okanagan Valley volleyball championships.

Murdoch coached girls at the school and club level, and boys at the high school level for a few years, guiding a pair of Vernon Secondary School Panthers teams to the provincial boys championships, with a ninth-place finish in Comox in 1980, and a third-place result in Prince George in 1983. He retired full-time from coaching in 1999, returned in 2002 and helped coach the Vernon Panthers senior girls team with Keith Becker, stepping away from the game in 2010.

He started the Vernon Volleyball Club in 1975.

With Murdoch, every step of the volleyball way was the former Barb Olney, also from Kelowna, whose dad ran a bicycle shop there. The pair were introduced by a neighbour and married in 1960.

When Murdoch became a volleyball coach, Barb became a manager. An organizer. A contact. A statistician. The husband-and-wife team became respected volleyball officials after Murdoch’s retirement from coaching due to rheumatoid arthritis and officiated club and high school games for five years.

“Barb did all of the organizing,” said Murdoch, none bigger than the summer of 1987 when the Canadian and West Germany women’s national teams came to the Okanagan for a week. The Canadian roster included Vernon’s Sharon Shaigec (née Weitzel, herself a longtime successful volleyball coach at Fulton Secondary) and Kelowna’s Erminia Russo.

“They played a game on a hot summer night in front of 1,000 people at the old VSS gym.”

He will share the news with Barb that the pair have been inducted into the B.C. Volleyball of Fame but, said Denis, it won’t mean anything to her.

Barb lives three blocks away from her husband, “safely and well cared for,” he said. She suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, diagnosed in 2o17. Denis, due to COVID-19 protocol, can only spend one day a week with his bride, 30 minutes per visit, six feet apart.

“She smiles as she recognizes my voice, but she doesn’t recognize me because of the (COVID-19) mask,” he said. “If she didn’t have the disease, she’d be happy we’re going into the Hall of Fame together.”

The impact the Murdochs have made on Vernon volleyball is countless. Many of his former players are still playing men’s, women’s or mixed volleyball. Many turned to coaching and/or officiating in the sport. The Hall of Fame nomination package contained 12 letters of support from former players, rival coaches and referees.

Shaigec said her volleyball career was made possible by the Murdochs, starting at the club level when she was in Grade 6.

“My journey in volleyball, my life, is a direct result of Denis and Barb’s vision,” said Shaigec, in her 31st year of coaching at Fulton, and who has gladly let the Murdochs come out of the stands from being spectators to help line tournament games. “Denis’ leadership, his commitment to coaching, and both their ability to be administrators of the Vernon Volleyball Club.”

Murdoch had four players he coached go on to play pro volleyball – the Page sisters, Brittany and Lindsay, Joanna Haaf and the late Larry Olson.

He and Barb have four daughters –Denise, Susan, Cheryl and Louise. The first two played volleyball, the latter pair score kept and helped officiate games. All four swam for the Ogopogo Swim Club in Kelowna where their dad was a coach. In fact, the four Murdoch sisters made up an individual medley relay team, each swimming one discipline.

Barb and Denis Murdoch were named co-winners of the Leadership in Sports Award in 2019 at the 26th annual Tim Hortons North Okanagan Athlete, Team and Leadership Awards.

Denis Murdoch was awarded a lifetime membership by B.C. Volleyball in 2018.

The Murdochs will enter the B.C. Volleyball Hall of Fame with athletes Betty Baxter and Tom Jones, coach Don Smyth and the 1977-78 BCO Men in the team category.

A virtual induction ceremony is slated to take place Monday, Feb. 15.

The Vernon SKY Volleyball Club is planning on having Murdoch officially open the club’s new two-court facility opposite Butcher Boys on Silver Star Road in mid-February.

READ MORE: Mr. and Mrs. Volleyball honoured at Tim Hortons North Okanagan athletic awards

READ MORE: Kelowna Knights brush back Kal


roger@vernonmorningstar.com

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Roger Knox

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