The death of Owyn McInnis was personal for the South Kamloops Titans.
“He was more than just some random WolfPack player to us,” said Titans’ setter Gavin MacGregor, fighting through tears to finish his thought. “He came to practices and he was special … special.”
South Kamloops made Tournament Capital sports history on Saturday. The Titans became the first senior boys’ team from the city to claim a B.C. School Sports volleyball championship, winning the AA tournament in jaw-dropping fashion by climbing out of a 2-0 hole to vanquish the Abbotsford Christian Knights 3-2 in the best-of-five title tilt at an adrenaline-infused Langley Events Centre.
But the celebration for this group was anything but normal.
The Titans stayed the night in Langley on Saturday and drove home to Kamloops on Sunday, gathering on arrival at the memorial site set up for three Thompson Rivers University men’s volleyball players involved in a violent multi-vehicle collision on Wednesday.
McInnis — in his early 20s and engaged to be married — was killed and two of his WolfPack teammates were critically injured when the car they were in was hit by an out-of-control pickup truck at the intersection of McGill Road and University Drive, according to police.
“Man, it’s tough,” said Titans’ standout Brandon Johnson, who was named the tournament’s top libero.
“I really just hope his memory lives on and we’re able to raise money for the scholarship fund and that his legacy lives on.”
Titans’ assistant coach Matt Lofgren, a former WolfPack men’s volleyball player himself, added to the collection of TRU gear at the memorial by wrapping one of the team’s gold medals around a bouquet of flowers — the rustling wrapping paper mixing with whispers and brisk wind for a stark, sombre sound.
“He would always, at the drop of a dime, come help us out if we needed an extra body,” Lofgren said, noting Angus Ireland, an assistant bench boss for the Titans and ‘Pack, often wrangled McInnis for volunteer coaching work.
“We’ll forever be grateful for that — for those memories we had with him. We were constantly thinking about him, his family and the two other guys who are in critical condition.”
Orange and black dotted the tense LEC crowd on championship Saturday, with many Titans’ supporters exchanging their traditional black and gold for WolfPack colours.
South Kam donned makeshift uniforms during warm-up, orange shirts with the numbers of the accident victims on the back and three letters on the front — TRU.
“We didn’t all have WolfPack gear with us,” said Lofgren, whose club travelled to Langley on Tuesday, the day before the collision. “We went to Michaels. We found a bunch of blank orange T-shirts.”
Black markers were used to sketch WolfPack logos onto the shirts, insignia that stood out in the crowd while the Titans faded into near oblivion on the court.
“I mean, you try not to think the worst,” said tournament all-star MacGregor, whose club dropped the first set 28-26 and fell 25-21 in the second set.
Alex Howard, the Titans’ left side who was named the championship’s most outstanding player, said he actually thought it was over.
“Not going to lie — I thought it was [best-of-three], so after the second set, I genuinely thought our team lost,” he said.
“It brought me up a lot when my teammates told me we were going five and the game wasn’t over yet. I thought, ‘Perfect. We’re going to win it, for sure. No doubt in my mind.’”
The third set was tight, tied 12-12, but the Titans pulled away and prevailed 25-20 to force Game 4.
“It was super exciting,” Johnson said.
“It was super intense. It was definitely pretty nerve-racking after losing those first two sets. We started off a little shaky, but we put our heads down and pushed as hard as we could.”
The Knights could not withstand the onslaught and dropped the fourth set by seven points.
“The start of that fifth was inspiring,” MacGregor said. “We just beat them two sets — hell yeah we can come back and beat them in one more set to 15.”
Match-point mayhem followed a 15-10 triumph in the deciding set.
“It was unreal,” Howard said. “I just turned and saw the entire crowd running toward us. It was a surreal feeling.”
The 2023 Titans are a unique group, a team with a nucleus that formed in Grade 5 under Graham MacGregor, Gavin’s father, a volunteer parent-coach.
Coach MacGregor's eight-year stint at the helm culminated Saturday in a fairytale finish, albeit with a tragic twist.
“To stick together as a team, be calm and come back for a reverse sweep to win the next three games and the provincial title, to reflect on that is a bit of a wonderful way to end a journey as a team and a good way to finish off with these young men,” said the elder MacGregor, noting many of the team’s players are akin to sons.
“We’re just super proud of the boys and how they persevered. The one boy, Owyn McInnis, was really wonderful to a lot of our players.”
Noah Henson and Huxley Wendland joined Gavin MacGregor on the tournament all-star team.
Three Titans — Howard, Johnson and 6-foot-7 middle Keenan Brullotte — have committed to play post-secondary volleyball at TRU, the school they represented informally under harrowing circumstance on Saturday.
The Titans ambled away from the memorial, leaving precious hardware — a piece of gold — as contribution to the healing process.
“We really pushed and played that final game as hard as we could for them,” Johnson said.
“We hope that resonated.”
Remember these Titans
The Titans featured 12 players — Johnson, MacGregor, Wendland, Brullotte, Henson, Howard, Carter Dundass, Jason Nguyen, Gavin Johnson, James Upshaw, Rowan Macpherson and Larry Shyakagisa.
MacGregor, Lofgren and Ireland comprise the coaching stable.
GoFundMe for Brinnen
A GoFundMe online fundraiser has been set up for Riley Brinnen, a TRU volleyball player who suffered a serious spinal injury in Wednesday’s crash.
For more information or to donate, click here.