Thompson Rivers University

Roar of the ‘Pack heard around the world

April 2, 2024

In 2014, Mike Hawkins (left) was an assistant to head coach Pat Hennelly and Matt Krueger was an active member of the roster. Hawkins and Krueger now coach together at UBC. They maintain close ties to Hennelly and the WolfPack.

As players evolve into coaches, the WolfPack legacy spreads — to Vancouver, Ontario and the world.

Led by two former members of the ‘Pack, the UBC Thunderbirds men’s volleyball team recently earned a bronze medal at the U SPORTS national championships. Head coach Mike Hawkins (BA ’14) and assistant coach Matt Krueger (BA ’17) both gained coaching experience under the direction of TRU’s own Pat Hennelly, Canada West and U SPORTS 2024 Coach of the Year.

“When Pat offered me to be his assistant coach, he probably gave me more responsibility than I deserved at the time, but I think he saw that it was something I was taking quite seriously,” says Hawkins, who also spent a year as interim head coach when Hennelly took a sabbatical in 2016/17. “He gave me opportunities that frankly I don’t think I would have been given anywhere else.”

Hawkins landed at TRU in 2010 after Hennelly spotted him in another WolfPack hopeful’s highlight reel and invited him for a visit. The two clicked and Hawkins immediately felt at home in Kamloops, similar in size and feel to his hometown of Lethbridge, AB. He spent two years setting for the ‘Pack before transitioning to assistant coach as he finished up his degree. Prior to joining the coaching team, he played alongside libero Matt Krueger. The duo went on to coach together in their last year as part of the WolfPack program.

“Mike and I go way back. From teammates, to roommates, to coaching together at TRU and now UBC, we have been through it all,” says Krueger. “All of that has built a very strong relationship and allowed us to learn together what it takes to be successful in volleyball and life.”

Krueger has been part of the T-Birds organization since 2017 and Hawkins since 2018. This season they found themselves coaching a roster with little varsity experience but loads of potential. After establishing a cohesive unit in the first few months of the season, they set two objectives: place high enough to host a playoff weekend and have enough success to hit the court on the final day of the season. Even with no senior players, they finished the season 25-11 and earned a berth at nationals by taking bronze in the Canada West finals. They then beat host team Queen’s University to earn national bronze.

Led by WolfPack alumni Mike Hawkins and Matt Krueger (back row second and third from right), the UBC Thunderbirds men's volleyball team recently won bronze at nationals.

Led by WolfPack alumni Mike Hawkins and Matt Krueger (back row, second and third from right), the UBC Thunderbirds men’s volleyball team recently won bronze at nationals.

The coaching duo learned the importance of team-building with the ‘Pack, where Hawkins says win or lose, the team always plays with passion and character. They’re now bringing the same mentality to the Thunderbirds.

“We had a significant roster turnover last season, so we had a unique opportunity to kind of shape the culture exactly how we feel it is going to be most beneficial,” says Hawkins. “We have our sights set on continuing to grow.”

Sights set on Olympic glory

Beyond UBC, Hawkins and Krueger are also guiding national teams. Hawkins has already earned himself a trip to the Summer Olympics this July as an assistant coach of the senior men’s national team. Krueger is an assistant coach for the women’s senior team, which is currently fighting for a wildcard spot. Ranked 11th in the world, the women’s team must get to 10th to qualify. They’ll have their first opportunity to climb the ranks on May 15, when they meet Brazil for their first game of the Volleyball Nations League. The opening ceremonies for Paris 2024 are set for July 26.

“Going to the Olympics is going to be a really cool and meaningful experience for me, but being able to share that experience with my best friend would be pretty magical,” says Hawkins. “I don’t think there could be anything more perfect than him and I meeting up in Paris for the Olympics — the absolute pinnacle of sport in the world.”

Leaders on and off the court

The T-Birds coaches credit Hennelly with developing their skills to lead teams on the court, but more importantly, they say he taught them how to be how to be leaders off the court.

“I have always had an immense amount of respect for Pat, for all the things that come along as a coach that have nothing to do with the Xs and Os and being on court. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who is so heavily invested and committed to the development of young men in his program,” says Hawkins.

Hennelly has been the stalwart leader of the ‘Pack for almost 20 years, establishing a culture that is as much about building character as it is about winning games. This year, more than any other, Hennelly’s commitment to his players was evident in the aftermath of a devastating car crash on Nov. 29, 2023, that took the life of WolfPack player Owyn McInnis and seriously injured two others, Owen Waterhouse and Riley Brinnen.

WolfPack men's volleyball assistant coach Riley Brinnen

WolfPack men’s volleyball assistant coach Riley Brinnen

“I really don’t think anybody else in our conference could have handled things as well as he did,” says Hawkins. “He embodies all the characteristics that are necessary to be a true mentor and role model for young men. I think he does it at the best of times, but to have done it in such an incredible way, at the worst of times, really speaks to his character and the type of person that he is.”

Nearing 200 regular season wins with the ‘Pack, Hennelly has earned 10 trips to the Canada West playoffs during his tenure and has coached the WolfPack at three U SPORTS national championships, winning a bronze medal in 2007-08. In early March, Hennelly was named Canada West Coach of the Year. A week later the honour was bestowed at the national level.

“Being a member of the WolfPack is a huge honour for me, and that stems from Pat,” says Krueger. “During this unimaginable season, Pat showed incredible leadership and courage. There is no one more deserving of the coach of the year award.”

In their first game following the crash, the entire T-Birds team donned orange shoelaces to show support for the ‘Pack. The majority kept them laced for the remainder of the season, keeping the WolfPack close to their hearts. A memorial endowment for McInnis has been established to support TRU volleyball players for many years to come. To date, the endowment is nearing $80,000.

Shortly after the crash, Brinnen told Hennelly he planned to remain part of the WolfPack. True to his word, only a few months after enduring life-altering injuries, Brinnen has committed to coming back next season as an assistant coach, proving his fighting spirit is as strong as ever.

“It’ll mean a lot for the guys to have him in the gym again next year,” says Hennelly. “Riley has never been a guy that’s afraid to speak his mind and I’ve always encouraged every one of my assistant coaches to be their own person, have their own ideas and have their own voice. I think Riley’s personality is going to fit well.”

Since the WolfPack program made the move to the U SPORTS level 19 years ago, Hennelly has been at the helm. Under his leadership, the strength of the ‘Pack continues to expand, generating opportunities long after players have hung up their jerseys for the last time. From national championships to the Summer Olympics, Hawkins and Krueger always keep a piece of the ‘Pack with them. They’re now sharing the torch with Brinnen and the next generation of WolfPack leaders.

“You spend five seconds with Riley, and you know that he is someone who’s going to pour his heart and soul into overcoming any obstacle, any hurdle that’s in front of him,” says Hawkins.

“That kid is a warrior.”

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