Coaching in a pandemic year: Varga’s first year as volleyball coach at Augustana

MUENSTER — Muenster’s Devin Varga took a glass half full approach to a challenging first season leading the men’s volleyball team at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the complete cancellation of the season for the Camrose school squad and the rest of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. While changing protocols affected how the son of Darren and Jewel Varga was able to work on the court with his team, he strived to take a positive approach.

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“We were definitely disappointed that our season was cancelled but we tried to make the best of it and did get to do some on court training,” he said. “We focused on a few different things that were usually regulated by the different restrictions we were under.

“When we were allowed to practice as a full team, we focused on some new defensive systems and skills. When we were reduced to individual practices, we worked on some technical skills that usually don't get enough attention during a normal year.

“And the general focus over the whole year was to gain some physical strength. During a normal year you can only use the four-month summer offseason to weight train because there would be too much stress on the athlete's body during a regular season. Not competing allowed us to get a full year of weight training, which should really benefit us over the next few seasons.”

 

Augustana Tradition

This past school year was Varga’s first as the Vikings’ interim head coach. He has now signed a contract removing the interim tag for next season.

“I love living in Camrose and love Augustana so I plan to coach here as long as I can make it work,” he said. “Officially all coaches at Augustana only sign yearly contracts so nothing is guaranteed for more than a season at a time but, like I said, as long as the university is happy with me, I will continue to coach here.”

Verga enjoyed a successful five-year playing career for the Vikings. He earned All-Conference honours while helping the team win provincial gold in 2015 and bronze in 2016. Varga suited up for one season at Keyano College in Fort McMurray and helped the Huskies to the bronze medals. He returned to Augustana in 2017 as an assistant coach. Varga helped the Vikings win provincial bronze in 2019.

“I love the sense of community that the whole Augustana Athletic department shares,” Varga said. “Coming from a smaller centre, Augustana was the perfect size for me. It was big enough to give you all the opportunities I wanted but also small enough that you still get to know everybody at the school. It's rare that you can walk through the campus without running into anyone you know. Everyone is friendly and there is tremendous support from team to team. Basketball and hockey players are in the stands [when we were allowed to have fans] for the volleyball games and we were in the stands for their games. It is just an awesome place to be.”

 

Fun & challenges

Varga said that his favourite part of his job is getting to work with athletes and watching them develop their game.

“It is extremely satisfying to work with an athlete that wants to improve and get better,” he said. “They listen and do their best to change for the better, then when things finally start to come together and they succeed, seeing the smile on their face or a big celebration makes it all worth it. It's hard to describe but that feeling, knowing that you helped make a difference for that athlete, is what I love about coaching in general.”

Recruiting student-athletes is a big part of Varga’s job – and, he said, the most difficult part so far, due largely to the pandemic. He said he was lucky enough to have a number of athletes reach out to him, but teams have to fill position specific spots.

“Without being able to go to tournaments or see anybody play, that is extremely difficult,” Varga said. “I found it very difficult to get a good assessment of athletes merely through video ... On top of it, some kids didn't have video, some video was a year or two old, and many athletes couldn't get any footage of them playing so it was just practice footage.”

 

Family influence

Varga was introduced to volleyball by his parents. He recalls going to Saskatoon to watch his dad compete in men’s league tournaments.

“I watched so intently and knew that when I was old enough, I was for sure going to start playing and couldn't wait to be old enough to start playing myself,” he said. “My mom also played and together my parents run an adult drop-in league in Muenster. It was adults only but I would do everything in my power to beg or sneak my way into the gym to watch, or sometimes steal an extra ball and play on the stage with my siblings [Lyndon, Jenay, and Skyler], which usually ended up with me getting kicked out and sent back home.”

During his time as a player, Varga helped with various teams and camps. However, the first big accomplishment of his coaching career came when he was an assistant coach for his mom. They guided the 18U Muenster Volleyball Club to its first provincial bronze medal.

Varga said he cannot stress enough how lucky he is to have such support from his parents. They put in countless hours and, he said, without them he might not have even had the opportunity to play a single game.

“They coached me all through high school. They started and ran an entire club program just so we could play during the club season. They helped recruit players to play, drove to tournaments, took me to camps in the summer, the list goes on and on,” he said. “Then when I told them I wanted to move six hours away to go to school and play they didn't even bat an eye. They supported me through the whole process, driving a 12-hour round trip to come and see me play some weekends. I truly can't thank them enough. They are incredible. Then, they were crazy enough to continue doing that three more times after me. The crazy part is they did all that just so we could have a chance to play the game, which is pretty amazing.”

Now Varga shares his passion for volleyball with others.

“What I actually love about the game is the quickness, strategy and team camaraderie,” he said. “I love the strategic side of the game and the quick pace of the game adds another layer to the strategic side of things. Like any sport, there is an entire strategic side of things that usually gets completely overlooked until it's either explained to you or you play at a higher level.

“On top of that I love being part of a team, when guys work their butts off for one another and support one another. If you make a mistake, your teammate is there to try and pick you up and when they make a mistake, you do everything in your power to do the same. It's an incredible game and I love it.”

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