Laurentian University is in the news a lot these days, not necessarily for the reasons they would like.
During 37 of the 80 years of his life that Kit Lefroy would spend at the local post-secondary institution, there was largely one singular reason that the father of three (all girls) would want the L.U. name to appear in the headlines: namely, the sport of volleyball.
It was the very reason that he was lured from Calgary to Sudbury, in 1969, by then head of physical education John Dewar, who was also his former basketball coach.
That said, volleyball was not the sport of choice, initially, for Lefroy, who was born in Vancouver but grew up largely in the Okanagan Valley.
“I played everything except hockey,” stated Lefroy, now living in Fonthill, just an 18 minute drive from his home golf course in St Catharines. “Where I grew up, there was very little artificial ice. I played mostly soccer and basketball in high-school.”
As he studied at the University of Calgary, the highly athletic young lad would be both captain of the basketball team and kicker with the rugby squad, an affinity that he maintained with a local club team for a few more years still.
“Going into my third year, I had just gotten married (Kit and his wife Shirley will celebrate 60 years of marriage in September) and one of our basketball players asked me to come out with the volleyball team,” Lefroy recalled. “I was 23 when I started playing - six years later, I was on the national team.”
“Who even does that? But I could really jump, especially from a standing position.”
Graduating from the U of C, Lefroy would spend two years teaching junior high, moving over to Mount Royal College and initially coaching JV basketball before founding their volleyball program. That experience opened the door to the opportunity at the fledgling university in Sudbury.
This period in time would see his growth as an athlete parallel his growth as a coach, quite literally, when it came to his newfound passion for volleyball. “I was pretty much self taught,” he suggested. “As I taught skills to the players, it improved my own skills, big time.”
“And I was always a fanatic for fitness. I probably made it to the national team more on my fitness.”
His stint donning the maple leaf was a short one, just one summer, unwilling to drop his new role in northern Ontario to spend more time with the national squad. Still, his own experience provided at least a working base of knowledge when it came to trying to develop young men for a Voyageurs’ team that remained intact until the varsity athletics restructuring of the year 2000.
“I was a power hitter, I could hit the ball hard, but I wasn’t a very good pass receiver or defensive player, to start,” said Lefroy. “After a couple of years, I moved to the middle. But a 6’0” guy in the middle is giving away six inches or more, all the time. Thankfully, I was quick and I could read plays pretty well.”
“The disadvantage I had was that once I jumped, I was committed, whereas a big guy didn’t have to jump nearly as soon. In 1967, my coach decided to switch me to setting, just before the Pan Am tryouts. I had never set in my life. I worked hard and was blessed with very soft hands - and nearly made the team that year.”
“But that tells you more about how bad we were.”
Given his own evolution on the court, it was no small wonder that Lefroy found himself drawn to recruits who could perhaps be contoured more than the closer to finished products, especially given that the latter were often pledging their allegiance to larger more established schools.
Consider the following memories of one of the earliest men’s volleyball teams at Laurentian.
“They were a good bunch of guys, really tried hard, but athletically, they were misfits,” said Lefroy. “We had zero talent - well, maybe not zero, but very little. Slowly but surely, we raised the goals. By the end of the season, we weren’t a great threat for anything significant, but they had earned a lot of respect.”
“We were losing a lot of really close matches, but we just didn’t have the talent of some of the other teams. It was at that point that I decided to stop trying to go after top end recruits. I started to focus on the smaller towns, looking for kids who were athletic, with good size and good attitude.”
“My theory was that I can’t develop character: I can expose it. I can’t make a kid tall: he either is or is not tall. I can’t change his basic athleticism: I can enhance it, maybe. But I can certainly work on his fitness and strength, his mobility and power - and I can teach him volleyball skills.”
“For a lot of years, we had one of the tallest teams in the league,” said Lefroy. “As long as they could walk and chew gum, I could teach the rest. But a lot of these players were really inexperienced.”
In the seventies, that wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. In 1976-1977, the Laurentian Voyageurs captured their one and only OUA banner in men’s volleyball. “The team just seemed to gel, really well - they were such a cohesive unit,” said Lefroy.
Away from the court, he had always maintained an interest in the Sports Administration program, heavily involved at the outset and returning for a couple of stints as the head of the group in the years following the departure of Bob Wanzel. “When Bob took over, he really professionalized it,” said Lefroy.
“He did a much better job, in my judgement, than I would have done, because he recognized the commercial side of sport. I was more focused on the amateur side.”
Seldom one to avoid an athletic challenge of any kind, Lefroy would combine a love of golf with the natural ability to generate a ton of clubhead speed, capturing the Canadian Senior Long Drive Championship in 2002 or so. At the age of 62, he had conquered a field of several gents a decade or more his junior.
His retirement in 2006 would see Kit Lefroy head south, not all that long thereafter, far away from the headlines of Laurentian University - which is probably not a bad thing, these days.