Markus Bratsberg is a rare species on the North Shore sporting scene – an elite boys volleyball player.
The North Vancouver native’s talent is clear. He’s putting in a powerful first season at Capilano University, ranking near the top of the team in most attacking and digging stats to insert himself firmly into the running for the PacWest league’s rookie of the year award. He’s also knocking on the door of the national beach volleyball program – he just spent the holiday break training with Ben Saxton and Grant O’Gorman, Canada’s No. 1 pairing.
What’s more obscure is the path he’s taken to get here. Girls volleyball is a longtime North Shore staple, with the BCO club a perennial powerhouse and high school teams such as Handsworth and St. Thomas Aquinas battling for provincial glory nearly every year. But boys volleyball? Not so much.
In recent years a small group of schools and coaches, headed by Shon Sim at Argyle, have been working to get senior boys high school volleyball going again for the first time in more than two decades. This year they formed a senior league – with three teams.
Even that, however, wasn’t available when Bratsberg was first introduced to the game. So how did a boy with nowhere to play become so passionate about a sport that wasn’t offered to him?
He followed his sister.
Jayme Bratsberg, who is now a senior libero for Simon Fraser University’s women’s team, needed a backyard hitting partner when she was first learning the game. Younger brother Markus, who was around seven at the time, was the best she could find.
“She wanted someone to hit volleyballs at her repeatedly,” Bratsberg recalls. “I wasn’t really super into it at first, but then I started to like it.”
As he got older he went looking for a team but couldn’t find much. He was lucky to catch on with a group that started a boys team in the BCO Volleyball Club – the only boys team in the club – but Bratsberg soon outgrew his peers and needed to move off the North Shore. He went to Coquitlam’s Focus Volleyball Club to continue his development.
In Grade 9 the Focus team won a provincial title, but in Grade 10 they ran up against a powerhouse team based in White Rock called Seaside Volleyball Club. The coach at Seaside was Dave Dooley.
“We ended up playing Markus in the semifinals, and he almost singlehandedly beat us at provincials,” recalls Dooley. The next year, Grade 11 for Markus, he made the move out to Seaside and join Dooley. The coach was ecstatic to have a new weapon for his club team.
“He was instrumental in bringing us to the next level at Seaside,” he says. In that first year at Seaside Bratsberg was a first-team all-star at the club national championships, and in his Grade 12 year Seaside won provincials and finished second at nationals.
“He’s a very good control, cerebral player,” says Dooley. “He’s able to just slow everything down, which allows him to perform under pressure in big situations. He’s a little undersized and he knows it – he’s about five-foot-eleven or six feet – but he makes up for it with just being smart. And obviously very athletic – he jumps through the roof, he’s got a great arm, hits the ball really hard.”
The volleyball out in White Rock was great. The commute from North Vancouver three or four times a week though. …
“The first few weeks, it was the worst thing ever,” says Bratsberg. “It was easier when I wasn’t old enough to drive by myself, so then my parents would drive.”
That family involvement was crucial for Bratsberg, says Dooley.
“His parent knew what his goals were and they knew that certain things were required in order to achieve those goals, and they’ve been incredibly supportive,” he says. “You can imagine the commute from North Vancouver to White Rock. But it’s really what he needed to do to be able to play competitive volleyball and practice with the best teams and then go play in these big matches for club. I don’t think he’d have been able to do it if he didn’t have the full buy-in from his family.”
Eventually Bratsberg learned to drive and the trip became a solo slog.
“Right when I got my license, my parents were like, ‘No. You’re driving yourself now,’” he says with a laugh. Sometimes those bridges got the better of him, the red lines on the traffic map signalling certain frustration. “There were definitely a couple of times where before I even left the North Shore I just had to call him and tell him I couldn’t come.”
But it was all worth it, Bratsberg says. Fate, and recruiting, then reunited Bratsberg and Dooley at Capilano this season. Dooley became the new head coach, replacing Emmanuel Denguessi before the 2018-19 season, and the program’s prize recruit was Markus Bratsberg.
The Blues lineup is led by setter Simon Friesen, the reigning CCAA national player of the year, who sets up outside hitters like Bratsberg and Jacob Hopkins and middles Zarley Zalusky and Markiel Simpson with sets that are almost too good to believe, says Bratsberg.
“They’re just the most amazing sets,” says Bratsberg, adding that he’s had to train himself to expect sets even when it seems impossible for Friesen to get him the ball. “I’m starting to figure him out now.”
The Blues are tied with Camosun for second in the PacWest league at 10-4 heading into the second-half home stretch. They’ll face Camosun in a pair of huge home games at the Capilano Sportsplex Jan. 19 and 20. The Blues are young, but they’re gunning for big things, says Bratsberg.
“We’re going for the top, we’re going for a national championship,” he says. “I know we have a lot more to give. We have a pretty young team still … there’s still a lot of things we can work on. Once we’ve fine-tuned everything, it’s just about peaking at the right time.”
It’s been a strange path to get to this point, but Bratsberg is hoping that things might be a bit easier now for boys on the North Shore who want to play the game he loves. He was on the first senior boys reboot at Argyle, a team that won the Lower Mainland title and made the quarterfinals at the provincial AAA championship thanks in large part to Bratsberg’s strong play.
“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing volleyball,” he says of his high school career, adding that he hopes the league continues to grow. “I think it’s awesome. If another kid like me on the North Shore was to have the same passion that I did, I think it would be the best thing in the world if they had a local option.”