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Coaching was the ‘juice’ for Hall of Fame inductee Dale Huddleston

April 23, 2014


In a coaching career that spawned 20 regional champions and generated 35 OFSAA medals, you might find it odd that, of all those athletes and teams, the one that stands out for Dale Huddleston is a team that didn’t win.

“That was the Anjela Wilson team in ’99,” Huddleston said, after just the shortest of pauses Tuesday, at a luncheon at Rogers K-Rock Centre honouring the five people who will be inducted next month into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame.

That senior girls volleyball team from Ernestown Secondary School actually won the eastern Ontario title, after having lost the county final to Sydenham. It got as far as the quarter-finals at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations championship in Bracebridge that spring, before bowing 19-17 in the third set to the team that eventually won the gold medal.

“Four of those kids went on to play at the college or university level,” Huddleston says proudly, including Wilson, who went  to Ryerson University, where she was twice the school’s female athlete of the year.

“That’s the best team I ever coached,” Huddleston said, succinctly. “They had no absolute reason to be winning anything, but they just picked everything up. It was like playing volleyball against that wall. They picked everything up, gave it back to the other team, pick it up, pick it up, pick it up — drove the other teams crazy.

“They were all tiny … and yet we always found a way to win, until we ran into somebody who was bigger, faster and stronger.”

Huddleston recalled that the team finished fifth in the regular schedule that season, upset a Kingston Collegiate team in the quarter-finals and eventually reached the county final against a first-place Sydenham team. That championship match, he said, was “a barn-burner.”

Based on the typical dimensions that define good volleyball teams, such as height, athleticism and power, “we shouldn’t have even been in the gym,” Huddleston said, but the Eagles won the first two sets and were on the verge of an upset.

“Then we woke up,” he said, chuckling, “or Sydenham woke up.”

Sydenham won the match and went into AAA playoffs; Ernestown, a AA school, later made it to OFSAA.

“We never defined success as wins — ever,” Huddleston said. “Couldn’t afford to. The first 10, 12 times we went to OFSAA, I don’t think we won a set.

“You can’t define success as wins or all of a sudden you’re going, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

One particular victory from Huddleston’s award-winning 40-year career was especially satisfying, though. It was another county championship match, senior boys this time but also in the Bartlett Gym, and his Ernestown team — featuring John Vince, Jeff Cook and Phil Kent — was facing another KC team, led by Wayne Lee and Connor Glynn. For two reasons, Huddleston suspected it would be a special evening.

First of all, the Ernestown fans had conspired to pull a stunt borrowed from NCAA basketball crowds of the day. As the public address announcer began to introduce the undefeated, first-place KC Blues, the Ernestown faithful picked up newspapers and appeared to start reading them, the ultimate ‘who cares?’ gesture.

“I had no idea they were going to do it,” Huddleston said, “and all of a sudden my guys are going, ‘Coach, look,’ and half the stands have people sitting with newspapers in front of their faces. We had to clean up all the newspapers afterwards but it was worth it.”

It was worth it because Ernestown won the school’s first county title that night.

“Again, not a very good team,” Huddleston said, “but it won when it was important.”

KC and Ernestown had met the previous Saturday in the final of a tournament in Picton, Huddleston recalled. “They were coached by a young lad, Colin, he was a McArthur student. He did a great job with them all year long.”

Huddleston said the Blues’ go-to play was to get the ball to Glynn at the net and he would typically tip it over the opponent’s block. “They would tip everything,” Huddleston said. He believed he knew how to deal with it, but didn’t want to show his hand at a relatively meaningless tournament match.

“Before the final I said to the boys, ‘Do you want to win now or do you want to beat them on Monday night at Queen’s?’ The boys went, ‘Let’s beat ’em on Monday night.’ So we didn’t make the adjustment and they beat us on the Saturday in Picton.”

When Monday night’s championship match arrived, the Eagles were ready with what Huddleston called a power slide. “We just sat a guy underneath where they were tipping the ball all the time on Saturday,” he said.

“They’d tip the ball and up it would come and boom, we’d score. Back it would come, boom, we’d score.”

The underdog Eagles prevailed 3-0. “It was sweet,” Huddleston said.

Huddleston came to Kingston to play football and study at Queen’s University after graduating from high school in Perth. He began instructing at Saturday morning clinics while at university, worked at the YMCA — “if they gave you an office and a title, they didn’t have to pay you very much” — and he got his first coaching gig with the volleyball team from the KGH School of Nursing, where his first wife was studying.

Many of the players he was coaching at the Y were Loyalist Collegiate students. That led to his first high school coaching job with the senior girls team there, and he subsequently got his first teaching job at LC, too. After a year, though, he was off to Ernestown for a 35-year career teaching and coaching volleyball and track. “I’ve always been lucky, being in the right place at the right time,” he said.

While he was athletics director at Ernestown, Huddleston had a rule for his coaches: Nobody coached three seasons. “You don’t want coaches to burn out,” he said. The one exception: Himself.

“I coached three because that was my juice,” he said.” Different people are addicted to different things, and that was the way I energized myself for the next day.”

So strong was the allure of coaching that Huddleston, as his career progressed, shunned overtures to go into academic administration. Barry O’Connor, a long-time coach himself who was by then the director of education, tried to convince Huddleston he’d be a good vice-principal, but to no avail.

“Why would I want to want to leave the gym,” he reasoned, “to go to meetings all the time?”

Huddleston, along with Bill Darlington, Pat Hegarty, Brenda Willis and Al Cantlay, will be inducted into the local Hall of Fame Friday, May 2, at the Ambassador Hotel.

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