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Coaching philosophies and giving back to the community, a chat with coach Mark Hopper

'Not everybody plays sports these days and so any athlete you have, you have to foster an environment that is fun, and then I feel like you’ll get more out of them'

Rooted is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

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It all started at Widdifield High School for Mark Hopper.

“I was cutting through the gym one day and I jumped up and grabbed the rim of the basketball net outside the Phys Ed. Office and this stocky little man came out and said ‘don’t hang off the rim. Do you play any sports here?, and I said, ‘yeah I play football’ and he said to me ‘not anymore’ and that was Coach Doug Jess who recruited me to play volleyball.”

The current coach of the Canadore Panthers men's volleyball team and the President of the Nipissing District Soccer Club, Hopper had only decided to play football after getting cut from volleyball tryouts at Tweedsmuir Public School in grade six and WJ Fricker Public School in grades seven and eight.

“Up until that point, I had just played rep baseball. But when I got to Widdifield that all changed and I have coach Jess to thank. He has since passed on and we held an Olympic Volleyball game at Widdifield in his honour,” says Hopper.

“When I look back it’s from that point on that I realize that being involved in sports began to really shape my life. The group of friends I had during that time was instrumental in shaping and forming the type of coach I have continued to foster. The lessons that I learned back then are why I try to continue to do what I do in the community now.”

Hopper has been a fixture in the volleyball and soccer scene in North Bay since the early ‘90s.

“I started coaching with the North Bay Basketball Academy back when Gary Payne and Peter Topolie started that group. I did that for one year and then I got selected to go to the Ontario Sport Leadership Camp,” says Hopper.

“After graduating high school, I moved on to play varsity volleyball at Laurentian University. In 1992, I started coaching the Lady Voyageurs club team. So that’s when I first coached volleyball at any level.”

Hopper returned to North Bay in 1997 and coached at Canadore College for two years before moving over to Nipissing University from 1999-2004.

“I coached with Tom Moore during those years and we jointly accepted a coach of the year award in 2001,” says Hopper.

“I started teaching in 2004 and so I stepped away from Nipissing at that point, and once I started teaching I was coaching again at Widdifield.”

Hopper says it was a trip to Dryden that opened his eyes as to what was needed to make high school volleyball more competitive in North Bay.

“Around 2005, our senior girls were ranked number one in the province and we went up to Dryden, Ontario for OFSAA. We ended up losing in the quarterfinals and the opposing coach said to us that we have a really good team but we just weren’t able to handle those high-pressure moments. And so that’s when we decided to start a club and that became the North Bay Youth Volleyball Club and we had a really great group of people who were involved at that time,” says Hopper.

He stayed with the club for several years before solely focusing on high school, “But there was a period for about three years there when I was coaching four teams a year,” he says while also adding soccer teams to coach in the spring.

“I did both boys and girls volleyball from 2004-2014, up until I went on to coach the men's team at Canadore College. I stayed with soccer until 2019 when the pandemic cancelled our season. I had 13 fifth-year boys who were coming back for their senior year of soccer at Widdifield before that happened, unfortunately,” he says.  

Hopper says there’s no one way to approach coaching.

“Every coach is unique in how they see the game and the athletes. But, you can only be as successful as the people around you and that’s why I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by so many great people over my career.”

He says over the years there have been adjustments that needed to be made as fewer students were coming out to play on teams at both the school and community level.

“Not everybody plays sports these days and so any athlete you have, you have to foster an environment that is fun, and then I feel like you’ll get more out of them,” he says.

“That was something that was passed on to me by people like Barb Olmsted and Heather Windrem who would say ‘these kids are all going to have goals, but as a coach, you have to show them the journey can be fun.’”

Hopper says coaches also have a more special role with their athletes than just telling them where to play.

“I think there are way more conversations happening between athletes and coaches now. I mean you would never have a heart to heart with your high school coach, or even your varsity coach, but now, athletes want to be heard and it’s your job to make sure that you are not just their coach on their field but also sort of their coach in life.”

Over the years, Hopper has organized many events that have helped generate over $13,000 for the community. Those have included rallies for food at the local high schools or The Gathering Place. This past year he had his players shovelling driveways with the donations from that work going towards the Gathering Place. He says it’s important for young people to understand how to give back to their community.

He says another way to do that is by spending time with younger athletes and letting them practice with the varsity groups by doing demonstrations at the elementary schools.

Hopper says in his role as President of the Nipissing District Soccer Club he couldn’t have asked for a better board of people to work with.

“The two VP’s Rob Celebre and Giuliano Celebre and Alfredo Ricciuti who is in charge of all competitive teams, are doing a tremendous job. I feel like we’re all just bringing in what we were taught as young people by the people that were there before, we’re just trying to tweak the approach because we need to get back on the map. We have so many good athletes in this city, we just have to have a hub and we have to have a mission statement of trying to be open to information to all these athletes.”

Hopper says he has some ambitious goals for his time in this role.

“When’s the last time we had a provincial player come out of this city? When I was growing up we had people getting invited to provincial tryouts quite often. So one of the mantras behind my tenure as president is to get together and have a focused movement for young people. We have to do what the Soccer Canada matrix is as far as physical literacy skills and tactical technical skills.”

And barring any restrictions, Hopper is confident they will see numbers in soccer continue to go up in the area.

“I think this past summer we had close to 1,000 people in the club and we’re looking to grow that. We’re hoping to add day camps in the summer and different programming as the year goes on.”

If you have a story idea for the Rooted series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com 

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