Midway through the first set of UBC’s do-or-die match up against the Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West semifinals, team captain Irvan Brar steps up to try his hand at serving. He is unimposing as he walks to the end of the court, but the crowd sits in hushed silence nonetheless — they know what’s to come.
Brar composes himself, runs up to the line and throws the ball in the air. Then, he drills it full-speed towards the middle of Alberta’s end. It’s a bullet right into the heart of the Golden Bears system and one that, in the blink of an eye, smacks the court floor with a loud crack. The whole gym erupts in cheers — it’s 13-11 UBC.
It’s a play T-Birds fans have come to know well, having had five years with Brar in the roster. The 6’2” outside hitter is hard to miss once you’ve watched him play — though a shorter member of the towering T-Birds team, he is still one of the most impressive players on the court.
This year, he was named to the Canada West first all-star team along with his teammate Byron Keturakis. He’s not only in the top five most efficient hitters in the league, but also in the top 10 in total points for Canada West this season with 360.5.
But his role is one they will need to look to fill for next season. On February 17, Brar finished his last regular season game as a UBC Thunderbird, having played out his five years of eligibility.
Stats only show part of his contribution to the team throughout his time at War Memorial Gym. For the Thunderbirds, their team captain is not only a scoring presence but also a reliable leader and role model.
For Brar, he’s hoping to head out on a high — with a national title in hand, if the team can qualify.
Brar credits his brother for his start in the sport back in grade five.
“I kind of wanted to be like him,” said Brar. However, as he began to focus in on volleyball and started club play in grade seven, other sports began to faze out of his repertoire — progress in volleyball just came naturally from there.
“I think every year the goal changes, you kind of get farther in the sport and the goals gets bigger. I think I just wanted to take it one year at a time. First, it was to make my school team, and then it was to make my club team, and then it was the provincial team…,” he said. “I never thought I would be at this point where I could be playing for the national team … I just took it one step at a time, I didn’t look too far into the future, and I didn’t look too far back in my past.”
It’s a unique perspective for someone who has been so successful in his sport. He never dreamt too far ahead, always planning step-by-step — and he made it to each step, almost every time.
When it came to making his decision on post-secondary institutions for his volleyball career, Brar had little hesitation. The academic reputation and the fact that UBC is the local university to Brar — only 45 minutes away from his home — made the choice to join the Thunderbirds’ program easy.
“I could be close to my family and come to a really good school, and on top of that, it was a really good volleyball program: it has some really, good talented players, and some great coaching staff and facilities.”
Just two years after being recruited for UBC volleyball team, Brar made the Canadian junior national team. A year later, he made the Canada senior men’s B team.
Taking centre court
Going into his final year on the Thunderbirds team with elite volleyball experience under his belt, Brar has thoroughly made the shift into his leadership role on the court. He has been the captain of the Thunderbirds for two seasons now, leading their ever-changing roster through two successful seasons at War Memorial. Last year, they closed out the 2016/17 season in fourth place at the U Sports national championships — their best record since 2007/8.
Off the court, Irvan Brar also takes his leadership into the community. At the start of the 2016/17 season, he was awarded the inaugural scholarship from the Shaheed Mewa Singh Sports and Cultural Association in Surrey. This scholarship served as recognition of Brar’s outstanding leadership in the local South-Asian community.
For Brar, being a leader isn’t always about being the top player in the game — it's as simple as caring and helping the people around him to maintain their performance, including the younger players on the team.
“You kind of just learn a lot of things over your five years here — I think it’s kind of like our duty to try to recycle that information. So whatever you learned from your elders, your role models so to speak, you’ve got to instill that back into our younger guys every year. The onus is on us to get that culture and get that transition for these younger guys.”
That said, as more and more talented young players emerge in the league like Fynn McCarthy and Trinity Western’s Eric Loeppky, Brar admits he feels some need to rise to the occasion. Though he never sees them that as a threat, he takes the newly-emerged talents as motivation to better himself.
“I don’t look at age. Like if you’re good, you’re good. I don’t really care what year [a player in the league] is in. Those players are just good players, so I think it just motivates me more [to] be better myself. I don’t really look down on them, I don’t look up to them, it’s more of a mutual respect and a good, competitive nature.”
Off the court, Brar also has a tight and supportive relationship with his teammates, which has helped him be a better team captain and to act as a uniting force in the squad.
"I kind of stepped into the veteran role maybe last year, or even the year before. I got on the court pretty early, for maybe most university students. I started playing in my second year and haven’t really left the court since then. So I think I’ve had a lot of time, exposure to some of maybe [the] more stressful situations. Then, I’ve learned to be a leader in those situations for our team.”
To the senior T-Bird, being on the court with the other players in the team is “just like having a bunch of younger brothers.”
His veteran presence has meant a lot for the Thunderbirds during the 2017/18 season, especially in the playoff season. During the four playoff games against the Manitoba Bisons and the Alberta Golden Bears, he put up an average of 15 points per set. This includes 44 kills and 7 aces in total.
Though he puts up big numbers for the team, his strength on the court isn’t something that came easily.
“In terms of sport, just being a smaller outside hitter, I’m not really the tallest person in my position — there’s lots of guys who are like 6’7’’ and 6’8’’... So, in terms of difficulties, that was something to overcome. But I just made up it with my passion and a bit of my vertical.”
Heading into the future
For student-athletes, the end of their Thunderbirds eligibility can mark the end of their elite sports career. However, Brar hopes that the senior graduation ceremony held in War Memorial Gym in mid-February won’t signal his last contributions to the sport.
“Volleyball is kind of my life right now,” said Brar with an unquestionable tone. “It’s all I do — it’s what I do in the summer, it’s what I do in the winter, it’s what I do during the school …Next year I'll be going to play pro overseas, so that's what I'll be doing all fall and winter and spring. It’s pretty much just ingrained in my life; I love every second of it.”
After finishing his sociology degree at UBC, Brar is looking to continue his career as a professional volleyball player for an overseas club next year.
But for now, he has something more important to do. As the captain of a Thunderbirds team sitting in the final four of Canada West, Brar has one more task on his shoulders: fighting for a spot in U Sports nationals.
“I’ve never won nationals at any point in my life. Whether it’s been in high school or club or even with the provincial team, I’ve never won a gold medal in that sense. So I think ... any gold medal would be pretty special.”
And, for Brar, the Thunderbirds roster is just the team to do it.
“I think with this group of guys, it’s definitely an attainable goal and I think it’d be a very sweet memory for all of us.”
The Thunderbirds quest for U Sports gold continues on March 9 in the Canada West bronze medal match against the Winnipeg Wesmen. The game starts at 7 p.m. at War Memorial Gym.