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Spartan Alumni: Hilary Howe’s Story

Learn a little more about Team Canada’s powerhouse outside hitter.

Spartan Alumni: Hilary Howe’s Story

Words | Mark Janzen

Hilary Howe’s story is part of the third edition of the SPARTA magazine.

It was the most career-altering weekend of Hilary Howe’s life.

It was a nod to the person and player Howe became while at Trinity Western University.

Because of the abrupt cancellation of the 2020 national championship tournament due to COVID-19 and the subsequent cancellation of the entire 2020-21 season, TWU’s star left side hadn’t played a competitive game in more than year.

Yet on one particular weekend in the spring of 2021, Howe’s hard work and dedication culminated in a perfect storm of fruition.

She woke up on the Friday to a bevy of missed calls from Brie King – her former Spartan teammate turned Team Canada teammate turned, as it would turn out, professional teammate. Howe called King back and heard the voice of an overjoyed friend. Between King, Howe and their agents, a deal had been struck for the volleyball-playing duo to join forces in France with the Beziers Angels for the 2021-22 season.

A few things still needed to be finalized to complete the contract, but it was all but a done deal.

Howe’s professional dream was becoming a reality and she was going to get to play her first pro season alongside King in France’s top volleyball league. It was all kind of wild.

She looks back on the moment and recalls that the fridge in her apartment – one she shared with her twin brother and fellow TWU volleyball star Jackson Howe – was broken that week, so she celebrated in a rather muted fashion with a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast. She had to retrieve the milk from the deck where it was being kept cold in a cooler.

Howe paced around the house. She wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Her excitement was colliding with the recognition of the challenge that was suddenly in front of her – jumping directly from U SPORTS into a highly ranked professional league.

“I feel like it’s fun to be in a position where I have to work to earn a starting position,” Howe said when she initially reflected on what the 2021-22 season would look like. “But, I mean, getting out there with Brie setting me the ball, how bad can it be? I think it’ll be okay.”

Two days after signing with Beziers last spring, Howe got a call from Team Canada coach Shannon Winzer, who asked if she’d be available to represent her country in the 2021 Volleyball Nations League in Italy.

“Yes. Of course.”

After five up and down years as a Spartan, in which she’d endured many missed opportunities at team success, Howe got the break, or two, that she so deserved.

On Monday after, she went back to school, set to finish her accounting degree at TWU.

Upon a brief reflection of that weekend, one of the greatest women’s volleyball players to ever don the Spartans jersey pauses. Indeed, it was all a bit crazy. Then she smiles.

The memories of her career at TWU rush back. They are remembered fondly.

The powerful left side was a U SPORTS star. She finished her career, which included four full seasons before a cancelled senior year, as a three-time Canada West All-Star and a First Team All-Canadian in 2019-20.

Yet, there is certainly a ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ angle to her story.

In her third year, an unfortunate national championship draw saw the Canada West champion Spartans lose in a five-set match in the quarter-finals against the eventual U SPORTS champions. Then, in her fourth year, she led TWU to its second straight conference title only to have her shot at a national crown dashed when the U SPORTS tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19. Finally, in her fifth year, a stacked Spartans side never got a chance to show how good they truly could have been, with the season entirely cancelled amidst the pandemic.

Looking back, her response tot all is indicative of who she has become.

“Sometimes it’s disheartening thinking that this group could have won a couple more medals,” Howe says. “It’s not that we were entitled to them, but we just didn’t get the chance to play for them. I think we could have done it. There’s a little bit of ‘that really sucks,’ but how long can we talk about how much it sucks before we move on and look at the good things.”

When it was officially announced that the 2021-22 season was cancelled, Howe’s growth as a leader became evident.

“I told myself I’m still going to work really hard and I’m still going to invest in my teammates. There are still things within our control. You can’t just complain for a year and a half. That would get us all nowhere. I still found ways to progress and make it a good fifth year. I just thought, ‘Yea it sucks, but how can I make it not suck so bad. Who does it help if I sulk? It just makes it worse.”

The 6-foot-1 Calgary product went to work and improved.

“We took working out really seriously. I went to a lot of rep sessions and I really figured that the time could be used to focus on getting better.”

The evidence was never more clear than when she made her return to the competitive court with Canada in May 2021.

Read the next part slowly.

In her first competitive game in 443 days, Howe earned a spot in the starting lineup for Canada in the Volleyball Nations League against volleyball superpower and eventual silver medal-winning Brazil. In the first set, Howe had four kills and Canada stunned the Brazilians with a 25-23 win in the opening set.

The week before, Howe and King were watching Brazilian star Gabriela ‘Gabi’ Guimaraes on YouTube. Now, they were playing against her.

“It had been a couple years since we had played together,” King says, recalling that first game back on the court as teammates – one which Brazil eventually rallied to win in four sets. “Hilary has always been a gamer. She comes on the court and makes a difference in a lot of ways. She has this ideal, athletic, powerful, strong and exciting capability, and she also has this really fun energy that she brings to the court. That was what we saw in the VNL.”

Over the course of the tournament, Howe solidified herself as a mainstay in the starting lineup.

“She’s fierce and resilient and competitive,” King says. “Every team needs someone who is through the roof in all those areas and she was that for us. She was this perfect mix of an absolute gamer who was an impact player and who also really brought the team together and made her teammates feel like they mattered all the time.”

Through challenging times – the ups and downs of an unprecedented university experience – Howe became a leader.

“I’m not always the first one to talk,” Howe says. “It’s not always my style to have a bunch of things to say before or after games. I like to lead by example – whether that’s in the gym or the weight room. I know I would go for that ball, so you should too. You can demonstrate leadership without saying much.

“I like to be intense and I like to pull people with me.”

Looking back, perhaps Howe finished her Spartans career in a most fitting and uniquely special fashion. In front of nearly 1,500 fans, she helped TWU’s women’s volleyball team win the Canada West title on home court for the first time in program history.

“To realize that was my last game ever – what better way to finish than with a five-set win with the girls at home to win the banner. I’ll never forget that feeling.”

After a summer representing Canada at the VNL, the NORCECA Championship and the Pan-American Cup, Howe moved to France in the fall of 2021.

In her professional debut with Beziers, she earned a team-high 13 points.

Since then, she has played in CEV Champions League contests and has been part of an Angels side that sits sixth in the 14-team LNV Ligue A Féminine.

Yea, it seems she was right.

She’ll be okay.

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