By Patrick Johnston, Post Media
Brad Baker coached hundreds of young women during his 25 years in charge of the women's rugby program at Carson Graham Secondary in North Vancouver. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO
Ask any coach who sticks with their task for a sustained period of time and they’ll tell you how addicting it is — but they’ll also admit how time-consuming it is as well.
Brad Baker, longtime head coach of Carson Graham’s girls rugby program, will tell you that too. He’s been in charge of the program since 1995, but has finally had to say that he doesn’t have time for it anymore. His longtime co-coach, Rick Pimlott, is also stepping away.
“It’s not fair to the kids,” he said Thursday. The players deserve a coach who is fully invested with their time, he adds, not one who is only putting in half-measures.
“My work commitments are taking up more and more of my day, I was always scrambling to get to the school in time,” he said.
Baker now works as a district principal for the North Vancouver school district.
Last weekend, he coached his final game, his team of young women falling in the AAA provincial final to Shawnigan Lake 24-7.
“Immediately after the final whistle, I was emotional,” he said. “A week later, I’m not sure if it’s quite the right word, but it’s a bit bittersweet. It’s hitting me now: I won’t be coaching anymore.”
Even if the hole in his daily schedule that rugby coaching took up is smaller than it used to be, especially while he was still a teacher at Carson Graham, there’s still a hole to fill. He may go watch games here and there, but he knows that will be a difficult thing to do.
“I’m not going to go all the time, I don’t want to get caught up in it,” he admitted.
Credit for the genesis of his school coaching career goes to a handful of girls who wanted to start a rugby team at the North Van secondary school in the mid-’90s. Baker had played rugby when he was a student at Sutherland Secondary.
He agreed to be a teacher-sponsor and found himself helping out David Smortchevsky, then a player at Capilano Rugby Club.
It was the beginning of a boom for female rugby in the province.
“There might have been 10 or 12 girls teams in the province when we started,” he said. “B
ut within 10 years there were 45-50 schools with teams. Last weekend there are 75 teams.”
One of the players on his early teams was Andrea Burk, who went on to represent Canada for many years and is considered one of the country’s greatest backs.
“He has put in a lot of time and a lot of his year into women’s rugby and the development of girls rugby,” she said over the phone from Toronto, where she’s started to make a name for himself as a rugby commentator. “I’m sure somebody could do the math and figure out how many people have been beneficiaries of his time; it’s really incredible and the landscape of rugby for women in B.C. has grown because of people like Brad.
“There’s a lot of pride in having girls rugby at Carson, it was something really special and people were so proud of it. That only happens because of volunteers like Brad.”
In recent years, the profile of the game being an Olympic sport has helped drawn players in, he said, but he also credited the support from B.C. Rugby for grassroots volunteers like himself.
“I think that once B.C. Rugby jumped on-board to be a strong advocate, that has helped the B.C. high school girls’ association, that has helped support programs.”
And then there’s the fact that the game has always welcomed athletes of all kinds.
At Carson Graham, they’ve long managed to run a program that has upwards of 50 girls turning out every season. There are plenty of top-end athletes — the results bear that out, the senior team is a perennial contender for the provincial title — but there are also many others who are there just for the experience.
“We’re there to promote the best athletes, but also to simply encourage participation in a team sport, in a way that is fun for everyone,” he said.
Jessica Neilson, who has also gone on to represent Canada, came to Carson Graham in Grade 8 in 2008.
“Brad and Rick, they have an ability to instil a love, a confidence in the game in their players. That’s a special quality, they create an amazing culture,” she said over the phone from Victoria, where she’s now a legislative intern. “Brad and Rick together are the main reason I achieved anywhere near as much success as I did from a rugby perspective and academically, and for who I am as a person.”
Baker was in Haida Gwaii this past week for a work trip — one of his roles with the school district in Indigenous education — and he found himself reflecting on his coaching career.
“The greatest take-away was if I was able to have a sliver of influence, of impact … the ones that just become good people, give back to society, I’ve always just cherished that to be part of our team, that we’re community-minded,” he said. “I also thought about the increased knowledge now about how girls rugby benefits a school and it’s great to see.”