Wider Horizons

At first listen, the sounds of the men’s Kodiaks volleyball team practising this fall is familiar – the squeaks of shoes sprinting across the court, the thwack of a hand striking the sweet spot after the high toss of a serve, and the shout of “in” or “out” when the ball comes near the line.

But between the practice plays, another sound emerges – chatter. So much chatter. There are student-athletes praising nice digs, huge hits and unexpected aces; quick conversations about how next time a shorter set or change of position might make a difference; and a constant stream of laughs, groans and cheers.

That chatter is something Greg Gibos, head coach of the men’s team since 2016 and an instructor in the Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences, has worked hard to nurture these last eight seasons. That chatter means the team is connected, communicating – and thriving as a community.

“The vision I had for the program when I started was to grow the game in southern Alberta,” says Gibos. “That means community engagement, like going into schools, hosting camps and practising with high school players. And to achieve our vision – to grow the game here – a big piece of the puzzle was the people on our team. We wanted good people. People who get it, who know it’s not just about themselves, who want to become part of something that’s bigger than themselves. People like Prim.”

“Prim” is Matthew Primrose, who went from being an unrecruited post-secondary volleyball player to a professional athlete in seven years – three of them spent thrilling the crowds at the Val Matteotti Gymnasium. After graduating from the college with diplomas in both General Studies and Canadian Studies in 2019, he went on to play three more years of volleyball at the University of Saskatchewan and earned an honours degree in history before playing his first season of professional volleyball for the Orlando Southern Exposure this past spring and summer.

In the fall of 2023, Primrose returned to Lethbridge College in a new role – political science instructor in the Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences. He’s also starting his second season as assistant men’s volleyball coach, working alongside Gibos and coaching student-athletes he has met and worked with over the years in settings ranging from Kodiaks summer camps to the pros.

“There was no better representation of what we wanted Kodiaks volleyball to be than Prim,” says Gibos. “He’s a good person who works hard. Even if he never touched the floor that first season, at the very least, I knew we were getting a good person. And we can’t have enough of those.”

‘The power of mindset’

Primrose started on his sporting journey at Gilbert Paterson Middle School, thanks to a teacher who gave Monopoly money out as an incentive – including when students would try out for activities. Primrose remembers he would “spend” his cash as soon as he got it, so when the teacher said he could get $100 for trying out for volleyball, he was all in. It was a bit chaotic at first, he recalls, and he wasn’t sure the sport was for him, but “I got through the tryout and thought that was it. When I went back to Mr. [Randy] Bardock, though, he said ‘No, you’ve got to actually do it for the whole semester!’”

So he did – and he’s been playing pretty much ever since. In high school, he played the position of middle for Lethbridge Collegiate Institute’s volleyball team and loved it. But since he also played basketball, he never had the chance to play club volleyball and, as a result, he never got on the radar of post-secondaries looking to recruit. After his high school graduation in 2015, he went to the University of Lethbridge and started in the education program – but “well, super depressed is maybe a strong word, but I was definitely super down all the time,” he remembers.

“I was not having fun, and I missed volleyball so much.” So he started playing co-ed rec volleyball that year, and “I started to love it again.”

Primrose decided to drop out of university and go to the college, hoping to be a walk-on player that fall. Then he heard that Gibos, who had coached the girls’ team at LCI, was named head coach of the men’s team. Primrose reached out to Gibos – and in the midst of their conversations agreed to help coach at a Kodiaks’ kids camps – and at the fall tryout, he made the team.

“Prim would be the first to admit that he probably wasn’t a great libero when he started,” recalls Gibos. “But the biggest thing with him is always the belief. It’s about the power of mindset. He might have been limited athletically, but he believed in himself, put in the hard work and – he got better.” Primrose kept working and kept getting better – so much that he went on to captain the Kodiaks in his second and third seasons, received two Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) All-Conference Player awards, was named a provincial tournament all-star, and helped the team win an ACAC silver medal in 2018-19. At the University of Saskatchewan, he played three seasons (one during COVID), and ended up being named a captain there and finishing top five in Canada for digs in 2021-22. In addition, he was named an Academic All-Canadian four times in his post-secondary career – twice at the college and twice in Saskatchewan.

“Prim is the kind of guy who always had a list of goals, right,” says Gibos. “Goal one was to make a team. Goal two was to touch the floor. Goal three was to be an all-star. Goal four, make it to U-Sports (university sports). He had this list and once he started checking everything off, well, we knew the bottom one – play professionally – was going to happen. The moment he made it was such a moment of jubilation for him. There was a lot of hard work that got all that done.”


‘Yo, come to Lethbridge’

The National Volleyball Association is the premiere professional volleyball league in the United States. The season starts in late March, and games run from April to July. Last year, the teams travelled every two weeks to play games in California. In 2024, they are looking to travel from state to state.

“This league is everybody who is just on the cusp of making their national teams from their respective countries,” Primrose says. “Three or four of the guys from the U.S. who played last season are now on the national team. The competition was awesome.”

Primrose says he had been hoping to be picked up by a squad with more older and experienced players, but instead found himself on a young team and taking on the role of mentor. One of those younger players was Kohlbe Anderson, who grew up in Delaware and plays the position of middle. “I met Matt as a player, and he was one of the only people who got to truly know my story,” says Anderson. “At the time I was 20 playing professionally and he was asking me what my next step was, and I didn’t really have a clue at the time. As the season went on, I thought maybe I wanted to start my education again. He was like, ‘yo, come to Lethbridge and we’ll make you better.’ That really meant a lot to me, because I saw how he played and he was one of the better players I had seen – and so I thought, if I can go to the place where he developed, I can get to the same place in the sport.”

So Anderson applied to Lethbridge College and enrolled in the Business Administration program – and is now playing in front of southern Alberta’s enthusiastic volleyball crowds. “I knew him as a player before I knew him as a coach,” says Anderson. “He was super easy to talk to, and he worked hard on and off the court. He’s a guy who loves to win – I have that in common with him, too. I joined this sport trying to do my best every day I can, and he is someone who does that – he tries his best in every part of his life.”

One of Anderson’s new teammates is Adam Boras, a third-year student in the General Arts and Science program and graduate of Catholic Central High School. Like Primrose, Boras plays libero – the back row defensive specialist position – and he grew up watching Primrose play.

“He was always one of my role models, one of the guys I would look up to on the court and in the community,” says Boras. “Prim can be a very serious guy, and he wants the best out of his athletes and his students, and I think he pushes everyone to be better. But while doing that, he keeps his sense of humour and focuses on having fun while getting better. He tries to keep fun in our practices, while doing serious hard work. He really inspires me.”

Anderson agrees, and adds that Primrose’s capacity to care sets him apart. “It showed how much he cared about the team, the school and us being successful,” says Anderson. “And with me coming here, he really cared about me being as comfortable as I can be far from home.”


‘You just have to care about it’

Although Primrose is considering returning to the National Volleyball Association in the spring/summer of 2024, he has new goals on his checklist now – ones focused on coaching student-athletes like Boras, Anderson and the rest of this year’s talented team, as well as teaching students in the General Arts and Science program.

“I always wanted to be an educator, and in my heart of hearts, I wanted to teach at post-secondary,” Primrose says. “It sounds cliché, but I always wanted to do work that didn’t feel like work – something that I am super passionate about and love.”

His teaching goals include being the best educator he can be – to be prepared and organized, and to showcase his interest in his students. “And there’s also the goal to just get better at teaching,” he says with a laugh.

Students in his Introduction to Political Science class appreciate the effort he is putting into his work. “Matt is a really great teacher. He understands what we have to deal with – having just been a student himself,” says Amber Jensen, a first-year student from Whitecourt, Alta. “He tends to do things that are interactive for us, and he uses references that we understand, and it really helps.”

Jenna Dunne, a first-year student from Lethbridge, adds that she “finds that he likes us to do a lot of group activities, which helps in every class. It helps me learn a lot because he pushes us out of our comfort zone to learn with one another. And that’s a new style of teaching that I’ve experienced, and I really appreciate it.”

First-year student Juan Puerta, who is from Surrey, B.C., also likes Primrose’s active classes. “He’s very passionate about the topic he teaches, too,” he adds. “I don’t really mind if it’s a lecture, or if it’s a group activity. I enjoy both. The message gets through. That’s the important part.”

Primrose says he is energized by his students and studentathletes, and he thinks it’s important to have fun while doing serious work in both the classroom and on the court. “You just have to care about it,” he says. “Like with coaching – we have certain goals we want to reach. There are times to be serious and times to laugh, smile and just enjoy life. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to be doing something in life that you really like.”

One other aspect of his new roles he is savouring is getting to call some of his favourite former instructors his colleagues – and they are glad to have him on their team.

“Matt is set apart by his kindness – his support for students to ensure everyone is included, cheerful greetings, holding the door for staff, noticing how someone’s day is going, celebrating others’ achievements,” says Marda Schindeler, Associate Dean for the Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences. “His approach supports a welcoming and inclusive classroom – both when he was a student supporting his classmates and as an instructor supporting his students.”

Instructor Merle Fuller remembers that as a student, “Matt was a high achiever in everything he put his hands to – from athletics to academics. He possesses both high emotional intelligence as well as high intellectual intelligence – and this is a powerful and rare combination that made Matt many friends, a great student, and now, a great colleague.”

Fuller adds he was pleased to learn the college had hired Primrose, as he is preparing to retire, and “as I do so, I have high confidence in the colleagues I leave behind to carry on the job,” he says. “Matt is now one such colleague among the many, but he is one who I was privileged to teach, and now, equally privileged to work with.”


‘People like Prim’

On the court and in the community, Primrose is seeing Gibos’s efforts to grow volleyball in southern Alberta pay off. “I think the community can see we are fostering the development of players who can be successful in the ACAC and in U Sports, which is awesome to see. There is a huge wealth of talent that is being cultivated here in Lethbridge and the surrounding area, and hopefully we can continue to grow that – and hopefully that transfers back into the community. For so long, Calgary and Edmonton used to just dominate at the club level and the next level. And now, well, I think Lethbridge has got something to say about that.”

Primrose smiles, and then adds: “For me, the reason I was only looking at Lethbridge in the beginning is because of finances. But also, this is home. And I want to represent home as best I can. I had the opportunity to play here, which I think is super special – not everybody gets the opportunity to do that.”

The night Primrose took the court in the Val Matteotti Gymnasium for the first time as a Kodiak in 2016, two important people were in the crowd – “my mom and my Nana” – sitting in the second row on the right side. They came to every game, cheered every point, celebrated the thrilling wins with him, consoled the heartbreaking losses, and supported him and the team however they could. They continue to support him now as a coach, too.

“There is so much love I feel from my family,” says Primrose. “I hope they know that. My dad has always been the sports guy and supported me throughout my career. And my mom – well, she’s my best friend – my rock. She was able to level with me and truly listen to me and give me sound advice all the time. Without her, none of this would be possible, and there aren’t enough words to thank her enough, or let her know how much I love her.”

Primrose recognizes not everyone has that kind of family support or love, and “that’s why I try to offer that support, whether as an educator, coach or friend.”

Gibos is glad to have Primrose’s leadership on the court this season and says: “We’re hoping he wants to stick around long-term and be a major part of the institution and the program. There are so many athletes, coaches and youth in southern Alberta who continue to chase their athletic dreams because of him and his story. It really goes to show that you can make an incredible impact in your community with small actions, and the pursuit of excellence.”

He adds: “One of our program philosophies is to ‘plant trees we know we will never see the leaves of.’ When we talk about Prim, he’s not only planted one tree, but an entire forest.”

Wider Horizons
Story by Lisa Kozleski | Photos by Rob Olson
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