A brief history of NAIT athletics through the eyes of one its longest-serving staff members
During almost 40 years at NAIT, athletics manager Gregg Meropoulis witnessed some of the most interesting – and odd – moments in the polytechnic’s athletic history.
Meropoulis saw the women’s “Ookpikettes” and “Ookchicks” basketball team (which he coached for 20 years) renamed in the 1990s to the “Ooks.”
He was on staff 1989 when the men’s hockey and basketball teams won national championships within an hour of each other.
Once, he watched in disbelief as a dirt bike ripped through the soccer field during a soccer championship game in Lloydminster.
Throughout it all, his love for the Ooks grew stronger. We caught up with him in the days before his retirement this June and asked him to reflect on some of the most memorable moments of his career with NAIT and the Ooks.
Full-time coaches come to NAIT
Almost a decade ago, full-time coaches in the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) were virtually unheard of. Generally, duties fell to staff members or off campus coaches who had to find a way to juggle responsibilities. NAIT changed the game.
In 2008, under the leadership of then-athletics director Linda Henderson, the polytechnic hired 6 full-time coaches for the men’s and women’s volleyball, basketball and hockey teams. Other schools soon followed suit.
“It increased the profile of the coaching community in other colleges across the country,” says Meropoulis. Today, it is an exception when 1 of NAIT’s 10 teams fails to qualify for Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) championships.
Closing the gender gap
When Meropoulis began his career in 1979 as an outdoor education instructor and women’s basketball coach, the social climate was dramatically different.
“It was a male-dominated tech college,” he explains. That made it hard for the athletic program to attract women.
As the times – and the economy – changed, so did the makeup and culture of the polytechnic. As more women began to enrol in all programs, their participation in athletics increased. Athletics went from having 3 women’s teams in the 1960s (volleyball, basketball and curling – sometimes struggling to field full rosters) to today, when all NAIT teams are able to attract talented student athletes.
Meropoulis recalls that NAIT was the first ACAC member to add a women’s hockey team, which grew into a successful program under the guidance of full-time coach Deanna Iwanicka. The team won provincial championships from 2012 to 2015 and continue to annually challenge for conference supremacy.
Strong executive support
Meropoulis has worked under 3 NAIT presidents: Dr. Stan Souch, Dr. Sam Shaw and our current president and CEO, Dr. Glenn Feltham. Each was a supportive and enthusiastic Ooks fans, something the retiring athletics manager is thankful for, knowing this wasn’t always the case at other colleges.
In fact, Meropoulis remembers when Feltham jumped on a redeye flight from Edmonton to Quebec City to attend the 2011 championship games for both the men’s and women’s soccer teams the following day. The president wanted the athletes to know that, despite being across the country, they had the support of NAIT.
To Meropoulis, this also affirmed what Feltham has said about the importance of athletics at the polytechnic. The Ooks are a point of pride for NAIT, a cause for staff and students to rally around, and ambassadors who promote the school’s reputation wherever they go.
What comes next
The years at NAIT have been good for Meropoulis, and memorable. “It’s not work if you enjoy what you’re doing,” he says. But he’s ready to make the transition to being a fan on the sidelines.
Which isn’t to say he plans to disappear completely. After so many years at NAIT, he feels his sense of identity is tied to the organization and to the Ooks. He’ll still be at the polytechnic, volunteering with the kinds of events and tournaments for which he spent his career laying the groundwork.
This fall, Meropoulis takes on the role of ACAC curling convener and will assist the Canadian Curling Association in hosting the CCAA National Curling Championships, which, for the first time, will be held on NAIT arena ice.
After all, there are still memories to be made.