Another five names added to Cowichan sports wall of fame

The astonishing sports legacy of the Cowichan Valley was celebrated with five more inductions into the Sports Wall of Fame.

The astonishing sports legacy of the Cowichan Valley was celebrated once again last Saturday with five more inductions into the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame.

Slo-pitch and fastpitch coach Gerry Rees, para-equestrian pioneer Jane James, field hockey Olympian Melanie (Slade) Brancato, basketball star Neil Dirom and the 1996/97 provincial champion Cowichan Piggies were awarded their rightful places in the sports pantheon.

Gerry Rees grew up as an athlete in Wales, playing rugby, cricket and tennis, and played for the Cowichan Rugby Football Club after his arrival in Canada, earning a tryout with the BC Lions because of his impressive kicking abilities.

He tried out softball on a whim, playing his first game gloveless, as a cricketer would, beginning a four-decade legacy in the sport.

He started coaching fastpitch, then got into slo-pitch, after his fastpitch team dominated a slo-pitch tournament in Crofton. He coached the Village Green, Silver Bullets, Meridian Foods and Oak & Carriage Pub teams.

His teams won provincial titles in 1992, 1993 and 1997, and a national title in 1994. In 1990, his Silver Bullets team won 106 games and lost only five.

With his background in rugby, Rees made an effort to bring that sport’s sense of family to slo-pitch, which begat much of the success. Rees was also an umpire for more than 30 years, including 12 as chief umpire, and president of the Cowichan slo-pitch league for 16.

He was also instrumental in getting the Cowichan Sportsplex built, and served on the board of directors for six years. Much of that was because it was hard to find a suitable field for ball.

“The fields in Duncan were just terrible,” Rees recalled. “That’s why our team was successful. When we went away, I couldn’t believe how well they played. Slo-pitch has come a long way in the Cowichan Valley.”

A world-renowned name in her field, Jane James was one of the founding members of Para-Equestrian Canada, and has volunteered with an endless number of projects to promote the sport in Canada.

She has served twice as chair of the Canadian Para-Equestrian Committee and was Chef d’Equipe for the Canadian para-equestrian team at the 1996, 2004 and 2012 Paralympics.

Closer to home, James founded the Cowichan Therapeutic Riding Association at Providence Farm in 1986. She was named the Coach of the Year by the BC Disability Association in 1996, and received the same honour from Horse Council BC in 2004. In 2012, she was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and has also been awarded the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award.

Melanie (Slade) Brancato graduated from Cowichan Secondary School in 1984 and went on to play for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds from 1984 to 1989, serving as captain in her final two years. Over those five years, she helped UBC to the national university championships four times, and was a tournament all-star three times, in addition to being a Canada West first-team all-star and All-Canadian three times. She was UBC’s female athlete of the year twice and was inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame in 2006.

At the same time, Brancato spent four years with the national team and played at the 1988 Olympics. When her playing career ended, she became an assistant coach and helped UBC win national gold in 1990, silver in 1991, and bronze in 1989 and 1993.

Brancato was humbled to be recognized by the community she came from.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel and play a lot of different places, but this is special because it’s here,” she said. “I’ve had the privilege of being honoured at UBC and nationally, but this is really special.”

She didn’t accomplish everything on her own, she pointed out.

“It’s a weird feeling as an athlete from a team sport, to be acknowledged individually,” she said. “You can’t be successful unless the people around you are really good.”

Coming from a family that had already established itself as the nucleus of basketball in the Cowichan Valley by the time he started playing the sport at an organized level in 1952, Neil Dirom went from the Duncan Basketball League to the Cowichan High School team to the Alberni Athletics senior men’s team. In 1958, he was recruited to play for the Washington State University Cougars.

Following his university career, Dirom joined the Canadian national team for 1962/63 and played in the Pan American Games and World Games, as well as tournaments in Manila and Puerto Rico. Returning to Alberni, helped the IGA Grocers win three consecutive national senior men’s titles in the ‘60s.

He went back to Washington State in 1968 as an assistant coach with the Cougars freshman team, and coached several high school college and senior teams in B.C. after that.

Like Brancato, sports took Dirom away — Dirom was away from Duncan from 1958 to 1995 — but he was honoured to be acknowledged in his home community.

“All my success in basketball came away from Duncan, but I came up through the system here,” he said. “The Dirom family has deep roots in basketball, so it was quite obvious I was going to play basketball.”

The 1996/97 Cowichan Rugby Football Club Piggies became the first team from outside Greater Vancouver or Victoria to win the Rounsefell Cup as provincial First Division champions, a competition that has been contested since 1922. Tries by Chad Smyth, Ian Dunn and Trevor Harrison and the kicking of Dave Grisdale gave the Piggies a 29-12 win over Burnaby Lake in the final.

Coached by Tony Medina, the Piggies defeated James Bay 27-6 in the Vancouver Island championship game to qualify for the provincial final. Second row veterans Marius Felix and Gregor Dixon led the team in a defensive performance for the ages that included a 10-minute defensive stand within five metres of the Piggies own goal line.

All five 2015 inductees will have plaques added to the Wall of Fame, located in the lobby of the Cowichan Aquatic Centre.

Closer to home, James founded the Cowichan Therapeutic Riding Association at Providence Farm in 1986. She was named the Coach of the Year by the BC Disability Association in 1996, and received the same honour from Horse Council BC in 2004. In 2012, she was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and has also been awarded the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award.

Melanie (Slade) Brancato graduated from Cowichan Secondary School in 1984 and went on to play for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds from 1984 to 1989, serving as captain in her final two years. Over those five years, she helped UBC to the national university championships four times, and was a tournament all-star three times, in addition to being a Canada West first-team all-star and All-Canadian three times. She was UBC’s female athlete of the year twice and was inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame in 2006.

At the same time, Brancato spent four years with the national team and played at the 1988 Olympics. When her playing career ended, she became an assistant coach and helped UBC win national gold in 1990, silver in 1991, and bronze in 1989 and 1993.

Brancato was humbled to be recognized by the community she came from.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel and play a lot of different places, but this is special because it’s here,” she said. “I’ve had the privilege of being honoured at UBC and nationally, but this is really special.”

She didn’t accomplish everything on her own, she pointed out.

“It’s a weird feeling as an athlete from a team sport, to be acknowledged individually,” she said. “You can’t be successful unless the people around you are really good.”

Coming from a family that had already established itself as the nucleus of basketball in the Cowichan Valley by the time he started playing the sport at an organized level in 1952, Neil Dirom went from the Duncan Basketball League to the Cowichan High School team to the Alberni Athletics senior men’s team. In 1958, he was recruited to play for the Washington State University Cougars.

Following his university career, Dirom joined the Canadian national team for 1962/63 and played in the Pan American Games and World Games, as well as tournaments in Manila and Puerto Rico. Returning to Alberni, he helped the IGA Grocers win three consecutive national senior men’s titles in the ’60s.

He went back to Washington State in 1968 as an assistant coach with the Cougars freshman team, and coached several high school college and senior teams in B.C. after that.

Like Brancato, sports took Dirom away — Dirom was away from Duncan from 1958 to 1995 — but he was honoured to be acknowledged in his home community.

“All my success in basketball came away from Duncan, but I came up through the system here,” he said. “The Dirom family has deep roots in basketball, so it was quite obvious I was going to play basketball.”

The 1996/97 Cowichan Rugby Football Club Piggies became the first team from outside Greater Vancouver or Victoria to win the Rounsefell Cup as provincial First Division champions, a competition that has been contested since 1922. Tries by Chad Smyth, Ian Dunn and Trevor Harrison and the kicking of Dave Grisdale gave the Piggies a 29-12 win over Burnaby Lake in the final.

Coached by Tony Medina, the Piggies defeated James Bay 27-6 in the Vancouver Island championship game to qualify for the provincial final. Second row veterans Marius Felix and Gregor Dixon led the team in a defensive performance for the ages that included a 10-minute defensive stand within five metres of the Piggies own goal line.

All five 2015 inductees will have plaques added to the Wall of Fame, located in the lobby of the Cowichan Aquatic Centre.