The road to a national title

The last stop of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport women’s volleyball season rests in Calgary for the second season in a row. This year, the Dinos are hoping to grab the top prize, improving upon the surprising bronze they received last year. Unfortunately, seven of the country’s top teams stand in their way. With the amount of parity in the CIS, it’s hard to predict who will emerge victorious. It’s going to be a long and bumpy road for whoever takes away the gold. The Gauntlet is here with a look at all eight teams.

UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY DINOS

Seed: fifth national ranking: seventh conference: Canada West 2006/07 record: 15-5 playoffs: 3-1, CW bronze nationals trip: 15th national medals: three gold, three silver, three bronze

The Dinos are one of the deepest teams in the CIS. Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the most inconsistent this season. Last year the team was struck down by injuries to superstar right-side hitter Joanna Niemczewska before the season, and to Holly Harper and Willemina Stikker-Breemhaar midway through, which gave bench players some unexpected experience.

Now that the whole team is healthy, the Dinos have the opportunity to roll different line ups while keeping experienced players on the court. Niemczewska, in her last season of CIS eligibility, averaged 4.18 kills per game, the second best in the conference.

Despite all this experience, the Dinos lacked a killer instinct for most of the season. Several games against weaker opposition, like against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, who finished 5-15, and against the Brandon University Bobcats, who finished 4-16, went to five sets when they should’ve been settled in three or four.

“That’s this team, you know,” said Dinos head coach Kevin Boyles after the second game of the playoff series against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. The Dinos started the match with two mistake-filled sets before settling down to win the match 3-1 and the series 2-0. “People ask me what to expect from night to night, and I have no idea. We can play some of the best ball I’ve ever seen and we can also be pretty ugly. No explanation.”

The Dinos also lost their stride midway through the season. After a seven game winning streak, they dropped three in a row late in the season and tumbled down the national rankings from first to seventh. But on home court, no one should count out this talented Dinos squad.

..Jon Roe

UNIVERSITY OF MONTRÉAL CARABINS

Seed: fourth national ranking: second conference: Quebec Student Sports Federation 2006/07 record: 23-2 playoffs: 2-3, QSSF silver nationals trip: ninth national medals: none

The University of Montreal Carabins will be out for revenge in their Thur., Mar. 1 quarterfinal match with the University of Calgary.

“It’s great, we’re so happy to meet [the Dinos] because last year we lost against them [in the bronze medal] in the last set 18-16,” said fifth-year centre Melody Benhamou. “It’s great, we’re happy. It’s going to be a good match.”

The team is ready to contend for another gold medal this year, after coming so close last year when they lost out in the semis to rival Quebec Student Sports Federation foes Laval. Though they have to exact vengeance on Calgary first, they plan on serving Laval a cold dish as well, as they owe them not only for last year’s loss, but also for a defeat in this year’s QSSF final.

“It was hard to take the loss,” said Benhamou. “But it makes you stronger and more angry inside, so I feel better. To fight for the next game, we have a big angry to keep the loss out.”

Head coach Olivier Trudel is fairly confident, and realizes he’ll have tough matches the entire road to the coveted gold, regardless of who he faces.

“Calgary is one of the good teams in the nation and one of the good programs in the nation,” said Trudel. “I expect nothing less than good honest battle. In this type of tournament and format, you’re always going to have some tough matches. Whether it’s the first one, or the second one, or the third one, they’re all tough, all the same. Why not start with a bang?”

This match promises to be dynamite and though Laval is the team the Carabins want to take down a peg or two, the Dinos stand in their way of sweet revenge, and a gold medal.

..Jon Roe

UNIVERSITY OF LAVAL ROUGE ET OR

Seed: second national ranking: third conference: QSSF 2006/07 record: 21-4 playoffs: 4-0, QSSF gold nationals trip: 24th national medals: one gold, two silver, seven bronze

The University of Laval Rouge et Or are poised to strike–rather, spike–heading into the CIS women’s volleyball championships.

The red and gold volleyballers are seeded second as they head in to defend their first CIS win last season. They face off against Ottawa in the quarterfinals Thur., Mar. 1.

The team had a very rocky start to the season, but recovered, ending strongly at 21-4. Back-to-back wins against arch-rival Montreal added to Laval’s 14-win streak during the season.

“We had so many injuries with a lot of key players at the beginning of the season,” said Rouge et Or head coach Benoit Robitaille.

Last year, the Rouge et Or went into CIS seeded second and entering this year’s championships the same way could bode well for the team. With their strong season and equally strong coach, who helped the team achieve a mind-boggling 37-0 season in 2005/06, Laval has the win in their sights.

“We’re loaded with experience which should help us transform the pressure of winning a national title into a positive pressure,” said Robitaille. “We’re in Calgary with one thing in mind, to defend our title.”

..Amanda Hu

UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA PANDAS

Seed: first national ranking: fourth conference: CW 2006/07 record: 16-4 playoffs: 4-0, CW gold nationals trip: 13th national medals: six gold, two silver, one bronze

The University of Alberta Pandas are going in strong to the CIS women’s volleyball championship Mar. 1-3.

After a rough start to the season, the team stepped it up, standing at 16-4 and is now seeded first after a Canada West gold medal. The Pandas boast Canada West player of the year Tiffany Dodds, a third-year setter/outside hitter, and double threat Wendy Linnell, who is also a member of U of A’s track and field team.

“We’ve been building all year,” said Linnell. “We’re really at our peak right now. Coming out of Canada West with the win was a big goal for us and was one of the goals that we wanted to reach, so we want to continue with that momentum.”

Although a strong contender, the Pandas will have to work hard to avoid the perils that many teams seeded first have fallen victim to in the past. A top seeded team hasn’t won CIS since 2000, though it was the Pandas themselves who succeeded in doing it.

“This is the ultimate challenge, for sure,” said Pandas head coach Laurie Eisler.

The Pandas have a pseudo-home advantage after playing many games at the Jack Simpson Gym. This familiarity could help them win it all.

“Our team really loves this gym,” said Eisler. “It’s a challenging gym to play in, but eventually you sort of embrace it.”

Eisler added that while the Calgary/Edmonton rivalry is always in the minds of the players, the team is currently focusing on beating St. Mary’s in the quarterfinals.

Alberta’s biggest competition will likely be Laval, who is in their prime going into the championships and seeded second, as well as Manitoba, who was knocked off the top position by the Pandas after dropping the Can West final 3-1.

..Amanda Hu

TRINITY WESTERN UNIVERSITY SPARTANS

Seed: sixth national ranking: sixth conference: CW 2006/07 record: 15-5 playoffs: 2-2, CW fourth nationals trip: second national medals: none

The Trinity Western Spartans are on a mission.

“We’ve come in gunning for gold,” said head coach Ryan Hofer, at a Wed., Feb. 28 CIS championship press conference. “We think that we can give a little bit more than everybody else.”

Hofer’s remarks reflect the self-conscious parody of this year’s CIS championship. The teams are so close that it’s possible any team could win the championship, but TWU’s confidence could give them the edge they need to go all the way.

The Spartans finished their Canada West season ranked sixth in the country with a 15-5 record. They qualified for the final-four tournament in Winnipeg by beating the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in two straight games in the quarterfinals, but failed to make an impact in Winterpeg, losing matches to the University of Calgary Dinos and the University of Alberta Pandas.

“We were a little disappointed with our performance,” said Hofer unflinchingly. “We have a little more heart than we showed [in Winnipeg].”

They are going to need heart to topple the University of Manitoba Bisons, who were the cream of the Canada West conference this year, finishing with a dominant 18-2 record.

Each time these two teams faced each other it was a battle, with the Bisons coming out on top twice. The Spartans beat them handily in their last match, though, winning in three straight sets while on the road.

“We know it’s going to be tough,” said fifth-year setter Anna Paddock, who is leading the league with a 10.51 assists per game average. “We know how to handle the pressure, we will just have to pull together and win it.”

The confident Spartans, shaken but not stirred in Winnipeg, will seek to shake off their final four woes with a win over the Bisons Thur., Mar. 1 at 2 p.m. in the Jack Simpson Gymnasium.

..Todd Andre

ST. MARY’S UNIVERSITY HUSKIES

Seed: eighth national ranking: not ranked conference: Atlantic University Sport 2006/07 record: 11-10 Pplayoffs: 3-0, AUS gold nationals trip: fourth national medals: none

Every championship needs a David and a Goliath. In the 2007 CIS women’s volleyball championship, the role of humble David goes to the St. Mary’s University Huskies, while their gigantic, one-eyed opponent will be played by the top-ranked University of Alberta Pandas.

The Huskies struggled to maintain a solid starting lineup for the first half of the Atlantic conference regular season, which led to inconsistent performances on the court and an 11-10 record overall, good enough for a fourth seed playoff birth.

Once in the playoffs, the defending 2006 Atlantic University Sport champions channeled the grit that vaulted them to victory the year before, winning every match on their way to their second straight AUS championship.

“Since we’ve established a starting lineup, things have really turned around for us,” said fourth-year middle Tara Matheson, who has spiked and blocked her way onto the AUS first team all-stars for the second consecutive year. “We’re trying to take another step forward.”

St. Mary’s fell to last year’s top-ranked team, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, and they have returned only to face a similar fate this year. It’s like a nightmarish version of dejà vu for the Huskies: if they want to become national champions, they have to beat Alberta, the best team in the country thus far.

“There’s a lot of parity [in the CIS], so it doesn’t matter who we play,” said head coach Mark Burley, who has won three out of the last four AUS championships. “We just want the opportunity to play.”

Opportunity will be knocking for the Huskies Thur., Mar. 1 at 5 p.m. in the Jack Simpson Gymnasium, where they will get another chance to be giant-killers.

..Todd Andre

UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA BISONS

Seed: third national ranking: first conference: CW, 2006/07 record: 18-2 playoffs: 1-1, CW silver nationals trip: 18th, national medals: five gold, four silver, four bronze

The University of Manitoba Bisons’ return to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championships represents the culmination of a long rebuilding process. Making their first appearance at the event since their championship win in 2002, the Bisons rebounded from a dismal 4-16 record two years ago to post an impressive 18-2 record this season.

“It’s been a long road back,” said Bisons coach Ken Bentley.

Following back-to-back CIS championship victories in 2001 and 2002, Bentley went on leave for the 2002/03 season. He returned to a very different team with a lot of new faces in the line-up.

“When I came back a lot of the veteran players had graduated,” Bentley said. “We were starting from scratch.”

As the core of the team solidified, the Bisons were forced to endure the disastrous 2003/04 season and stiff competition in Canada West.

“The last two years, we got kicked around a bit,” said Bentley. “We were forming ourselves all over again and these vets, they hung tough. I’m very proud of them.”

Now back on the top of their game, they entered the playoffs ranked first by CIS, the Bisons are looking to cap off their comeback with championship gold.

Putting a wrinkle in their plans is the fact that both teams that handed Manitoba losses this season–Trinity Western and Alberta–are in the championship tournament, with the Bisons opening play against Trinity Western and a possible match with the University of Alberta waiting in the second round. Despite these challenges, Bentley has his team aiming for victory.

“It would be silly for us not to set the goal to win, since I think we’re good enough to do that,” said Bentley. “Ultimately, you can’t look for a certain draw.”

Led by conference all-stars Katie Davidson, Sabrina Barnes and star rookie Ashley Voth, the Bisons bested the Dinos 3-2 to advance to the Canada West final but fell to Alberta 3-1 in the gold medal game.

As a result, the Bisons enter the CIS tournament as the third seed. A veteran of 17 CIS tournaments as Bisons coach, Bentley doesn’t see the recent setback as a problem.

“We’ve won from different seeds in the past,” said Bentley. “We just need to play good for three days. When we won in 2002, we were the number three seed. We had to play three tough games and we’ll have to do that to win.”

..Ryan Pike