By Jon Roe
It’s not often a top-flight NCAA program hits the floor of the Jack Simpson Gym.
The Dinos men’s volleyball team will have an opportunity to face off against the UCLA Bruins in the 23rd edition of the Husky Dino Cup starting Thursday.
The Bruins, in 48 seasons under head coach Al Scates, have won 21 national championships, 19 NCAA titles and 24 league crowns, and hold a record of 1,185-252 for a near 80 per cent win percentage.
“It’s a great opportunity,” says Dinos head coach Rod Durrant. “Our athletes have always looked forward to Dino Cup and having that opportunity to play a) at home and b) against such great competition as UCLA, Pacific and Trinity Western. I think it’s quite unique in the fact that there’s not too many sports in our country that can compete with the Americans in their sport. I think volleyball’s unique in that sense.”
Though the focus will be on the Bruins, neither the University of the Pacific Tigers or the Trinity Western University Spartans are slouches. The Tigers, though finishing 3-28 last year, added Nikola Vukicevic, who formerly played for the Serbian national team, in the off-season. The Spartans finished third in Canada West last year with an 11-7 record.
“It’s really exciting because [the Bruins are] new competition, someone we don’t see really, ever,” says fourth-year outside hitter David Egan. “It’s early in their season and our season is just getting going, so it’s good to get good competition in right away.”
Egan is part of a Dinos squad which returns 13 of 16 players from last year, six of whom enter their fifth year of eligibility and four their fourth. This is a veteran squad that will be hoping to use the urgency of their fifth-years to inspire the team to move beyond the first round of the playoffs, where the Dinos season has ended the last two years.
“You start to realize more now that, after you’ve played for four years, that this is your fifth year and it really did go by fast,” says Egan. “It’s good, it does make it more urgent in a way, but at the same time you’re still having fun and everything, just enjoying that it is maybe the last time you’ll ever play volleyball, at this level, anyway.”
The team lost a home playoff match-up against the University of Winnipeg Wesmen last season in three games and have responded well in the off-season, according to Durrant.
“I think it was disappointing at the time, but I think they’ve rebounded in exactly the way we wanted them to do,” says Durrant. “Last spring, they were asked to be in the weight room as a group, as a team. They were monitored and they were given feedback. The next three months, March, April, May, they were all working out extremely hard.”
Now after a summer of workouts, and stints on junior national teams or Canada games teams for seven of the players, the start of the conference season is almost upon the Dinos. They play last year’s national champion, the University of Alberta Golden Bears, in Edmonton on Oct. 23 and 24. Durrant says they’ll be using this last group of pre-season games to evaluate chemistry and make sure the new blocking and defensive schemes they implemented are working.
“Two guys did graduate that were impact players last year, two or three guys are getting that opportunity to play a little bit more,” says Durrant. “We’ll be evaluating how they respond to that situation, that environment. Are they comfortable? Do they look comfortable? Are they interacting well as a group? The chemistry of the group out on the floor is obviously an important thing in our sport, we’re continually evaluating that as a coaching staff. At the end of the day, we just want to see how we react to that type of solid competition.”
Less than eight months ago, the University of Calgary Dinos women’s volleyball team was facing off against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds with a national title on the table. Five sets of thrilling volleyball at the University of New Brunswick, a UBC gold medal win and a host of departing faces later, the Dinos and the Thunderbirds match-up again to start the Husky Dino Cup on Thursday.
“There’s still some anger, of course,” says fifth-year libero Raynell Lavertu. “It’s definitely different; they have a lot of new players, they lost a lot of veterans as well as we did.”
Fifth-year Dinos Holly Harper, Lauren Perry and Julie Young all finished their Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility last season. Unfortunately for the Dinos, all three of those players were outside hitters– Harper and Perry finished one-two in kills for the team last year– and they also lost another veteran outside hitter, Laura Wilson, to a torn ACL in the off-season. Dinos head coach Jesse Knight admits the team has a hole to fill.
“We became a lot younger, but the good news is, we played at the Regina tournament and won it,” Knight says. “And we found out that the young girls will fight. The biggest thing I want to know from young players is will you fight.”
The Dinos won four of five matches and swept the University of Regina Cougars in straight sets to take the tournament title and head into the Husky Dino Cup winning 18 of 27 sets in the preseason. But this UBC squad, and the Brandon University Bobcats, a playoff team last year and the Dinos other opposition in this pre-season tournament at the Jack Simpson Gym this weekend, are a different level of competition.
“I think it’s a chance to gauge ourselves and where we’re at in our season,” says Lavertu. “We went to Regina and won that tournament pretty handily, but now we’re playing big dogs like UBC, who won nationals last year, and Brandon, who are a top-five team in the conference, for sure.”
Knight agrees, adding that the team will definitely need a tune-up to be as ready as possible for the opening of conference play against the University of Alberta Pandas in Edmonton the week after.
“It’s our first opportunity to play at home, so to get comfortable in that situation is important,” he says. “It’s also our last and final tune-up before the season. Having an opener on the road at the U of A is probably a worst-case scenario for a Calgary Dinos team.”
With four veteran outside hitters gone from the line-up, Knight says he’ll be leaning on his veteran middles, fifth-years Laura Littlejohn and Laura Spence, and his setters to lead the squad.
“We’re going to look to them to lead us a little bit, but I think that balance, with the newer players on the outside, is why we are where we are,” he says.