On the eve of the CCAA men’s volleyball national championships, Humber Hawks head coach Wayne Wilkins was quick to point out that it’s anyone’s game.
Wilkins’s Etobicoke, Ont.-based squad is the No. 1 seed heading into the tournament at Abbotsford’s Columbia Bible College, but given the strength of the field, he wasn’t eager to embrace the mantle of favourite.
“It’s great, it’s nice, it feels good,” Wilkins said, reflecting on his team’s top-seeded status, “but it doesn’t mean anything.
“We’re at nationals, so it’s the best of the best. Rankings go out the window when you’re playing at nationals, because everybody can have a great game. If you’re not prepared, then you’re in trouble.”
Indeed, when the dust settles after Saturday’s gold medal game, the team that hoists the CCAA championship banner will be full value for it.
The coaches of each of the eight teams spoke at a press conference on Wednesday, looking forward to Thursday’s quarter-finals. We’ve broken down the match-ups below, with game times in brackets.
No. 1 Humber Hawks vs. No. 8 St. Thomas Tommies (1 p.m.)
The top-ranked Hawks boast an incredibly efficient attacker in two-time all-Canadian Terrel Bramwell, who accounted for an incredible 52 points in his team’s win over Mohawk in the Ontario semifinals. Humber also gets major contributions from 6’9″ middle Andre Brown and setter Derek Quinn.
St. Thomas, meanwhile, is something of a Cinderella story – after going just 5-7 in the regular season, the Fredricton, N.B. squad won the Atlantic playoff title.
“They’ve got taller middles than us, and they have Bramwell, who we’ve got to contain,” noted St. Thomas coach Francis Duguay. “If we can do that, we should be able to stay competitive and create a pretty good match.”
No. 4 Outaouais Griffons vs. No. 5 Red Deer Kings (3 p.m.)
The second quarter-final of the day is a fascinating match-up between two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of tradition.
The Kings are the New York Yankees of the Canadian college volleyball scene, having won eight CCAA titles in a row between 2000 and 2007.
The Griffons, meanwhile, are making their debut at the national tourney after winning the Quebec championship for the first time in their history.
“There was a lot of satisfaction and a lot of relief when we finally pulled through,” acknowledged Paul Tamburrini, head coach of the Gatineau squad.
Kings bench boss Aaron Schula played on three of Red Deer’s title teams (2001-03), and he said it’s important for the current edition of the team to forge its own legacy.
“We don’t want them to have the added pressure of how good the program’s been in the past,” he said. “It’s their program now.”
No. 3 Mount Royal Cougars vs. No. 6 Columbia Bearcats (6 p.m.)
The Cougars are the Alberta champs, traditionally the strongest college league in the nation. But they know they’ll have their hands full against the defending national champion and tournament host Bearcats.
“They’re the defending national champions and it’s in their gym, and I’m sure it’s going to be a lively environment,” Mount Royal coach Sean Sky said. “That’s exactly why you play volleyball, why you play sport.
“You want to play the best, and that’s what nationals is about. It’s going to be an exciting match, and it’s going to be great volleyball.”
CBC bench boss Rocky Olfert said the Cougars represent “a very difficult test” to open the tourney.
“It looks like they’re playing their best ball of the year, and for us, we’ll have to play our best match of the year (to move on),” he said.
No. 2 Douglas Royals vs. No. 7 Sherbrooke Volontaires (8 p.m.)
While the Volontaires made a cross-country flight to nationals, the Royals just had a short drive from New Westminster.
The Royals boast a great deal of depth, while Sherbrooke counters with a pair of dynamic outside hitters who played for the Canadian junior national team at the World Junior Championships in Brazil last summer, Nicholas Hoag and Daniel Moreau.
“I think it’s going to be a fun game,” predicted Sherbrooke coach Normand Bouchard. “We’ve watched them on video, and we saw they’re a team that fights for every ball. They dig a lot of balls, and we have to be ready to also fight and be patient about the kind of game we’re going to run.”
Douglas knocked off Vancouver Island University, the No. 2-ranked team in the nation at the time, in the PacWest final to earn a trip to nationals. Head coach Brad Hudson said his team strives to be greater than the sum of its parts.
“Jeff Taylor, our fifth-year right side, carried a pretty big load early in the year offensively, but as we’ve grown through the season, we’ve evolved into a balanced volleyball team able to spread the ball around the floor,” Hudson said.
For a full schedule, visit the tournament website at ccaamensvolleyball2012.ca.