Adversity fuels rise up national rankings for UFV women’s volleyballers

In sports, there's a certain freedom that comes when a team decides it has absolutely nothing to lose.

Jill Saunders and Kayla Bruce (in white

Jill Saunders and Kayla Bruce (in white

In sports, there’s a certain freedom that comes when a team decides it has absolutely nothing to lose.

That’s the collective headspace the University of the Fraser Valley women’s volleyball team found themselves in when the 2011-12 season opened.

Last fall, head coach Dennis Bokenfohr informed his players that they were one of four UFV sports teams – along with men’s volleyball, men’s golf and rowing – that were on the chopping block due to budgetary limitations.

Faced with the potentially devastating possibility that their program might not exist beyond this season, the Cascades could have allowed it to become a distraction. Instead, they used it as fuel, adopting a damn-the-torpedoes mentality that has powered them to new heights.

The UFV volleyball women are currently second in the PacWest conference with a stellar 16-4 record, and they’re ranked No. 4 in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) national rankings.

“We basically began this season playing like there was no tomorrow, because we didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring,” Bokenfohr noted. “That was our mentality going in. Instead of dwelling on the fact we might not have a program, we said, ‘This is what we’ve got, and we’re going to go after it.’

“It changed some things as far as recruiting . . . 100 per cent of the attention was given to the girls this year, and they’ve responded to the point we’re at today.”

The UFV athletic department is on more stable ground these days – in early January, the university committed to maintain the sports programs in limbo for the 2012-13 season, thanks in large part to a $38,000 community fundraising initiative. A longer-term financial solution is in the works.

But while Bokenfohr is grateful for some semblance of security, he wants his team to continue to play with the same level of abandon down the stretch of the season.

The goal is a CCAA national championship berth, which would be a first for the program, and it’s within reach. With PacWest front-runner Vancouver Island University hosting the national tourney this year, a silver medal at provincials would more than likely punch the Cascades’ ticket.

Bokenfohr’s roster is riddled with success stories.

Much of the team’s success has been ignited by dynamic 5’10” middles Kayla Bruce and Kierra Noot. Bruce leads the PacWest in total offence (averaging 4.08 points per set) and aces (0.84), and she’s fourth in blocking (0.93). Noot, meanwhile, leads the entire nation in blocking, averaging 1.21 per set.

Bruce, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, said the fact that Noot is ahead of her in the blocks department makes her “a little bit jealous.” But she noted that practicing against another elite middle has made her a better player.

“Just being able to compete against someone like that, it brings your level up so much,” she said. “When we go out and play other teams, it’s easy.”

Other Cascades stat stars include outside hitters Jenna Evans and Krista Hogewoning, who are fourth and fifth in the PacWest, respectively, in kills. Libero Brittany Stewart boasts the second-best dig rate in the conference, at 4.25 per set.

The hidden key to UFV’s breakthrough season, though, has been the play of Jill Saunders. When former starting setter Kim Mintenko graduated last spring, Bokenfohr asked the fourth-year Cascade if she’d be willing to make the shift from outside hitter to setter. Despite the fact Saunders had never played the sport’s most pivotal position before, she’s orchestrated the offence in impressive fashion.

“When I tell other people she’s never set before, they’re absolutely blown away,” Bokenfohr said. “To take over that role and succeed this year, she deserves a lot of credit for what’s been going on.”

The Cascades generated a lot of motivational mileage when their program was in danger of being cut, but they’re ecstatic to have been granted a reprieve. Playing like there’s no tomorrow can be a powerful phenomenon in its own right, but there’s an additional reward in contributing to something with an enduring legacy.

“We’re definitely thankful we’ll be having a team next year, especially with how well we’re doing,” Bruce summarized. “I hope we can continue with that same positive outlook and effort, and give it all we’ve got.”

• The UFV volleyball teams are on the road this weekend to face the Camosun Chargers. Next week they visit their crosstown rival Columbia Bible College Bearcats on Thursday and Friday (women 6 p.m., men 7:45 p.m. both nights).