Last season, Abbotsford was the focal point of collegiate women’s volleyball in Canada.
The University of the Fraser Valley Cascades won both the PacWest conference and Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) titles, while their crosstown rivals, the Columbia Bible College Bearcats, won PacWest silver and made their first-ever appearance at nationals.
With the two teams set to clash this weekend to open the 2013-14 PacWest regular season, the question is, what do they do for an encore?
“For us, the biggest challenge is developing a new identity as a team,” said UFV head coach Dennis Bokenfohr. “We have to accomplish the same goals, but do it a little differently.”
Indeed, the Cascades will have a somewhat new look as they set about defending their national title. They waved goodbye to a trio of graduating starters – national player of the year Kayla Bruce, libero Brittany Stewart and outside hitter Katie Bilodeau – while Kira Tome, their outstanding setter, transferred to play at the University of Ottawa.
Nevertheless, Bokenfohr has a strong core of returnees as his disposal. Fifth-year standout Jenna Evans, the MVP of the national championship tournament, leads a veteran group which also features fellow left side Krista Hogewoning, middle Kierra Noot and right side Simone Hanson.
Leading the crop of newcomers is 6’0″ middle Emily Carroll, a fourth-year transfer from UBC-Okanagan.
“This year, with losing Kayla in the middle, we shift to being keyed a bit more on the outside,” Bokenfohr noted. “But there’s a lot of returning players who have that (national championship) taste already in their mouths, and they’re not about to realign their goals.”
The Bearcats, meanwhile, boast perhaps the most experienced squad they’ve ever had. Head coach Duncan Harrison has eight players from last year’s 10-member roster back in the fold, including six starters, and he’s supplemented that core with a stellar five-player recruiting class.
Key veterans include left side Sadie Ball, middle April Vaandrager and setter Anna Cupido, while Jodie Enns, an outside hitter from Saskatoon, figures to make the biggest impact among the rookies.
Last season, the CBC women upset the defending CCAA champs from Vancouver Island University in the PacWest semifinals to punch their ticket to nationals, and Harrison is hoping his squad takes another step forward this year.
“Our win against VIU, for those athletes, was a confirmation that absolutely, for sure, we can play at the highest level,” he said. “Now, can we transfer that into not just a match or two matches on a weekend, but can we play that way night in and night out?”
CBC, UFV MEN WILL BE MUCH IMPROVED
The volleyball rivalry between the Cascades and Bearcats was just as heated on the men’s side last season, though not at the same elite level.
UFV swept a pair of games vs. CBC on the final weekend of the regular season to leapfrog the Bearcats for the sixth and final PacWest playoff berth. The Cascades were eliminated in the provincial quarter-finals, though.
Both teams believe they’re poised for better things in 2013-14.
The Bearcats’ reasons for optimism stem largely from the return of two of their standouts from their national championship-winning squad of 2011. Outside hitter Will Quiring – MVP of the ’11 national tourney – and setter Jason Warkentin are back on campus after one-year absences.
They’re joined by key returnees Jadon Ward and Matt Lieuwen, and a strong crew of newcomers highlighted Leigh Goossen, a transfer from UBC-Okanagan, and rookies Jeremy Lieuwen (Matt’s younger brother), Brendan Folkerts and Taylor Klassen.
“Honestly, I’d say this team, through and through, is more talented than anything we had two and three years ago,” head coach Phil Wiens asserted. “There’s no question that the talent is there. We’ll see how it all comes together and how the guys bond. There’s a lot of factors in that, and a lot of volleyball to be played.”
The UFV men’s roster last season was laden with rookies, and head coach Greg Russell believes they’ll be better in 2013-14 simply based on the fact they’ve got a season under their belts.
Kurtis Stromdahl, Connor Nickel and Adam Chaplin are among a large group of returnees, while veteran Anthony Togeretz is back after a one-year absence and setter Ryan Thain has transferred in from Camosun College.
“We have a lot of the same guys back, and at the end of last season, we won our last four games in a row, so they were really starting to put it together,” Russell noted.
“It takes a while to learn how to carry yourself at the next level, and I think we came a long way in that department.”
RIVALRY RESUMES THIS WEEKEND
The Bearcats and Cascades volleyball programs reignite their rivalry with a home-and-home set this weekend. On Friday, the teams play at Columbia Place, with rematches set for Saturday at UFV’s Envision Athletic Centre (women 6 p.m., men 8 p.m. both nights).
“What better way to really gauge where you’re at than to play the defending national champs who also happen to be your crosstown rivals?” Harrison said. “Friday night by 8:00 we’re going to know whether we’re on the right path, or whether we need to go back to the drawing board and start over.”