ABBOTSFORD — After years of waiting, Sadie Wilson’s inner volleyball radar is picking up the pulses of positivity.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, speaking in the language of her sport, that the 6-foot-1 right-side hitter is sensing a long-anticipated spike in her fortunes.
To her, such peaks are welcome, especially when viewed against all of the valleys which the 2016 grad of Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary has navigated over a half-decade’s journey to establish herself in an attacker’s role in the nation’s toughest women’s volleyball conference.
That, of course, would be the Canada West, and come this fall, as part of a hopeful re-start of our nation’s university sports world, Wilson will be one of the leading lights within the roster of the conference’s latest expansionists, Abbotsford’s Fraser Valley Cascades.
“I am just so excited to finally bring this team that that we’ve been working with for so long into the Canada West,” explained Wilson, 22, earlier this past week. “To finally get out there and to play U SPORTS teams is something we’ve been working on and talking about for so long.”
For Wilson individually, and for both the UFV women’s and men’s teams on the whole, that’s an understatement.
It was two years ago, back in May of 2019, that the Cascades, who last competed as a Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association member, were granted official Canada West membership for the start of 2020-21 season and thus allowed to begin penning a new chapter in the school’s volleyball identity.
Key characters were introduced later that same summer when UFV hired former longtime Alberta Pandas assistant coach Janelle Rozema as its first U SPORTS’ head women’s coach, and Rozema in short order made Wilson, whom she planned to redshirt until the team’s 2020-21 Canada West debut, her one-and-only recruit.
Alas, the pandemic’s arrival pushed the Cascades’ debut in the Canada West ahead to this fall, and that added up to a second straight season of inactivity for Wilson, who as planned had taken a redshirt season in 2019-20 while her new UFV teammates competed for the final time as a CCAA program.
“Chomping at the bit and that can be a very scary thing for the opposition when one of your best attackers is that hungry,” Rozema begins when asked how palpable Wilson’s anticipation has become since she transferred into the UFV program after two seasons in the CCAA with Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island Mariners (2016-18) and one season (2018-19) at the U SPORTS level in Calgary where she says she couldn’t find her fit with the Mt. Royal Cougars.
“Through all of this time, Sadie hasn’t gone stagnant or lost motivation,” continued Rozema. “In training, we would try to find ways to be competitive even though we couldn’t play in a six-on-six format, and any time things got competitive, Sadie’s eyes would change. She was a shark in the water, and I think that a lot of that is still untapped. We’re all just excited to see what she is capable of.”
HOW ADVERSITY BUILDS CHOPS
Ask Sadie Wilson about how tough it has been waiting two full seasons to resume her university volleyball career, and it becomes quite apparent that in a lot of ways, it’s actually been three years since she has been able to play to her strengths as an attacking player.
After showing steady improvement as a hitter over her first two university seasons at VIU, including her final season there in 2017-18 where she was a part of the main core or Mariners who won the CCAA national title, she elected to follow her personal goal of playing at the U SPORTS level by transferring to Mt. Royal, one of the Canada West’s new rising powers.
Yet once with the Cougars, Wilson was installed in a new role, subbing in as a defensive specialist. After registering 119 kills the season before at VIU, that total took an expected plummet, all the way down to five as she was asked to bring a less-honed part of her game to the fore.
“When I was younger, my dad always told me that you need to master every skill and be an all-round player and I’d always kept that with me,” began Wilson of her father Johann Wilson, a standout high school basketball player in the late 1980’s at Surrey’s Queen Elizabeth Secondary. “I love playing libero. It’s one of my favourite positions. But at Mt. Royal, I didn’t love the position because they essentially told me that I wasn’t good enough to be an outside hitter.”
It’s an age-old reality that student-athletes and programs aren’t always guaranteed to walk lock-step together, and that partings will occur.
For her part, Wilson acknowledges that reality and these days keeps the best parts of that season with her as she moves forward.
“I have prided myself on my passing and defending, and at Mt. Royal, I got a chance to develop those skills,” she said. “They were a very good team, and coming from the CCAA to Mt. Royal, the level was a lot tougher than I expected. It was a huge difference. It wasn’t a blessing per se, but it did help me improve my back row skills.”
Rozema admits that as she watched Wilson’s Mt. Royal footage, the unexpected role her new recruit was playing gave her a new level of understanding of the overall level of talent she was in fact bringing in to a 2021-22 expansion roster that will be virtually devoid of any U SPORTS experience save Wilson and ex-Trinity Western middle Sedona Arabsky.
“She’s really good at serve-receive and defence,” Rozema said upon study. “And she got a good foundation for that at Mt. Royal, because obviously as a big attacker like that, you’re going to get serve-targeted. People are going to make sure they can pass the ball before they attack… try to disrupt their offensive game. But she is very strong there, and her defence and receive are going to be big components for us.”
GIANT STEPS AHEAD
Janelle Rozema’s coaching roots, first and foremost, are firmly planted in B.C. where she spent four seasons (2007-11) as the head coach at Abbotsford’s Columbia Bible College, and one more as an assistant at Trinity Western (2011-12).
Yet while her return to this province is something of a homecoming, the most substantial piece she brings to Cascades women’s volleyball is an innate understanding, gleaned over seven seasons (2012-13 to 2018-19) as an assistant coach with the Alberta Pandas, of just how competitive and unforgiving a landscape the Canada West conference actually is.
“We are just laying the foundations, we have not arrived” said Rozema, who over those seven seasons in Edmonton was part of a Pandas’ coaching staff which played in five national finals and six Final Fours, only to be denied gold each time.
“There is a lot of work ahead of us and I am talking years of work,” continued Rozema, who as a Pandas’ assistant placed second to UBC in 2012, 2013 and 2017, and second to Trinity Western in 2015. “It’s not just ‘Oh this summer we’re going to work hard.’ The reality is that all of these teams have been playing top teams for so long that it will be a big jump in just adjusting to how we have to perform every weekend, and that’s whether it’s the ninth-place team or the first-place team. That’s the beauty of our league.”
In fact, while COVID’s presence has brought with it an all-encompassing case of mental fatigue for every school and every individual program in terms of finding safe ways to keep its student-athletes purposefully engaged at all levels, Rozema admits that from an expansionist’s perspective, it actually allowed time to more properly plan its run-up to the real thing.
“It wasn’t a perfect season,” the head coach says of 2020-21’s unique challenges. “But our players were so highly-motivated and dialled in, and just so hungry to learn and get better. So we shifted our mindset. We said ‘This isn’t a two-month preseason, it’s a year-long preseason where we set the stones of our technical development.’”
All of that makes Sadie Wilson happy she decided to hang in for the long haul.
Following her 2018-19 season at Mt. Royal, she had become pretty convinced that her career as a student-athlete was over.
“At that point I was actually not going to play volleyball anymore, I was going to stay at Mt. Royal and finish my (Kinesiology) degree,” remembered Wilson.
That’s when she got a call from longtime friend Amanda Matsui, with whom years earlier out of high school, she had taken her recruiting trip to VIU with.
“We had remained in contact over the years, and once she had heard that I was done at Mt. Royal, she tried to convince me to come to UFV,” added Wilson of Matsui, the 6-foot-1 left side from PoCo’s Riverside Secondary who is also being counted on as a pivotal part of the team’s front row.
Back in Vancouver that summer, and watching her younger sister Jada scrimmaging, Wilson realized she wasn’t ready to quit.
Rozema had just been hired, and so she reached out, asking a lot of questions about where on the court her potential new coach might see her playing.
“Sadie has a very inquisitive brain and she will always ask the question ‘Why?’” laughed Rozema. “She is not a blind follower and she never has been. I’ve really had have to have my ‘whys’ in place when I am coaching Sadie. In her brain, she needs to know why, and she always does it in a very respectful manner.”
And now that she’s gotten her answers, she’s got her fingers crossed that after a long wait — for both she and UFV’s new U SPORTS’ volleyball program — that her sweetest view of all will come from her spot back on the front row.
“I think after all of this time, there are going to be a lot of emotions, but it’s going to be amazing,” she says.
And so after her journey down a long and winding road, Sadie Wilson is ready for a spike in her volleyball fortunes.
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