LANGLEY — The more Ryan Hofer stared at a set numbers which represented perhaps the most crushing defeat in the history of Trinity Western women’s volleyball, the more clearly he was able to decipher their truest meaning.
“Two points,” Spartans’ head coach Hofer exclaimed Wednesday morning when the topic got around to his team’s epic five-set loss as the No. 1-seeded team in the opening round of last season U Sports national championships to its crosstown rivals, the No. 8-seeded and soon-to-be golden UBC Thunderbirds.
“It was heartbreaking for us to be in the best U Sports’ match I’ve ever coached in, where every set was decided by two points, and where no team led by more than two points,” continued Hofer. “It was incredibly exciting and it broke our hearts. Afterwards, everyone said to me ‘That was a great national final.’”
All of that seems especially apropos this week.
As a new post-season is set to begin, it’s clear that Hofer stared long and hard at that 25-23, 27-25, 23-25, 23-25, 16-14 line score, first deciphering it, then translating it into the off-season mantra which has allowed Trinity Western to hit the re-set button and chase their national championship dream from a brand new place.
“Two points,” he repeated anew. “It’s what decided each set. So we developed a bit of a theme over the summer where we said ‘Ladies, how are we going to be two points better this year than we were last year? I took the challenge, too. It became everyone’s challenge, everyone’s journey.”
That journey, through the regular season portion, turned out to be an unqualified success.
Trinity Western, behind it’s No. 1 national ranking and its program-best 22-2 conference mark, opens the post-season Thursday (6 p.m.) by hosting the Winnipeg Wesmen (9-15) in the first game of a best-of-three Canada West quarterfinal at the Langley Events Centre.
“Once we got into the season, we developed a new mantra, and that was ‘Tough and Together’,” said Hofer, whose Spartans claimed 3-0 sweeps in 17 of its 22 match victories. “That means being tough in our game plan, being mindful of the things that bring success, but then also making sure that we have everything together on the relationship side, as well.”
Turns out Tough and Together fit perfectly as the team found a way to navigate past some early adversity.
Starting setter Brie King (O’Reilly), who had one more year of eligibility remaining, elected to forego it in order to begin her professional career in Germany.
Hofer leaned on rising third-year Dora Komlodi out of Calgary’s Holy Trinity, and rising second-year Olivia Heinen from Langley Christian as fall camp began.
“And they’ve done a marvellous job in filling Brie’s gap,” said Hofer. “They have competed so hard and been so close (in ability) that they have created this incredible environment of growth and improvement. If they weren’t that close, I am not sure they would have grown so quickly.”
While last season was defined outwardly by its stunning opening-round ouster at nationals, the silver lining was the fact that so much of 2018-19’s experience was returning with a purpose, and in so many ways, it’s become the team’s most apparent signature.
“We’re deep,” admits Hofer, “and that is a big asset. You cam move from the girls who are starting, to putting the ones in who are on the sidelines, and we’re still a strong group.”
That is most reflected in the attack, where fourth-year Hilary Howe, a Calgary native who competed alongside King with Canada’s team at the NORCECA Women’s Volleyball Continental Championship in Puerto Rico last October, has starred alongside second-year, reigning Canada West Rookie of the Year Savannah Purdy, the former Victoria-Belmont star.
“When she came back from NORCECA’s, seeing her in competition, compared to her opposition, she was at another level,” said Hofer of Howe, who finished the regular season second in Canada Werst in kills-per-set at 3.95.
As well, Ansah Odoom, the Lord Tweedsmuir grad who suffered an ACL injury early in her Spartans’ career, is back fully healthy, making the attack even more dynamic.
Among the middles, the duo of fifth-year Mikaelyn Sych and third-year Avery Heppell have delivered the perfect balance of blocking and attacking.
“Not only can they attack through the middle, both of them are fantastic blockers,” Hofer says of the 5-foot-11 Sych, who led Canada West at 1.30 blocks-per-set, and the 6-foot-4 Heppell out of Langley Fundamental who is seventh at 1.07 bps.
The depth chart is also idea at libero where second year Emma Gamache out of MEI leads the team in digs, and has been joined over the past month by fifth-year Surrey Christian grad Michaella Crema.
Also opening its best-of-three Canada West quarterfinal Thursday at 8 p.m. is the No. 1-ranked TWU men’s team (20-2), which will face Calgary’s visiting Mt. Royal Cougars at the Langley Events Centre.
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