ABBOTSFORD — More times than not, it’s felt like an impossible journey for the women’s and men’s volleyball players who populate the expansion rosters of the Fraser Valley Cascades.
And we’re not espousing about anything here as grandiose as either program capturing a national title in their debut seasons in U SPORTS.
All we’re talking about is the journey to play an actual conference game in your own home gym, with actual fans in the stands to cheer you on.
For Cascades volleyball, that moment finally arrives Friday, albeit some 1,003 days after receiving Canada West program membership way back on May 8, 2019, when UFV plays host to a pair of matches against Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers WolfPack.
“We’ve talked about how we’re taking on an Everest of a task and how we’re only stronger together,” Cascades women’s head coach Janelle Rozema explained Wednesday of the shared mentality of both her program and the men’s program helmed by head coach Nathan Bennett.
Both teams have nonetheless had signature moments despite a myriad of hurdles which have included recruiting expansion rosters in the midst of the pandemic’s first wave, to the flooding which hit their region in the late fall, to the mass of cancellations which have occurred since the arrival of the Omicron variant in mid-December.
The women’s team (3-5), which has a chance to reach the .500 mark should it manage to sweep Thompson Rivers on Friday (6 p.m.) and Saturday (3 p.m.), picked up its first Canada West win in absolute storybook fashion back on Nov. 12 with a four-set victory over the tradition-laden UBC Thunderbirds.
The men’s team (0-6), which opens its first of three straight at home to TRU at 8 p.m. Friday, has yet to taste Canada West victory, but nonetheless closed out the first-half of the season back on Dec. 3 at the Langley Events Centre by taking the host and No. 1-ranked Trinity Western Spartans the distance before falling 15-12 in the fifth set.
While neither Rozema or Bennett is resting on those moments, when allowed to stand on their own merits within the crowded days of cancelled games and natural disasters, they are beacons for a pair of expansionists attempting to transition within what has traditionally been, since the turn of the century, the toughest division within the nation’s toughest volleyball conference.
“IT’S COMICAL… YOU JUST SHAKE YOUR HEAD…”
Ask Nathan Bennett to describe his team’s lowest ebb, and the story he tells would be hilarious if it wasn’t so equally soul-crushing for a men’s team that, by Friday, wouldn’t have played a match in 63 days.
Back on the weekend of Jan. 21-22, the Cascades’ men’s and women’s teams flew to Kamloops for a scheduled double-header against Thompson Rivers.
“We get there and find out they have eight guys, but they are still able to play us,” begins Bennett, who the week previous had his team’s series with UBC-Okanagan cancelled when the Heat could not field the minimum number of players due to COVID 19 protocols. “But then on the Friday, their eighth guy tests positive. And then in practice that same day, their seventh guy rolls his ankle and can’t play. So we got there on Thursday and we stayed until Sunday, and we were just spectators the whole time.
“It’s comical… you just shake your head after a while,” continued Bennett. “We’ve been healthy and ready to go the whole time.
“Now I am concerned about the health of our guys, and that is more along the physical side of things because now, after 63 days off, we have 10 games in 18 days,” he adds of what is the team’s stretch drive to the very end of the conference regular season.
For starters, Friday’s 8 p.m. match against the Pack will kick off four straight against their Kamloops rivals. The pair will also clash Saturday (5 p.m.) and Sunday (3 p.m.) in Abbotsford, before moving to Kamloops for a 5 p.m. match on Wednesday.
So much, in fact, has happened to the team since it’s narrow miss against national championship favourite Trinity Western, that when you bring up the fact that his team led the Spartans 10-8 in that pivotal fifth set, Bennett takes pause to reconnect with that epic night.
“That storyline is great, but that was so long ago that we are basically starting a new season,” said Bennett, his tone speaking to the now long-evaporated rhythm and momentum his team achieved that night.
Nonetheless, the weekend set has playoff implications, and so for his team, there is a complicated and emotionally-challenging tightrope which must be traversed.
“It’s hard to wrap it into one sentence… I think there will be relief, to be honest,” said Bennett. “From giving recruits FaceTime tours of our campus, to practicing six feet apart to Acts of God, like November’s flooding.. it’s all been a lesson in resiliency.
“I think it will be a great moment,” he continued of Friday’s home conference debut. “But the message I gave our guys is for them to stay in their own moment, and not let the moment of hosting a game in the Canada West get too big because TRU is waiting for us on the other side of that net.”
IT’S BEEN “…AN EVEREST OF A CHALLENGE…”
Ask women’s head coach Janelle Rozema what Friday means, and after what she and her players have endured, it might be a very long time before they ever take for granted what she feels is akin to a hallowed experience.
“I feel like there is always something a little sacred about being on your own surface, with your logo in the centre of your court,” said Rozema.
“It’s the feeling of knowing that the crowd is behind you, and of feeling comfortable in your surroundings,” she added of the built-in advantages so key when points in the standings are on the line. “It’s something we have not had the privilege of experiencing yet. It’s going to mean a lot to be in our own sacred home space.”
To the team’s credit, Rozema says her players embraced a very demanding preseason regimen of games and practices, one which she says helped her squad develop a trust, above all else, in each other.
“We had the heaviest preseason load they had ever experienced, and man, did they slug it out,” Rozema reported. “They really bought in and so I thought we were at a league-competitive level already with how much we had done in the preseason.”
That preseason saw UFV go 4-3 in exhibition matches against conference foes, and although the reality of the league slate added up to a 1-5 start prior to the team’s Jan. 21-22 sweep at TRU, Rozema can see the traits of her team’s DNA in that win over UBC, one which came despite the absence of two starters in leftside Amanda Matsui and middle Mo Likness.
“Personally, I am trying to create a culture where we aren’t just the value of one person, player or coach,” explains Rozema. “Our value is how deep our whole roster is and that is the way we train.. that we can call on anyone to do the job.
“We talk about matching physicality with the game plan… we want to be smart/physical. At this point, the reality is that because we are under-sized compared to other teams, we have to be highly intelligent, and so we have really bought into opposition preparation. So from video, to practice simulation to playing live, we are trying to really think through the whole match.”
Put it all together, from the best moments to the toughest days, and it’s been an incredible journey for Fraser Valley Cascades men’s and women’s volleyball.
No one ever dreamed it would be a 1,003-day wait, but come Friday and Saturday, that so-called “Everest of a challenge” will bring a rarified feeling of pride to a homecoming that’s been a long time coming.
IF YOU GO…
This per UFV Sports Information: The volleyball home openers come as the Cascades welcome fans back to the UFV Athletic Centre – basketball home games in January were played without spectators. Per provincial health regulations, admission will be capped at 50 per cent capacity, and fans age 12 and over will be required to show proof of full vaccination. Masks must be worn at all times, and to facilitate that, no outside food or beverage will be allowed inside the facility, and the concession will be closed.
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