BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Bianca Te and Julia Tays never doubted they would finish what they started.
Yet the two lone returning seniors with the Simon Fraser women’s volleyball team never figured that the toughest test of their NCAA careers atop Burnaby Mountain would be defined by their response to the day-in, day-out grind of not playing.
In fact, if Simon Fraser gets the green light to open its 2021 season on Sept. 2 in San Diego at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Seaside Invitational, it would likely have endured a longer stretch of forced inactivity than any college or university volleyball program in Canadian history.
In actual time, 650 straight days or just over 21 straight months.
That’s how long it will have been since SFU walked off the court at Central Washington back on Nov. 23 of 2019, wrapping up its first decade in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
And even now, as the GNAC’s nine other member schools — from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska — wind down a specially-scheduled spring non-conference season, Simon Fraser’s reality is not only an inability to cross borders, but to even scrimmage six-on-six in its own gymnasium.
Yet as Gina Schmidt looks both cautiously and optimistically towards the future, SFU’s head coach speaks with a natural tone of conviction in her voice when the subject turns to her two seniors.
“If there’s a silver lining to COVID, getting an extra year with these two would definitely be one of them,” says Schmidt of a pair whose influence will be huge within a roster which this fall will be populated by 11 freshmen covering the last three recruiting cycles, including a quintet of pre-pandemic 2019 redshirts who will be headed to a third fall training camp without ever having seen live action.
“They know our program, what we’re trying to accomplish and how to do it,” continued Schmidt of her starting setter Tays and starting libero Te. “They are great leading on and off the court, both by example and by their voices, and they will have a huge impact with all of our younger players.”
None of that can be overstated enough, especially considering that while their GNAC counterparts have all been able to re-acclimate themselves with an authentic game-day environment over the spring, it will have been somewhere between eight-to-nine months since Simon Fraser players enjoyed a brief period of actual six-on-six scrimmages.
And in speaking to the pair, it’s evident just why Schmidt considers their presence such a ‘silver lining’ over an academic year now winding to its conclusion.
“I think one of the things we focused on was gratitude,” explained Tays last week from her hometown of Winnipeg, where she had just recently relocated and was in the midst of a 14-day quarantine at her family’s home.
“A lot of teams in Canada specifically were not able to (practice) at all,” the 5-foot-10 Winnipeg-St. Mary’s grad added. “To have had a place to come that wasn’t school or home, and have a place to socialize… it wasn’t the same with social distancing and masks, but all of us were just so grateful to have had the opportunity.”
As one half of the senior duo, Tays brings another intangible aspect to a hopeful post-pandemic SFU roster, and it’s something Schmidt has noted throughout the setter’s career.
“She is very good at finding ways to win and people just love playing with her,” begins Schmidt, reflecting on back-to-back Manitoba Quad-A high school titles at St. Mary’s, a number of club provincial titles from U13 through U17, and then an ultimate statement/sendoff in her own hometown in the summer before her freshman season at SFU.
“Her team won gold at the Canada Games when they were not even a favourite to medal, but they won with her setting,” said Schmidt, who after the 2019 campaign watched Tays achieve both All-GNAC first-team honours (9.57 assists per set), as well GNAC All-Academic status for the second straight year with a 3.31 GPA in the Beedie School of Business as dual major in business and environmental studies. “She just provides a glue factor for us on the court.”
That’s the perfect way to describe how she and Te have stuck together through the tough times.
Te, the 5-foot-7 libero from Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Collegiate has a convincing way of selling the positive over all else, and thus has been a perfect tonic for the uncertainty of the times.
“Since we couldn’t compete, one of our goals this year was to build trust,” said Te who for the third straight year earned GNAC All-Academic honours, posting a 3.91 GPA as a kinesiology major, while finishing fourth in the conference in 2019 with 4.79 digs per match.
“We wanted to become stronger as teammates and friends, on and off the court, and I think we achieved that,” she said. “Whether it was FaceTime, Zoom calls, anything that was allowed. I think it will set us in front of other teams next season. And we didn’t get to have games. It was all we could do, so we made it a focus.”
Schmidt has valued everything Te has come to represent within the dynamic of the team.
“Beside being one of the hardest workers, she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet as a human being,” Schmidt began. “She has evolved as a team leader, she pursues excellence in everything. She is everything a coach could hope for.”
And once again, Schmidt’s silver-lining description of her seniors’ sphere of influence in the midst of the pandemic is apropos in the eye-opening way Te has chosen to see her ability to improve as a player despite the cancelled season.
“I know it was more challenging for the outside hitters to get fired up when they were hitting against no block,” Te began.
“For me, being a defensive specialist with no block made it 10 times harder, so I feel that I really did get challenged,” she explained of being left on an island in a similar way that a defensive back would be in football while trying to cover a receiver without any presence of defensive pressure on the quarterback.
“Myself and our other libero (Kalissa Beltran) would always joke how we were standing open face, with no protection whatsoever. We found it fun and it made us better.”
And it’s not too soon to say that SFU players, who are soon expected to have a new team name to rally around, have already started counting down to the team’s Sept. 18 GNAC home opener.
With fingers crossed, the annual Red Night festivities will usher in the first live volleyball match at the school in almost two years, and of course, with the traditional rival Western Washington Vikings providing the opposition, it will be a reminder of everything great about SFU’s campus community.
And perhaps the best plot line of them all, is the shared symbolism Julia Tays and Bianca Te bring to their team.
They are volleyball sisters in ways that transcend their similarly-pronounced surnames.
Maybe it was serendipity from the volleyball gods?
Regardless, when Schmidt examines the positions her two seniors will play next season, she can’t help but come away with the realization that Tays and Te, playing where they play, give her reason to count blessings.
“I would say this about the roles they play as the libero and the setter,” Schmidt volunteered. “All of the positions are key, but those two are very particular positions… important positions in that there is only one libero on the court, and often only one setter on the court.
“The libero is the head of the defence… the captain of the defence,” she continued. “And the setter is the quarterback, the captain of the offence. Two pivotal positions, and so having two experienced players in them is just super beneficial.”
Collegiate sports programs across the continent all discovered that the toughest season of all was the 2020-21 season that never was.
It put a premium on character, and in the volleyball room at SFU, two special seniors proved to be its very definition.
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