BURNABY — When the Simon Fraser volleyball team finally de-camped from its endless months of limited practice inside the West Gym and eventually stepped off a plane in California over the first week of September to open its 2021 season, who knew that its X factor would be its inexperience?
“When you have all of these new faces on the floor, maybe you don’t have any expectations and for us, that was nice because you could just go out and play free, play like you are capable of,” SFU head coach Gina Schmidt explained with philosophic hindsight Tuesday of her team’s head-turning 4-0 start against the cream of the NCAA Div. 2 world.
Two months later, it can all be viewed as a vital springboard to what has thus far been a 15-5 (9-4, third in GNAC) campaign.
And that’s because with five more conference games remaining, including the two which close out the home portion of their schedule Thursday (7 p.m.) against the Western Oregon Wolves, and then Saturday (7 p.m.) with Seniors Night festivities against the St. Martin’s Saints, it continues to remain a campaign with endless possibilities.
“Maybe with so many of our players not having any sort of history with these teams, they treated them just like they were any other team,” continued Schmidt, whose team started the season 6-1 overall on the road and has since shown the ability to weather its inevitable adversities, coming into play Thursday after going a sizzling 7-2 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play over the month of October.
When you consider all of the elements at play, theirs has been nothing shy of a story of triumph for a group of athletes who were not only the lone GNAC team denied a 2020 season of play, but one which had to replace six graduating seniors.
Yet who knew that an unknown group of players, all of whom who had finished their senior seasons of high school in 2018, then redshirted 2019 before losing their 2019 seasons to the lockdown, would be ready to stand up and be counted in all the ways in which they have.
And it all started early.
By the time Simon Fraser faced defeated the 2019 NCAA Div. 2 national champion Cal State San Bernadino ‘Yotes in its second game of the season at the Point Loma Nazarene Seaside Invitational in San Diego on Sept. 3, it was pretty clear that they had something special enough that it trumped their overall match experience.
By virtue of its 3-1 win over the ‘Yotes, SFU had not only taken down the champs, it had snapped San Bernadino’s win streak of 34 straight matches.
And the way in which Simon Fraser did it was with a line-up which not only featured youthful depth throughout its scheme, but difference makers in senior setter Julia Tays, and revelatory third-year freshman southpaw hitter Brooke Dexter.
“They hadn’t lost in 2019 (33-0) so we were there first loss in two years… that was a big one,” understated Schmidt of the win in which Winnipeg native Tays supplied 51 assists, the first of five such 50-plus assist matches this season, and Anchorage native Dexter 24 kills, for her the first of five such 20-plus kill performances in 2021.
Heading into this weekend, Tays leads the GNAC in assists per set (10.99) and Dexter in kills per set (4.11), yet perhaps even more importantly, in overall games this season, SFU leads all GNAC teams in both assists (12.51) and kills (13.44) per set.
The pair have been true difference makers in the same way that two former SFU All-Americans, libero Alison McKay and middle blocker and current assistant coach Tessa May, did during their time playing for Schmidt.
The combination of Tays’ ability to not only provide consistent sets at the highest level, but to do it especially well to the right side, and Dexter’s dexterous ability to not only hit with power, but with feel, finesse and variety, has become a big part of the team’s developing identity.
Yet the ways in which Tays has spread the wealth to a cache of other dangerous players has meant opposing teams have not been able to throw a sole defensive blanket over Dexter.
Kalyn Hartmann, Camryn Vosloh, Hanna Kolof, Jocelyn Sherman, and Abby Willett have all contributed to the cause
In fact Dexter, Kolof, Sherman and Willett, four of the five-member third-year freshman group which also includes setter Serena Gentile, currently sit within the team’s Top 10 in sets-played this season. Dexter (75 sets) is tied for first with Hartmann and ace senior libero Bianca Te. Kolof is tied with Tays for fourth (67 ), while Sherman and Willett round out the top 10.
Highlighted by Dexter’s breakout campaign, that group was a huge unknown to GNAC coaches who had voted SFU to finish sixth in the 10-team conference’s preseason rankings.
And it’s no understatement to say that while it’s taken two anonymous years in the program for Dexter to finally show her complete game to the rest of the conference, her teammates knew all too well just what was coming down the pike.
For her part, Schmidt remains thankful that as the program has sought to write a new chapter this season, that it has included, among may other highlights, the emergence of a true impact player, even if it was three years in the making.
Dexter’s arrival at SFU seems remarkable given the fact that there are two NCAA programs in her native state of Alaska, all of which prompted Schmidt to have a chat about just that topic last week with Dexter’s mom after SFU’s 3-1 victory at Alaska-Anchorage on Oct. 28.
“We had just won in her hometown, so afterwards I asked her mom ‘How did we end up with your daughter,’” said Schmidt, half-kiddingly.
Turns out Dexter’s two older sisters attended university in Washington, so when it came time for her to pick a school, she elected to stay in the same region. Yet as a biochemistry major with an interest in biology, she also wanted a school with the best academic credentials.
“So it was Brooke who reached out to me and I am just so thankful that I didn’t mess that up,” Schmidt says laughing. “She wanted to come and visit us, and I just thought I would be stupid not to take that opportunity. She had two good programs in Alaska, and curiously I wondered if we would even have a chance, but she was looking to go away for school, and having had her out here, our school and our program wound up being a good fit.”
It’s a theme which has been pervasive throughout the team’s roster, where so many untested pieces, all waiting to show that they belonged, have found a collective fit in ways which have reflected their current level of success.
After Thursday’s match with Western Oregon, the team will come back to the West Gym against at 7 p.m. Saturday for its final home match of the season against St. Martin’s.
As such, the Seniors’ Night contest against the Saints will see Tays, Te and middle Farnaaz Johal all honoured in what will be their final home games.
Yet beyond that, three more road games, including a regular season-finale in Bellingham against Western Washington remain.
And if they play with the same kind of energy which accompanied the them down to San Diego to start what was a season of unknowns back in September, perhaps even bigger games await in December at the NCAA regionals.
“The GNAC is the most competitive I have ever seen it in my nine years here,” Schmidt stated. “We are a really good team, but so is everyone else, top to bottom.
“We have learned that every game is important, and none more so than the other,” she added. “All we can do is focus on one opponent at a time, and if we do that, then the results will take care of themselves.”
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.