VANCOUVER — Doug Reimer has coached UBC women’s volleyball in two different centuries, parts of three different decades and most historically, to seven U Sports national championship crowns.
That’s the long way of saying he’s seen it all.
Yet ask him to name the past UBC team which most closely resembles the 2017-18 edition of the Thunderbirds, one which makes its Canada West regular season debut as defending national champions Friday in Kelowna against the UBC Okanagan Heat, and for once, the veteran bench boss finds it hard to speak from past experience.
Last season’s UBC team, which sputtered in the early going, was not touted as a national contender. Yet it put everything together at just the right time and ended the program’s three-season dry spell to win its first U Sports Canadian title since Reimer led them to a record-tying six straight titles from 2008-13.
Yet while a large number of players return with time served in the championship-contending crucible, the foundational foursome of Danielle Brisebois, Juliana Kaufmanis, Emily Cicon and Maggie Li have since departed via graduation.
And so when this reporter poses a question to Reimer, asking him to compare the 2017-18 team attempting to repeat as national championships to the 2008-09 team which met the first repeat challenge and helped paved the way for one of the greatest dynasties in recent Canadian university sports history, the answer is not immediately apparent.
‘BIRDS HISTORY PROVIDES PERSPECTIVE
This season, the Canada West talent pool is filled with top-end parity, and using past history as a guide, anything is possible.
On Thursday, the conference’s preseason coaches poll had UBC sitting at No. 1, but just two points ahead of the No. 2 Alberta Pandas And to make the Canada West championship conversation even more confusing, No. 3 Calgary, No. 4 Trinity Western and No. 5 UBC Okanagan all received at least one first-place vote.
While the national rankings have not yet been released, consider the fact that a school from the Canada West has won 10 of the last 11 Canadian titles.
“At this point of the season, there are a lot of teams that have the potential to get there,” says Reimer, whose charges open the home portion of the conference schedule Nov. 3 against the Calgary Dinos. “In the Canada West, I couldn’t point to a dominant team.”
And another point to consider: UBC may have been coming off its first national title in 30 years with a large number of returning players back in 2008-09, yet they were still not automatically installed as the pre-season favourite despite what history would show as a galaxy of returning stars in national MVP Kyla Richey, Danielle Petersen, Katie Tyzuk, Marisa Field, Liz Cordonier, Claire Hanna and Jen Hinze.
In fact that season, UBC was swept by Alberta to open the regular season, finished third in the conference standings, and had to go to five sets to beat Trinity Western in the Canada West title match just to earn the No. 2 seed at nationals.
Reimer is wise not to get into the comparison game, yet he knows hindsight can illuminate things no one would have thought possible.
“We didn’t know that we would go on a run and win all of those championships so you can’t rule it out,” says Reimer, who welcomes back senior setter Alessandra Gentile, libero Samantha Patko, left side Anna Price and right side Olivia Furlan among a youthful yet skilled-and-versatile group of returnees.
“You never rule it out,” he continued. “Even if there has been a lot of turnover, let’s enjoy giving this as good a shot as we can, and I think that coming from a place last year where we did win (a national title), that can make things a little bit easier.”
SHANICE, NOW KIERA
OK, I’ve got next.
When I chatted with Reimer last week, I brought up one comparable between the current team and his first repeat champs which is unmistakable.
On that 2008-09 team, Reimer welcomed a player who started as a rookie from Week 1 of her UBC career and went on to not only win five straight national crowns, but became perhaps the most heavily-decorated player in program history.
Her name: Shanice Marcelle.
This season, as his team again attempts to repeat at national champs, there looks to be another rookie who is set to start from Week 1, and she has been touted for a longer pre-university stretch than even Marcelle.
Her name: Kiera Van Ryk.
“Shanice is the prime example that altered my thinking in terms of that regard,” Reimer said of the fact that he broke a long-standing tradition of not starting freshmen at the beginning of their UBC careers when Marcelle set foot on the Point Grey campus and recorded 19 kills in her debut, the second match of the ‘Birds season-opening sweep at the hands of Alberta in October of 2008.
“I think now how we operate is, whomever has earned the right to play, that’s who is in the lineup,” says Reimer. “It’s the players that give us the best chance to win.”
Van Ryk, a prodigious talent out of Surrey Christian who received plenty of NCAA D1 attention, made her debut by collecting 37 kills over three matches, as the ‘Birds dropped just one total set in wins over Calgary, MacEwan and McMaster.
“At times, she can just take control offensively,” says Reimer of Van Ryk, who finished the pre-season nursing an injury. “I have been so impressed. She does things as a first-year player where I just go ‘Wow, I can’t take any credit for that.’”
Marcelle, who joined a UBC team with more experienced outside hitters, saw her playing time increase following an injury to Cordonier that season.
Van Ryk will see a heavy load from Day 1.
WORDS OF WISDOM FOR EX-BIRDS’ VOLLYEBALL GREATS
In my former life as the university sports reporter at The Province newspaper, I queried returning members of UBC’s 2007-08 national championship team for a story I wrote that summer on their quest to repeat.
I resurrect them today because the foresight that so many of that team’s athletes had was quite amazing, especially when you consider that what they spoke towards achieving, they ultimately turned into reality.
Said Reimer: “About two weeks after the national championships, we had a sit-down around the table. I had given them a one-question homework assignment just prior to that, and it was simply: ‘Why did we win?’”
As I wrote in the newspaper, the answers ran the gamut from the sisterhood developed between the players, to the development of an internal belief that grew stronger as the ‘Birds pulled off one dramatic win after another.
If there was one definitive theme, I continued, it centred around the simple idea of just playing their best for each other and letting fate take care of the rest.
“We went into the season expecting to do well,” said Tyzuk. “But there was never that imperative of ‘Oh, we have to win the national championship.’ Instead, everything was focussed on the process of us becoming closer as a team”
Petersen added: “We developed this character of pursuit and passion. It was a gritty, do-or-die mentality. We were playing for each other and that to me, is why we won.”
This season, whoever it is that you play for, that is food for thought.
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