Championships take centre court

Vancouver Island University Mariners volleyball player Kaitie Whiteley bumps the ball during regular-season play last month at the VIU gymnasium. - GREG SAKAKI/The News Bulletin
Vancouver Island University Mariners volleyball player Kaitie Whiteley bumps the ball during regular-season play last month at the VIU gymnasium.
— image credit: GREG SAKAKI/The News Bulletin

Every sports team talks about trying to peak at playoff time.

It’s an admirable notion.

But the Vancouver Island University Mariners women’s volleyball players won their league title, they won provincials; they’re the No. 1 college team in Canada. So now that the national championships have arrived, can the Mariners really jump higher? Spike harder? Dig deeper?

“Once you get to [this] level, everyone’s good, everyone blocks well, everyone hits high, everyone serves tough,” said Shane Hyde, coach of the M’s women. “You need to be able to compete. If that means you run a little harder, or get a little raspberry on your hip because you’re making a crazy dig that maybe you wouldn’t have done in league, that’s the extra factor that you need.”

Every team will be doing those things this week as VIU hosts the Canadian Colleges’ Athletic Association women’s volleyball championships, starting Thursday (March 8).

Even though it might take a little extra to win matches at nationals, the Mariners generally plan to play the same game that got them to this stage.

“If we just play the way we can play and play to the best of our ability, we’ll be fine,” said Tylar Turnball, VIU rookie middle.

Dani Smith, the team’s veteran setter, said the team has the skill to win matches at nationals.

“It’s just going to be dipping into the heart bucket,” she said.

The Mariners are a veteran team, one that understands what it means to play for a national championship.

On the court, it means taking on unfamiliar competition, for example the Mount St. Vincent team that VIU hosts Thursday night.

“It’s just sharpening up what we do and then hoping that what we see on tape is what’s coming at us,” said Hyde. “We’re going to make a few adjustments to them and then we’re going to be ready to make a few adjustments on the fly and then crisp up what we do well."

Jacqueline Doleman, veteran middle, said the Mariners will just try to control what they can control, when the volleyball is on their side of the court. The M’s expect to face only the best competion, she said.

“Every province plays a little differently and each team has a different style, so I’m really interested to get a different game of volleyball going,” she said.

The players feel as though B.C.’s Pacific Western Athletic Association prepared them for tough competition, and they get excited about the idea of facing new foes.

“A new group and new energy and a new style of play is really exciting for us, to see how we can adapt and how we can show our best colours against them,” said Tamara Rosenlund, veteran libero.

The Mariners will face pressure that none of their opponents will face. Not only are they trying to improve upon last year’s runner-up finish, but they’re trying to do it as the No. 1 seeds playing in their home gym.

“There’s going to be high anxiety, but it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Turnball. “No matter what happens, we’re going to have a lot of fun because we’re a good group.”

The M’s will be smiling all weekend, she said, no matter the match, no matter the stakes.

“You can look at it as pressure,” said Smith. “But you can just look at it as a challenge, too, and just be so excited for it and make it a positive thing.”

Home court advantageous

Vancouver Island University’s women’s volleyball program has been a sort of all-star team for years. This year, the stars have aligned.

The VIU Mariners get to play in a national championship tournament in their home gym. The women have never hosted Canadian Colleges’ Athletic Association championships. They have a unique opportunity and they know it.

“It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to come to university and have nationals [there] your first year,” said Alyssa Wolf, rookie power hitter.

The VIU gym, sometimes called the Boat, will be rocking starting Thursday (March 8).

“We have the VIU Nation which is notorious for being a huge fan base. They’re going to be pretty rowdy and crazy and I’m really excited for that,” said Doleman. “It’s a huge benefit and an advantage to be at home.”

VIU’s other sports teams have all finished their seasons, so a lot of student athletes are bound to be in the bleachers, plus faculty, friends, family and other fans.

“Nanaimo’s a really awesome town for the local support that we get,” said Smith. “Just to have that, plus all the people coming in and VIU backing us, it’s going to be incredible, and an opportunity that we really want to capitalize on.”

The Mariners will try to cut down on some of the distractions by pretending the tournament is a road trip, and staying together at a hotel. And the gym will look a bit different, with a volleyball-dedicated floor on loan.

But once the M’s step on the court, there will be no mistaking they’re the home team.

No matter the distractions, no matter the pressure, the pros will outweigh the cons, said Hyde.

“I think it’s going to be a really cool experience to have everyone on our side,” said Turnball.

Starting Thursday, it’s everyone in the Boat.

“The atmosphere’s going to be unreal,” said Wolf.

GAME ON … VIU plays Mount St. Vincent on Thursday (March 8) at 8 p.m. The winner will advance to the semifinals Friday at 8 p.m. The gold-medal match is Saturday at 8 p.m. … Tickets are $10 per day on Thursday and Friday and $15 on Saturday, or $5 per day for students aged 10-18. For additional ticket information, please click here … To read a feature story on graduating player Tamara Rosenlund, please click here … To access the official tournament website, click here.

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