*This is an article I wrote for the Cranbrook Townsman just prior to the College of the Rockies Avalanche 2016-17 season.*
In 2015-16, the College of the Rockies women’s volleyball team shocked the PACWEST conference by storming their way to their first provincial championship.
The Avs entered last year’s playoffs ranked sixth in the conference before defeating three higher ranked squads on their way to a league title. After 15 years of flying under the radar, the COTR volleyball program was finally getting some recognition.
Now they enter the new season in a position they’ve never been in before.
“In the past, College of the Rockies has always kind of had the underdog mentality and we could sneak some wins here or there because people, maybe, didn’t know what we’d be like,” said head coach John Swanson. “[Now], we’re not underdogs anymore, we’re going to have the bullseye on us [and] we’re going to have to be diligent and responsible in our play …. teams are going to come out and want to take us down.”
Despite perhaps not being able to surprise their opponents as much as they’ve grown accustomed to in the past, Swanson is confident that the team is up to the task.
“I like that challenge [of being defending champions], I would much rather be the team that people are pursuing than the underdog and we have the personnel that can handle that,” he said. “If we were a bunch of first-year players and new to the league, it would be really hard, but we have a lot of vets and even [our] first-year players that are coming in [have] raised their game.”
The Avs open their season on the road with four straight matches against competition on Vancouver Island. On October 13 and 14, they play the Camosun Chargers before facing the Vancouver Island University Mariners on October 15 and 16.
Swanson said that while it will be a difficult way to start the new campaign, he hopes his team will embrace the opportunity to prove that they’re still an elite group.
“It’s going to be tough … it’s our longest trip [and] the teams on the Island are going to be very strong,” he said. “The fatigue of the bus trip is hard on the ladies and we will not only physically have a challenge because you get tired, but mentally it’s going to be a big challenge too.
“We’ll [tell] the players to embrace this challenge and come out and play aggressively and we might be able to steal a couple of matches.”
Historically, Vancouver Island trips have not been kind to the Avs. Last season they lost three of four matches while on Camosun and VIU’s home courts.
Although Swanson admits that it’s hard to rank teams before the year has started, due to the turnover of rosters at this level, he believes the Avs are in good shape to be competitive against their early opposition.
“I think we should be in a pretty good spot … I’ve done some scouting on what we have on Camosun last year and VIU last year [and] we’ll go in with a similar game plan [as last year],” Swanson said.
“[Camosun] has two or three players that are returning and one particular power hitter who’s a key player, so we know that they’re still going to find her and set her the ball so we can [prepare] for her.
“VIU have a lot of returning players [and] they’re national champs [but] the one thing they don’t have is their main middle attacker, who was an all-Canadian, but they still have a lot of talent on the outside.”
Although as reigning champions, the underdog card is off the table, the Avs are still a difficult team to define. According to Swanson, for their opening stretch of matches, it will up to their competition to define them, while they just play their game.
“People might still [overlook us because] we didn’t have a great regular season [last year], we just peaked at the right time,” he said. “[So] if they decide to take us lightly that’s fine [and] if they are wanting to take us down because we are PACWEST champions [we’re comfortable with that too].”
The Avs return to Cranbrook for their home opener on Friday, October 28, where they’ll take on the Douglas College Royals at the newly renovated COTR gymnasium at 6 p.m.