The OUA champion McMaster Marauders’ perfect season came to a halt at last week’s national men’s volleyball championships when they were upset in four sets by the seventh-seeded Winnipeg Wesmen in the first round. The Wesmen went on to win silver at the tournament, part of the seventh-straight sweep of the medals by teams from the Canada West conference.
The University of Alberta Golden Bears claimed the national title, marking the 14th straight year a Canada West team won the championship. Canada West teams have won 36 of the 42 national championships in men’s volleyball.
The Marauders, who were 20-0 in the regular season and 3-0 in the OUA playoffs, also lost their second consolation-round game in the nationals in five sets to the University of British Colombia Thunderbirds, leaving them tied for seventh with the Université de Montréal Carabins.
The 2007 national champion Wesmen finished fourth in this year’s Canada West Final Four the week before, giving them the final Canada West berth. Canada West received four berths in this year’s tournament to Ontario’s one. Berths per conference are assigned based on the previous year’s medals.
McMaster head coach Dave Preston, who was recently named CIS coach of the year, said the extra berths give the western teams an edge. They can start preparations for the nationals even before the conference championships, as they’re still assured a berth regardless of their finish in the Canada West Final Four.
“Whether it’s fair or not, they keep winning,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can argue that Canada West doesn’t deserve three [extra] berths. Based on our matches, I think it would be fair to assume that their conference is stronger.”
Preston said a major part of Canada West’s dominance is found in the strength of the competition their teams face on a regular basis. He thinks CIS should go to a nationwide regular season, where Ontario teams play western teams in league competition.
“We’ve got to get the best teams playing the best teams more often in meaningful games,” he said.
Western teams’ success draws more recruits to their schools, leading to further victories, Preston said.
“It’s hard to argue those results,” he said. “Perception is reality.”
Preston said another advantage comes from the athletic scholarships Canada West has offered for the past 20 years. This was the first year Ontario schools were allowed to offer athletic scholarships.
“What we’re experiencing now is a lot of financial assistance that’s been applied for the past decade,” he said. “You don’t reap rewards on your investment right away. … When you apply the resources, we’ll have a strong conference.”
Queen’s head coach Brenda Willis, who’s also the Ontario Volleyball Association president, said Ontario develops players just as well as the Western provinces at the grassroots level, but their provincial team players often spread out across the country afterwards, unlike those from the western provinces.
“We’re very successful in national championships and Canada Games at the youth level,” she said.
Willis said schools in other provinces have an easier time recruiting provincial team athletes due to less competition. Ontario has 11 universities with men’s volleyball programs. The only other province with more than three is Quebec, which has four.
Last year’s introduction of athletic financial awards will help OUA schools retain the best Ontario players, Willis said.
“There’s ego involved. Athletes want to be able to say ‘I’m on scholarship.’ Whether we can offer them a thousand dollars or a whole bunch of money doesn’t change that sentence, and being able to put that on your resume or say that is a big deal.”
Willis said many OUA schools don’t invest significant resources in their volleyball programs. All 10 Canada West teams have full-time coaches and offer athletic financial awards.
“The issue is that we have a number of schools that are competing in the OUA but treating their teams as clubs, [with] part-time coaches, not a ton of practice time [and] minimal recruiting efforts,” she said.
Willis said the top Ontario schools can compete with the top western schools on a talent basis, but the strong competition the Canada West teams face in their own conference gives them an advantage in preparation for the nationals.
“Their programs aren’t better, and I don’t believe their coaching is better, nor even the commitment from the institutions when you compare it to the OUA institutions that are doing it right,” she said. “I wouldn’t say the calibre at the top is that much better, but it’s much more competitive day after day.”
Willis said she supports the idea of inter-conference play during the year, but it might be unfeasible for financial reasons.
“I think it would be better for us, better for the game and for developing the sport,” she said. “It would mean we would have to bring our A-game more often and it wouldn’t be such an adjustment to play at the next level, but I think it would be a very hard sell with the athletic directors to say we have to fly X number of times to fulfill our league commitments. ”
An ideal solution would allow the top Ontario schools to compete nationally, while allowing programs with less funding to compete in their own league, Willis said.
“If there was a way to do both, to have a division that’s club-based where people did get to compete in volleyball at a reasonably high level without pulling down the high-performance programs, then that would be the ideal to me,” she said. “I don’t think OUA is prepared to go that way, though.”
Willis said Canada West schools are able to consistently stay strong by having rookies compete for colleges for a couple of years, gain valuable experience and then transfer to university programs.
“The reality is they have a feeder system through their colleges that we don’t have,” she said. “Rather than athletes training and being on the bench for the first two years, not getting competitive experience, they play in the college level, they get university credits that are transferable and you’re bringing a guy in in third year that’s been a starter at the Canadian College championships for two years.”
Alberta head coach Terry Danyluk claimed his fourth national championship as the Bears’ coach this year. The Bears have made the championship finals for the last seven years, and have won four of those finals. Danyluk said his team’s past success helps him draw new recruits.
“We’ve been able to attract some good athletes to our program,” he said. “Once you get the right type of athletes wanting to come and wanting to be in there, it makes it a little bit easier to train and to work at the level necessary to keep improving.”
Danyluk said the tough competition the Bears face every night in Canada West play prepared them for the nationals.
“There are 10 teams in our conference, and none of them would be considered weak teams,” he said. “Even with the 10th-ranked team in our conference, if you don’t come to play, they’re capable of beating you.”
The Thompson Rivers University Wolfpack, from Kamloops, B.C., claimed the school’s first CIS medal in any sport this year, finishing third at the men’s volleyball championships in only their third year of existence. Head coach Pat Hennelly said he was thrilled to win a medal so quickly given the strength of their conference and their program’s early struggles.
“It feels excellent to go from 1-19 a couple years ago,” he said. “We had to go from scratch.”
Hennelly said the strong competition in Canada West play got his team ready for nationals.
“You get to test yourself every day,” he said.
Hennelly said he drew several players from the B.C. provincial team, including CIS all-rookie team member and tournament all-star Gord Perrin.
This year’s edition of the Wolfpack also featured players from Monaco, Denmark and Turkey. Hennelly said he recruited them through people he knew who work in European volleyball.
“I contacted all my friends who were coaching overseas,” he said. “It was a combination of some lucky bounces and some hard work.”
Willis said the best Ontario programs are gradually catching up to the West, as evidenced by her strong rookie class this year.
“[We had] six rookies coming in, and all six of them having at least one year of provincial team,” she said. “That’s as good of a recruiting class as any university, ever. … I think the gap is closing.”
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