Queen’s hosts volleyball nationals

From left: Captains Dan Rosenbaum, Niko Rukavina and Jackson Dakin celebrate last weekend’s OUA title.
From left: Captains Dan Rosenbaum, Niko Rukavina and Jackson Dakin celebrate last weekend’s OUA title.
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Head coach Brenda Willis took over the men’s volleyball program in 1987. She says it’s always been her goal to host a national championship.
Head coach Brenda Willis took over the men’s volleyball program in 1987. She says it’s always been her goal to host a national championship.
Photo: 

Men’s volleyball coach Brenda Willis measures her career in benchmarks.

In 1987, she took over a team that hadn’t won a provincial title in 15 years and played its home games in the smallest gym at the now-defunct PEC.

“There were no seats,” Willis said. “They’d bring out a stack of 50 chairs for people to sit in and people actually had to lift the chair off the rack themselves and put it out.”

That was several benchmarks ago. This weekend, her team — coming off its second Ontario title in three seasons — will host the national men’s volleyball championship at the ARC, a two-year-old, $230-million facility.

The fifth-seeded Gaels play their first game at 6 p.m. tonight against the fourth-seeded University of Alberta Golden Bears.

The Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championship is an eight-team, single-elimination tournament — if the Gaels lose to the Golden Bears tonight, their best possible finish would be fifth place.

A loss would be anticlimactic, considering plans for this tournament have been in the works for five years.

Willis brought in six recruits in the summer of 2007 to build a team that would contend at this year’s CIS championships.

“We felt that was a lineup that could win the national championship and I still believe that,” she said.

Five of the recruits are still with the team.

Setter Dan Rosenbaum and outside hitter Bryan Fautley missed most of this season with chronic injuries. But outside hitters Joren Zeeman and Niko Rukavina and middle hitter Mike Amoroso were all OUA all-stars this season and have led the team to a fifth-seed, tying their highest-ever ranking going into national championship.

The Gaels’ seed means they won’t play the best teams until later in the tournament.

Willis said she’s confident ahead of tonight’s game against Alberta, even though the Golden Bears beat the Gaels at the Dino Cup in October.

The Golden Bears’ star outside hitter Mitch Irvine, third in the CIS with 4.7 points per set, was on crutches for both of his team’s games last weekend.

“I’m sure [Irvine] won’t be healthy,” Willis said. “I think we can beat Alberta.”

The bid for the Queen’s national championship was approved in 2009, but Willis has been building the volleyball program since she started with the Gaels.

Willis is the only female men’s volleyball coach in the CIS. In the late 1980s, that was another one of her benchmarks.

“The first time I got OUA coach of the year, [in 1990], that was a bit of a benchmark for me because that meant I now had credibility in the men’s game with my male colleagues,” she said. “Up until that point, there may have been some skepticism about women coaching men.”

Willis was also fighting for her program. Through the early 1990s, she battled to move her team’s games and practices to Bartlett, the PEC’s biggest gym. In 2000, Willis coached the Gaels to their first OUA title since 1972.

“When I look back on the team party after we won OUAs back in 2000, nationals were only four days away, but boy we celebrated,” she said. “For me too, that was a huge thing.

“We didn’t win a match at nationals [that] year,” she said. “My next benchmark became winning a match in the nationals.”

Willis accomplished that goal in 2006, when she won her third OUA title and two CIS championship matches to finish fifth in the country. In 2010, Willis won her fifth OUA title and finished fifth at nationals again.

It’s time for a new benchmark.

“Anything less than a first-round win, we’ve already done,” she said. “We’ve already come fifth twice ... I want to break the top four.”

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