European excursion

Holiday trip to Bulgaria pits squad against pro competition

Libero Ivo Dramov convinced head coach Brenda Willis to bring the Gaels to Bulgaria.
Libero Ivo Dramov convinced head coach Brenda Willis to bring the Gaels to Bulgaria.
The Gaels finished second against professional competition in a Bulgarian exhibition tournament.
The Gaels finished second against professional competition in a Bulgarian exhibition tournament.

Instead of heading south for the winter holidays, the men’s volleyball team set their sights to the east.

Second-year libero Ivo Dramov urged head coach Brenda Willis to plan the Gaels’ annual holiday trip to his hometown of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Willis tries to take the team on an intercontinental trip once every four years, having previously visited Holland and Germany multiple times.

“Each generation of athletes will generally get one major trip,” Willis said.

Dramov’s father organized the entire trip from Bulgaria, planning an exhibition tournament with local pro and developmental teams and booking travel, accommodations and meals.

The men’s squad began their trip by playing pro teams in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. After nearly a full day spent in the air, the team didn’t have its best legs and went on to lose both games in four sets.

The real exhibition tournament began upon their arrival in Plovdiv.

Queen’s advanced to the tournament final against professional Bulgarian clubs, before being out-defended in the championship game.

The Gaels’ Mike Tomlinson took home tournament MVP hardware, making significant progress in his comeback from ACL surgery. The third-year outside hitter missed six league games before returning in late November.

Willis commended the talent level of the Bulgarian volleyball clubs and the devotion of their fans, who packed the bleachers for the tournament.

“[Bulgaria] doesn’t have hockey the way we do, so a lot more of the top players at a younger age turn to volleyball and soccer,” she said.

Much like European soccer, Bulgarian volleyball teams use a club system. Development leagues begin as young as the age of 10, training players all the way to the professional level.

Bulgarian players are usually excellent defenders and have perfect fundamentals from hours of practice at younger ages.

The trip also provided cultural and social benefits for the Gaels.

Organized into the schedule was a tour of Bulgarian monuments, including 1000-year old churches, as well as free time to meet with local players at social events.

“We were absolutely hosted as soon as we got to Plovdiv until we flew back to Toronto,” Willis said.

Such a large-scale trip requires multiple levels of funding. Most came from standard athletic team funds and special high performance grants. Booster and alumni funding provided the rest, along with very minor contributions from each of the players.

The tournament was far more than just a fun excursion for them. Facing strong opponents forced the team to step up and play its best volleyball all season. Men’s volleyball is reaching mid-season form just as their roster begins to stabilize.

Rookie setter Jamie Wright stepped into a starting role because of injuries and excelled, providing the team with depth and likely ensuring him more playing time in the future.

A healthy Tomlinson also means all starters can return to their natural positions.

Currently sitting sixth in the OUA at 4-6, Willis’ team must play to their potential for the rest of season if they hope to reach their goal of a top-four finish in the OUA and a shot at a berth to nationals.

The Gaels will return to OUA action tomorrow, when they host the Waterloo Warriors at 3 p.m.

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