PREVIEW CIS men’s volleyball championship

 OTTAWA (CIS) – The reigning two-time gold medallist Trinity Western University Spartans might be the second seed going into this week’s CIS men’s volleyball championship, but they will still be the ones wearing a huge target on their backs in Quebec City.

CHAMPIONSHIP WEBSITE: http://english.cis-sic.ca/championships/mvball/index

The eight-team national tournament, presented by Rogers, kicks off on Friday at Université Laval and culminates on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with the Tantramar Trophy final. All 11 matches from the single-elimination competition can be seen live on www.CIS-SIC.tv.

Other teams competing for CIS supremacy this weekend will be the top-seeded Brandon Bobcats (Canada West champions), No. 3 McMaster Marauders (OUA champions), No. 4 Alberta Golden Bears (Canada West bronze medallists), No. 5 Laval Rouge et Or (RSEQ champs), No. 6 UNB Varsity Reds (AUS champs), No. 7 Western Mustangs (OUA finalists) and No. 8 Montreal Carabins (RSEQ finalists).

Friday’s quart-finals will see McMaster take on UNB in the opener at 12:30 p.m., Trinity Western open its title defence against Western at 2:30 p.m., Brandon face Montreal at 6 p.m., and Alberta battle a hostile crowd and host Laval at 8 p.m.

As has been the case almost every year since the inaugural CIS championship back in 1967, this week’s tournament will have a “Canada West versus the rest of the country” feel to it.

The West domination in the sport is well documented. Teams currently competing in the Canada West conference (including schools from the now defunct Great Plains conference) have won 18 consecutive banners and 34 of the last 37. Nine of the last 11 CIS finals have been contested between Canada West schools and, over the same period, the CWUAA has swept the national podium nine times.

No Canada West program has been as dominant as Trinity Western in recent years. Crowned for the first time in 2006, the Spartans are now vying to become only the second team in history to claim three straight Tantramar Trophies. Winnipeg won four in a row from 1971 to 1974.

TWU lost a number of key players following its second straight triumph a year ago in Kingston, including setter Ben Ball, the 2011-12 CIS player of the year and 2012 championship MVP, as well as right side Rudy Verhoeff, MVP of the 2011 tournament.
However, like any good powerhouse program, the Spartans didn’t rebuild, they just reloaded. Led by a pair of all-conference left sides, Nick Del Bianco and Steven Marshall, they performed well enough to finish second in Canada West in both the regular season (16-6) and playoffs (3-1).

Despite another remarkable campaign, head coach Ben Josephson knows the road to a rare three-peat won’t be an easy one.

“It’s becoming more clear daily why no team has won three championships in a row since the great Winnipeg teams of the mid-70s. It’s really, really hard. The depth of talent and coaching in our country is fantastic right now.

“We are excited about the challenge but are well aware of the size of mountain that must be scaled to do so. No great story can be written without great adversity. While our story still remains unwritten this season, the fact there will be great adversity in this tournament is exciting. Friday cannot come soon enough.”

Top-seeded Brandon doesn’t have Trinity Western’s experience at the CIS championship but the Bobcats did register their best-ever result in their last appearance in 2011 when they reached the title match against the Spartans.

This season, the ‘Cats settled for sixth place in league play with a 13-9 mark before catching fire in the playoffs with upset victories over Saskatchewan (best-of-three quart-finals), Alberta (semifinal) and TWU (final). The first-time Canada West champions go into the CIS tournament on a six-game winning streak.

“I’m sure teams outside our conference view us as a bit of a target, but from within our conference we know that anybody can win on any given day,” says first-year head coach Grant Wilson. “We know we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Our goal is going to stay the same and that is to get better every weekend that we play. Our conference is as tough as it gets, so we know if we can compete there we can compete anywhere.”

The top-ranked team from outside Canada West, No. 3 McMaster is enjoying the best season in program history. The Marauders finished first in Ontario with a sparkling 17-1 record and claimed their fourth OUA banner in six years thanks to a four-set win over Western. Dave Preston’s troops also excelled in non-conference action with a pair of 3-0 wins over Montreal, a straight-set victory against Laval and a two-game split versus Brandon.

“I think we are right where we want to be heading into the championship, and I believe our best volleyball is still in front of us,” says Preston, who led the Marauders to their best result at the CIS tourney, a fourth-place finish, in 2009. “With a young team like ours, the fundamentals will mean everything so we have to pay attention to that. If we can take care of the fundamentals, I believe we have the pieces that can take care of the other stuff needed to succeed.”

The most decorated team at this week’s championship, fourth-seeded Alberta was enjoying yet another magical season until early February. The Bears, who rank third all-time with six CIS men’s volleyball banners, were 19-0 in league play before losing two of their last three conference matches, and then suffering a 3-1 upset loss to Brandon on home court in the Canada West semis. Thankfully for them, the perennial national contenders recovered with a straight-set win over UBC in the conference bronze medal game to qualify for the CIS tourney.

Of note, Alberta swept a three-game pre-season series against first-round opponent Laval in October. The first confrontation was held in Trois-Rivières (3-0) and the last two in Quebec City (3-2, 3-2).

The Rouge et Or are also among the usual suspects at this time of year. Fifth-seeded Laval is about to make its 16th straight appearance at nationals, and its 30th in the last 32 years. Following a 17-0 regular season, the championship hosts received a bit of a wake-up call in the best-of-three RSEQ final against Montreal, dropping Game 2 in straight sets and winning the decisive match 15-13 in the fifth.

“People have often pointed out over the last decade the lack of intensity in the RSEQ final before the CIS championship. It wasn’t the case this year,” says head coach Pascal Clément, who guided Laval to the last national title won by a team from outside Canada West back in 1994. “Montreal gave us all we could handle, and from a promotional perspective for the national championship, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. I expect a great tournament. Anything can happen.”

For sixth-seeded UNB, 2012-13 was a tale of two seasons. The Atlantic champions won eight of 10 games against AUS competition but were only 6-9 versus opponents from other conferences, including a 2-5 mark versus teams that qualified for the CIS tournament. Led by two-time AUS MVP Julio Fernandez, an outside hitter from Venezuela, the V-Reds did look good in a two-game sweep of archrival Dalhousie in the AUS final (3-1, 3-1).

“We are very excited to be returning to the CIS championship after a one-year hiatus,” says head coach Dan McMorran. “We are a nice combination of youth and experience and our players are looking forward to challenging for a national title.”

Conference finalists Western (OUA) and Montreal (RSEQ) were both unranked all season at the national level.

The Mustangs proved a year ago that anything can happen once you reach the national championship. Also seeded seventh prior to the 2012 tournament, they pushed heavily favoured Manitoba to the limit before falling 19-17 in the fifth set.

The Carabins came close to causing a major upset of their own in last weekend’s Quebec final. Their win over Laval in Game 2 of the best-of-three series marked the Rouge et Or’s first loss in 101 contests against conference rivals.

“Our results in the playoffs will serve as motivation for our troops,” says Montreal sideline boss Georges Laplante. “We want to gain experience at the CIS championship. We know our first-round opponents, the Canada West champions, come from a highly competitive conference. It’ll be a good experience for our young team.”