PREVIEW CIS women’s volleyball championship,

OTTAWA (CIS) – The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds hope to enter the record books this week in Sherbrooke, Que., where they will attempt to become the third team in history to win the CIS women’s volleyball championship for a sixth straight year.

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

The eight-team national tournament, presented by Asics, gets under way Thursday at Université de Sherbrooke and concludes on Saturday with the gold-medal final at 4 p.m. All 11 matches from the single-elimination competition will be webcast live onwww.CIS-SIC.tv

Joining top-seeded and Canada West champion UBC at the tourney will be the No. 2 Montreal Carabins (RSEQ champions), No. 3 Ottawa Gee-Gees (OUA champs), No. 4 Trinity Western Spartans (Canada West finalists), No. 5 Dalhousie Tigers (AUS champs), No. 6 and host Sherbrooke Vert & Or (RSEQ finalists), No. 7 Alberta Pandas (Canada West bronze medallists), and No. 8 Laval Rouge et Or (RSEQ bronze medallists).

The T-Birds, who already hold the all-time record for most CIS banners overall (9), open their title defence Thursday at 3 p.m. against Laval. Other quarter-final match-ups include Dalhousie vs. Trinity Western at 1 p.m., Alberta vs. Montreal at 6 p.m. and Sherbrooke vs. Ottawa at 8 p.m.

In addition to UBC and Alberta (7), other contenders who have claimed the championship trophy in the past include Sherbrooke (2), Dalhousie (1) and Laval (1). Montreal, Ottawa and Trinity Western are still looking for their first title.

UBC, TWU and Alberta hope to resume the Canada West domination in the sport. Teams currently competing in the CWUAA (including schools from the now defunct Great Plains conference) have won 32 of the last 36 national titles. Laval (2006), Sherbrooke (2005, 2003) and Dalhousie (1982) are the only Eastern squads that have triumphed since 1977.

The Thunderbirds are enjoying yet another stellar campaign in 2012-13. They go into this week’s championship sporting a sparkling 29-2 overall record versus CIS opponents, including a 21-1 regular schedule and a 2-0 mark at the Canada West Final Four. The ‘Birds have won 22 straight matches since dropping their second conference game - against Trinity Western - back on October 27.

Despite losing national team member Kyla Richey - last year’s CIS player of the year - to graduation following its 2012 title run, UBC still boasts a formidable lineup highlighted by Canada West all-stars Shanice Marcelle, a fifth-year outside hitter, setter Brina Derksen-Bergen, also a fifth-year senior, as well as junior outside hitter Lisa Barclay, the 2012 CIS championship MVP.

Marcelle is about to wrap up one of the most remarkable careers in CIS women’s volleyball history. The four-time national champion was the CIS player of the year in 2010-11, is a two-time first-team all-Canadian and has been named to the all-tournament team following each of her first four CIS championship appearances, including in 2011, when she was voted tourney MVP. The Victoria native is once again the Canada West nominee for CIS-player-of-the-year honours this season.

With a sixth consecutive banner, the T-Birds would tie the all-time mark set by Winnipeg from 1983 to 1988 and equaled a decade later by Alberta (1995-2000). Interestingly enough, Sherbrooke is where the Wesmen originally established the record in 1988.

“I think there’s more parity this season. For example, we’re playing an experienced Laval team in the first round and they’re seeded eighth,” says head coach Doug Reimer, whose team scored a pair of 3-0 pre-season wins over the Rouge et Or in Quebec City. “I think there will be some very interesting first-round matches, let alone what that will produce after day one.”

Seeded No. 2 for the competition, the Montreal Carabins claimed their fifth RSEQ crown in six years last weekend and appear ready to make another run at their first CIS trophy after defeating Top-10 rivals Laval and Sherbrooke in the Quebec playoffs.

The talented U of M roster includes a pair of national team members in outside hitter Marie-Sophie Nadeau and right side Vicky Savard, as well as two-time all-Canadian setter Alexandra Lojen, who is back on the court this season after her second reconstructive knee surgery in five years.

“I really think the top eight teams in the country qualified for nationals this year,” says head coach Olivier Trudel. “Every game will be intense. Every team has a legitimate shot at the title and there could be a number of upsets.”

Third-ranked Ottawa returns to the event for the first time since a sixth-place finish in 2007. In a battle of the top two teams in Ontario in the regular season, the Gee-Gees overcame a four-point deficit in the fifth set of the OUA final to edge York 15-13 and earn the conference’s lone berth for the CIS tourney.

“We did some heavy lifting in the pre-season by winning matches against tough teams on the road. Those games and the experience we just had winning the OUA championship in a great atmosphere in another team’s gym has us prepared and excited to play the host team at nationals,” says 21-year sideline boss Lionel Woods, whose troops tallied six wins over Sherbrooke (3), Laval (2) and Montreal (1) in pre-season action. “This has been a three-year process with a core of players who have lost together, won together, been burned together and learned together - there is no doubt in my mind they will show up and leave it all on the floor from the first whistle on Thursday.”

Fourth-seeded Trinity Western has become a regular at the CIS championship in recent campaigns and is about to make its sixth appearance in eight years. The Spartans are the only CIS team to beat UBC this year, once in the pre-season and once in league play, and again pushed the five-time champs in the Canada West final before falling in four sets. 

TWU was also the only squad other than UBC to reach the top of the national rankings this season. The Spartans led six straight weekly polls in October and November.

Fifth-ranked Dalhousie is red-hot going into its first CIS tournament since 2005. The Tigers are riding a 16-game winning streak, including a 3-0 defeat of Saint Mary’s in the AUS title match, and have not lost a single set in 11 straight contests dating back to November 24.

“We have been working hard over the past five years and making strong strides each year to reach the top,” says head coach Rick Scott. “The team had an excellent season and played very well in the AUS championship. We are really looking forward to the opportunity to show what Dalhousie Tigers women’s volleyball is all about.”

The sixth-seeded Vert & Or hope to regroup this week in front of their raucous home crowd. Sherbrooke won a tight race for first place in Quebec during the regular season but was overwhelmed by Montreal in the best-of-three RSEQ final, losing 3-1 and 3-0. The CIS tournament hosts were a perfect 10-0 in their gym in league play.

“It will be a very special feeling to compete for a national championship at home. It’s extremely motivating,” says Sherbrooke mentor Denis Fontaine. “We have exceptional fans that provide us with tons of positive energy. Our team is on a mission and the atmosphere should be electric this week.”

Despite a No. 7 seeding, Canada West bronze medallist Alberta can never be counted out once at the national championship. Making its 18th appearance in 21 seasons, the Edmonton powerhouse has claimed seven CIS banners over the years, tied with Winnipeg for second most all-time. The Pandas came oh-so-close to ending UBC’s championship run a year ago, dropping a 3-2 gold-medal decision to the T-Birds after taking a two sets to one lead.

Laval is another program that has made a habit of competing for the national banner on an annual basis. The Rouge et Or, who missed last year’s tourney after reaching the title match at home in 2011, is about to appear in its 32nd CIS championship in 35 years. The Quebec City team enjoyed another solid campaign but has struggled with consistency since the start of the new year, posting a sub-par 4-6 overall record in 2013.