Photo and Story Credit: Brad McLeod, Cranbrook Daily Townsman
It's been a nice month off, but the women's College of the Rockies Avalanche volleyball team is more than ready to get back on the court this weekend.
Tonight, they host the Vancouver Island University Mariners in their first match of the season's second semester. The Mariners are the top team in the PACWEST conference and the reigning CCAA national champions and will be a formidable test for an Avs team struggling to prove that they are still contenders.
With matches on Friday and Saturday, COTR is looking forward to playing with a healthy lineup for the first time in a long time. According to coach John Swanson, the group was significantly banged up in the first half and the December rest period was great for the team.
"I think the break was good, it gave some players some time to heal and that's encouraging," Swanson said after practice on Wednesday. "You wonder [sometimes] if it's too much of a break, that they're not getting the touches [they need], but we did challenge them in the Christmas break to make sure they find a gym, wherever their hometown is.
"Today's practice was indicative [that they took on that challenge]. There was good energy and pace. I think the [team was] actually playing at quite a high level [and] made good strides to get ready for this weekend."
A key returning player to the team is third-year right side hitter Ari Benwell who missed the Avs last six matches with an injury.
"[Benwell] is a trooper — she's probably not fully 100%, but she's a gamer, so she is out there playing," Swanson said. "It's good to see her [back]."
Although the team is just 4-8 and in sixth place in the league so far, a year after being named provincial champions, Swanson believes that their second half schedule should allow them to climb back up the standings. The team plays at home eight times this semester, twice as many as in the first half of the year.
"[Home court advantage] should be very helpful for us," he said. "Just like last year, the expectations of [playing at home] is something we need to take advantage of."
Picking up wins against the Mariners, however, won't be easy. VIU has a 10-2 record going into the weekend and have only lost one road game this season. Back in October, VIU swept the Avs in back-to-back 3-0 games on their home court.
"We're going to have a tough test, obviously, with the best team in the country coming in," Swanson said. "It'll be a good chance to see where we're at and we just have to compete and do the best we can at home and take advantage of [that]."
Despite the gap in the standings, both teams are entering the matches with single-game winning streaks. Although the Avs semester-closing victory over the University of Fraser Valley Cascades on November 27 was a long time ago now, Swanson hopes the team can emulate what made them successful in the new year.
"That [win against UFV] was an especially big win for us for a couple of reasons and it's eerily similar to last year," he said. "We beat Camosun last year in the last match of the first semester and we were 3-9 last year and we are 4-8 now, so there are a lot of similarities … hopefully, we can, even though there was a month break, carry that [momentum] into our match on Friday."
Unlike the Avs, the Mariners have not spent the entirety of their break away from game action. VIU's team were in San Diego taking part in exhibition matches from December 27 to January 3.
Swanson believes that while VIU might be a little sharper right off the hop on Friday, he's confident in the approach he took with the team during the holiday break.
"I'm a proponent of getting back to family and those kinds of things, [but] I think there are pros and cons [to taking a month off]," he said. "I think with VIU, they're going to have played in some competitive matches that we haven't, so they'll be in that mode, [but] sometimes fatigue or injury can happen.
"You don't hope for that, but there's always that risk. Our strategy [was] to take a break. We needed it this year for injuries and hopefully, we are ready to go on the weekend."
Even with the focus on rest, the Avs suffered an unfortunate injury to libero Megan Clark over the break. Despite the loss, the team's starting libero in October, Alexa Koshman, is expected to continue playing as a power-hitter in the new year while Mackenzie Morey handles the defensive libero duties in Clark's absence.
A year removed from being one of the PACWEST's best libero's, Koshman was given the opportunity to play left-side in the team's last five matches of the first semester and was very impressive, racking up 52 kills in 17 sets.
The Avs kick off their second semester at the COTR gymnasium at 6 p.m. on Friday and play VIU again at 1 p.m. on Saturday.