Photo and story credit: Brad McLeod - Cranbrook Townsman
There will be a lot of new names on the Avalanche women's volleyball team this weekend, but there is no indication the squad has taken a step back from last season.
Earning a fourth-place finish in both the PACWEST regular season and provincials in 2016-17, the College of the Rockies group had a massive player turnover during the off-season with 10 players departing and 11 brought in to replace them.
While the team has nine rookies, fresh out of high school, they also added two experienced transfers and kept some of their most important veterans. Exactly what their lineup will look like on Friday in their home opener against the Camosun Chargers, however, is still a bit of a mystery.
"I'm excited to see how the girls perform as a team," said fourth-year outside hitter Mikaela Pushor. "We're a really deep team and have lots of options, but we haven't really had a [set] starting six play together in a real game yet.
"[It'll be interesting] to see how we mesh and how we play as a team."
Pushor is one of just four returning players from last year's team, along with Alexa Koshman, Megan Clark and Danielle Warner, and is eager to take on an ever bigger leadership role in her second season with the Avs.
"We're coming together pretty well, [but] it definitely is a little bit hard this year trying to take the leadership role [with all our youth]," she said. "Alexa and I and [the other returners] are really trying to step up and just show them what COTR volleyball is and show them what they need to do in order to succeed."
According to head coach John Swanson, back for his third-year at the helm of the team, Pushor, Koshman and also incoming veteran Megan Beckett — a former Camosun Charger — will be relied upon heavily to start the year.
"They're going to be three key players for us, to just calm down nerves or maybe even motivate [the rest of the group] to get going," Swanson said. "It might get really quiet on the court… you've got a first-year player [who is] kind of a 'deer in the headlights' and all of a sudden that's where your vet can say, 'Hey, you've got this!'"
Despite the team's inexperience as a unit, the Avs were very impressive in their preseason play, going 7-2 over the course of two preseason tournaments.
Swanson hopes the experience of those tournaments, and the support of a raucous COTR gym can push the team to be competitive with a Camosun team that has already played two games this season.
"Camosun had a very competitive match [last Friday] against VIU, who I think will be one of the stronger teams in the conference, [so] they actually come in with more experience," he explained. "I think the helpful thing for us is being at home. We'll be comfortable and I think there's going to be a lot of energy in the gym.
"There could be some initial nerves, but I'm hoping the energy is going to push them through."
While the Chargers went 0-2 in their first weekend of play, they took last year's provincial champion VIU Mariners to five sets in their first match and the Avs will not take them lightly.
"I got a chance to scout and watch [Camosun] on Friday and Saturday and they're kind of like us," Swanson said. "They actually have a new team, quite a few new players in the program [and] a few first years.
"I expect it to be an entertaining and competitive match."
According to Koshman, who is not sure whether she will start the year as libero or left side, that's the attitude with which the team will approach every game this season.
"I actually don't know much about Camosun, but like any kind of team, it's a blank slate," she said. "Any team could be amazing, so it's going into it with the right mindset. If we go in thinking we're going to have good competition [and] we know that they're going to be good, [we'll do a better job] preparing."
For Pushor, success will come if the team just plays their style of game and doesn't worry too much about their opponent.
"[When we're] just having fun and being relaxed out there, that's when we play our best," she explained. "We get in trouble when we get a little frantic and just stop working as a team, as a unit. I think that's our biggest challenge this weekend."
In addition to packing in their usual large crowd for a home opener, it will be an even more festive night as the gym will be decked out in pink decorations for 'Paint the Gym Pink' for cancer awareness.
The team will also be selling pink Avs shirts for 25 dollars each and donating the money to the Cancer Society.
"I think it's going to be [a] fantastic [night]," Swanson said. "We hope that a lot of people come and watch and wear pink and we remember the importance of supporting and fighting breast cancer."
The home opener for the women kicks off at 6:00 p.m. on Friday and will be followed by the men's team at 8:00 p.m. The women then play again at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday and the men play at 3:00 p.m.
The following week, the team will head out on their first road trip of the season to the Lower Mainland, playing the Capilano University Blues and the Douglas College Royals in four straight matches from Thursday to Sunday.