A year can make a big difference as both the University of Manitoba Bisons men's and women's volleyball teams are already discovering.
Both are ranked in the top five in the country heading into their respective home-opening matches this weekend as the Brandon University Bobcats visit the Investors Group Athletic Centre.
The No. 4-ranked women (1-1), who did not qualify for the national championship last year for a second straight season, play at 6 p.m. The No. 5-ranked men's team, which missed the post-season for the past two years, take on the No. 9-ranked Bobcats at 7:30 p.m.
"We've acknowledged that we've fallen short and it doesn't feel very good, but this year, we've just made the commitment to think about the work a lot more and a lot less on the prize," said Ken Bentley, in his 24th season as Bison women's coach. "I'd like to think that we weren't doing that in years past. This is a big step, to win at this level and now that this group is in our third and fourth year together, they've come to realize the level of work required the whole year to have a chance at the end of the year."
Ashley Voth, a fourth-year left-side, said the players believe familiarity will bring success.
"Most of us have been together for eight years now and we have so much experience with each other and we know how to play beside each other very well so that makes a difference," said Voth, 21, a member of the Bisons club program which won the national championship in 2006 along with Sam Loewen, Amy Penner and Sarah Morrissette.
Garth Pischke, in his 29th season as the Bison men's head coach, said the cohesiveness is strong on his team, which is undefeated in early conference play and lost only to Laval and Alberta in the pre-season.
"There's not a real big division of young kids and veterans and that was part of the problem two years ago when we lost so many guys," Pischke said. "We brought in a bunch of new kids who, especially last year, were some of the better players on our team and that's tough on the veterans. But that playing experience has helped a ton."
The two Bisons teams have another thing in common besides a good start -- they've each got a Voth. Ashley's younger brother Chris, 19, is a second-year left-side hitter with men's team.
"I'm super proud to have my brother on the men's team. He's a great player and fun to watch," Ashley said. "It's pretty cool that we get to experience this together."
Last year's record: regular season 4-14, did not qualify for playoffs for second straight year
This season so far: 2-0 Canada West, 10-3 pre-season
Who's in: four rookies -- setters T.J. Sanders and Chris Komishon, middle/left-side Chris Osborn and libero Brett Weiss. Leaders will be 2008-2009 CIS rookie-of-the-year Chris Voth, fifth-year hitter John Galloway, fourth-year setter Zack Diboll and second-year right-side Dane Pischke; 6-foot-8 middle Joe Brooks is back after a year off.
Who's out: team graduates include setter Drew Venables, middle blocker Derek Tyler, Stefan Bouw
Hold onto your seat: Voth is a member of Canada's national men's team; coach Pischke is using a rotation of 10 players in a match.
HEAD Coach Garth Pischke, 29th year, said: "A lot of these guys have played together quite a bit in the past and done a lot of winning. It's a real successful group that really doesn't know anything but playing to the best of their ability."