National champions two years ago and winners of the silver medal last year, the No. 8-ranked Wesmen (7-7) have their sights set on going after a national championship, but so do their neighbours just two hours to the west.
The No. 7-ranked Brandon Bobcats (8-6), in a three-way tie with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and Trinity Western Spartans for fourth in the Canada West conference, are enjoying their most successful season in four years as a Canadian Interuniversity Sport program.
The Wesmen, fifth in Canada West after a pair of losses last weekend to top-ranked Alberta, and the Bobcats have been ranked in the top 10 all season.
"The more challenging games you can have in your season, the better off you are in the long run. So having Brandon come on so strong and have them push us every time we play them is a good thing for both sides," said Wesmen fifth-year left-side Alan Ahow of Winnipeg. "Because they're Manitoba guys too, that makes the rivalry even better."
Ahow has played in the past with Bobcats starters Joel Small and Kevin Miller on provincial teams, and Brandon's Paul Robidoux was once a practice roster player with the Wesmen.
Paul Kjos, the only other fifth-year Wesmen, said being part of a program that's been a national contender for the two years has made for a tremendous atmosphere.
"It's been amazing, more that I could have wished for," said Kjos, an Ottawa native. "At times, we show a lot of confidence in each other and that's been one of our strong points."
Winnipeg also boasts Andrew Town, a fourth-year left-side who is fifth in the CIS in kills per game and scoring, and setter Dan Lother, in his first year as a starter.
The Wesmen got as high as a fourth national ranking in early November while the Bobcats got as high as sixth, also in early November. For the Bobcats, who finished last in the conference in their first two seasons and lost in the first playoff round last year, the ranking is a sign of the program's growth.
"I didn't know if we thought having the success we've had would have been possible this early," said Brandon head coach Russ Paddock, who has coached the team since its inception in 2005.
"The provincial rivalry is there. It does (push players to be their best) and that's a big part of the whole league. Six different teams could finish in a five-way tie for second or third so it's an extremely competitive situation.
"We could still end up second or seventh in the conference."
This season the Bobcats have been led by fourth-year middle Small and third-year middle Miller with Winnipeg native Robidoux, a third-year player, making an impact recently on the right side.
A surprising development from the University of Manitoba campus is that the Bisons men's team has failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in head coach Garth Pischke's 28 years at the Bisons helm.
Alberta is the host of the CIS championship this year so, providing Alberta finishes first in the conference as everyone expects, all four teams which make the Final Four tournament will qualify for the nationals.
"We know we have the talent to get there (to nationals), we just have to gain momentum in these last few games. We'd like to get the opportunity to host a playoff game," Ahow said.
The Wesmen have a home series this weekend against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, play at Manitoba on Feb. 5 for the conclusion of the Duckworth Challenge and against Manitoba at home on Feb. 8 to conclude the regular season.
Get the dynamite, we’ve got a logjam
THE No. 7-ranked University of Manitoba Bisons women’s volleyball team and the No. 6-ranked Bobcats women’s volleyball team are locked in a four-way tie for third place with the Trinity Western Spartans and University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
The teams, all with 11 wins, are just two points back of secondplace Calgary Dinos.
Brandon, TWU and UBC all have 11-5 records and two matches in hand over the 11-7 Bisons.
The Bobcats are enjoying the best season so far in the program’s four-year history after finishing seventh in the conference last season. The team is led by key high-level players from the Westman area who stayed home to play, including Brandon natives Ashley Creighton, a fifth-year middle, and Teagan Hunter, a third-year right-side, along with setter Becky Young of Souris.
The Bobcats, ranked as high as No. 3 two weeks ago, split with the Calgary Dinos last weekend at home. The Dinos were ranked second in Canada at the time.
"Our players are very proud of how far we’ve come in the four years we’ve been in existence," said Bobcats head coach Lee Carter, who has been with the team from the outset. "To go from only three wins the first year to having a shot at being able to beat the top teams, or being able to compete with them hard... they’re excited about where we’re going from here."
The Bisons have been led this season by third-year middle/right side Ashley Voth, a CIS firstteam all-Canadian, second-year setter and CIS rookie-of-the-year Samantha Loewen and fifth-year veterans Sabrina Barnes on the left side and Erin Nieuwenburg in the middle.
Manitoba, which lost a pair of key matches last weekend to UBC, has a bye this weekend and will close out its regular-season schedule with games at home on Feb. 5 and at Winnipeg on Feb. 8. Manitoba finished first in the conference last season but didn’t qualify for nationals.