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Herd stampedes into nationals

Pucksters, v-ballers brim with confidence as rivals loom

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Dillon Perron

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Dillon Perron

Two University of Manitoba teams roared into last weekend's Canada West playoffs and emerged victorious, battling to survive on the ice and on the floor.

Now, as they move deeper into their respective campaigns, the Bisons women's volleyball team and the men's hockey squad are hungry for more.

There are fearsome opponents looming on the near horizon. For the pucksters, they must face the University of Calgary Dinos in the Canada West semifinal this weekend. For the volleyball women, they will head to the CIS national championships in Regina this weekend with the monster UBC Thunderbirds in their sights. The Herd dropped the conference championship to that team last weekend. This doesn't mean they don't think the Thunderbirds can be beaten.

"You gotta keep trying to kick the door down," Bisons women's volleyball coach Ken Bentley said.

Game on, then. This weekend marks the first time the Manitoba women's volleyball team has made it to the nationals since 2009-10. They got there with a confident three-set win over Trinity Western in the Canada West semifinal on Friday, a tilt that was among their best to date.

"We were confident in what we were doing, we made very little errors, and we just knew we wanted to win," right-side hitter Rachel Cockrell said on Monday.

But the Bisons were in tough for the Canada West gold medal game against UBC on Saturday. The T-birds are a titan team, bolstered by Brandon's own Lisa Barclay, who led the entire CIS in points per game this season. That she isn't wearing brown and gold is "a pretty big recruiting gaffe on my part," Bentley joked, but they have yet to find a way to shut her down.

The Bisons would like another chance to write that test. At the nationals in Regina, they could get it. "I'd like to think we have a better chance, if we play them again," Bentley said. "We missed some blocking assignments... Tactically, we can just be way better against them, if given another opportunity. I'd like to think we can really do a better job than we did the other night."

The Bisons will go in to the nationals as the second seed, and will first face the seventh-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees on Friday afternoon. They beat that team back in October, and if they win again on Friday they'll have to win two more matches to make it to the final.

And if they make it that far, and face the Thunderbirds again, Cockrell -- who was named the Bisons' female athlete of the week -- thinks it's a matter of confidence. "They're a strong team, and they're mature," she said. "They're a bigger team than we are, but I think it's all mental. We need to just believe that we can beat them, and they're not as good as everyone makes them out to be."

That's also the refrain being sung around the Bison men's hockey dressing room this week, as the team prepares for their own playoff battle.

The Bison men are riding high after the grind of the weekend's three-game quarter-final win over the visiting Mount Royal Cougars. It was a punishing set, and it opened in a heartbreaking way: on Friday, the Bisons dropped the first game of the series 3-2 in double-overtime, when a soft shot floated into the net. It was the longest playoff game in Bison men's hockey history.

"When you have a game like that, and to lose like that, you could tell the guys were upset," said goaltender Joe Caligiuri, who made 52 saves in that game, but got caught screened behind a defenceman on the final goal. "It's a split second, and it's done. But luckily we responded on Saturday night, and on Sunday. That feeling on Friday night was different going home, but it feels a lot better now."

That's because the Bisons roared back big for the final two games of the series. Caligiuri was a rock in net, turning away 22 shots in the Bisons' 4-2 win over Mount Royal on Saturday and 24 shots in Sunday's 2-0 shutout to clinch the series. "That second game was as physical of a game, and as emotional of a game, as I can recall in many years," coach Mike Sirant said.

Now, Caligiuri and the rest of the Bisons will have to work up that same fire again, as they travel to face the Dinos in the Canada West semifinal. It won't be easy: the two teams faced each other four times during the season, and every time Calgary came out on top. But two of those games were overtime battles, the other two were close. And the Dinos struggled mightily down the stretch, going 1-4-1 in their final six.

So if the Bisons can use their bodies to shut down the Dinos' speed and skill, Sirant said, they have a fighting chance to get past.

"We're right there with them," the coach said. "We're not going to be misled by their recent record. We know how good they are... we expect a real tough series."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2014 D4

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