After all the practices, the games, the hard work and growing pains, just one win now stands between the Bisons women's volleyball team and the national stage.
One win, but they'll get two chances to do it. Of the final four teams still standing in the Canada West conference playoffs, three will move on to the national championships. And the Bisons will get their first chance on Friday night in Vancouver, when they take on the Trinity Western squad that twice stymied them earlier this year. Win that one and they're headed to the nationals. Lose it, and they'll play the loser of the other semifinal game for third.
It's sort of a funky system, one that -- if he's being honest -- Bisons head coach Ken Bentley isn't exactly in love with. He'd prefer the way it used to be: a series, a good ol' best-of-three. "That way, if you win, you've demonstrated that you're the better team," Bentley said on Tuesday. "There's a lot more peace of mind, winning or losing... but we've had this format for a long time, and it's just the way it goes."
The challenges of the format come down to preparation: No matter how the matches go, the Bisons will have to face two teams, with different strategies for both. On the plus side, Bentley said, this maturing Bisons team is at the point now where they can adapt to their opponents more readily without losing stride. "You have to work to get to that point with your group," he said. "Now we're at the stage we can handle those changes and execute them for real."
Leading that charge, the team has some aces in their pocket. They have Brittany Habing, the third-year setter who was named the Bisons' female athlete of the week and Canada West's female third star of the week, after she helped orchestrate their quarter-final win over the University of Alberta Pandas last weekend. They have outside hitters Taylor Pischke and Rachel Cockrell, who attacked the Pandas hard at home.
These Bisons also have all grown up together, mostly third-year players Bentley coached in club volleyball before they moved into the university ranks. So he's known many of these players since they were 15 years old, and they've battled through a lot to grow. That was a deliberate approach, to bring a whole core group up together, though Bentley is now starting to plan for what happens when they graduate two more seasons down the road.
But that's then. The Canada West final four is now, and though this team has had its growing pains, Bentley thinks they've got what it takes to move on. The last time a Bisons women's volleyball team earned a medal in the conference championships was 2009-10, when they got a silver. So he thinks it's time.
"The last few generations we've been all-in early on, and carry through a full generation," he said. "Which has been great, because we've had great results there, too. Right now, we're prepared to win now. We're good enough to win now. We're going to try to win now, and hopefully we'll come back in the next couple of years and keep pushing forward."
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In other Bison news, track and field runner Cody Mages was named the Smitty's Bison Sports male athlete of the week on Tuesday, after he pushed to his fastest time of the season at the 2014 McGill Last Chance Meet in Montreal. It was their last meet before the conference championships in Edmonton this weekend and Mages, a fourth-year runner, dashed the 600-metre race in 1:20:36, good for second place.
He is now the sixth-fastest middle-distance runner in the Canada West rankings, and is a threat to qualify for the national championship.