Courting a championship

The U of M Bisons women's volleyball team rose to the top of the nation last season, winning their first CIS title in 12 years; Now, they try to do it all over again


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Time to dig deep with the reigning CIS champions. This season, the Free Press is going behind the scenes of the University of Manitoba Bisons women's volleyball team, and their quest to defend their national title. We will follow the unfolding story of what it takes to create elite university athletes, and meet the players and coaches who are writing the latest chapter in Manitoba's storied volleyball history.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/10/2014 (3099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


Time to dig deep with the reigning CIS champions. This season, the Free Press is going behind the scenes of the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s volleyball team, and their quest to defend their national title. We will follow the unfolding story of what it takes to create elite university athletes, and meet the players and coaches who are writing the latest chapter in Manitoba’s storied volleyball history.

Today, we launch the project with a trip down memory lane — and a look at how the Bisons are preparing now to stay on top of their game.


“WE’RE going to win.”

The words tumbled from Jordana Milne’s lips in an exclamation, and all at once she believed and could not believe it. Seven years she’d been working at the game, and working out and learning how to block and serve and play. Now it came down to this: it was the night of March 2, the CIS championship final in Regina, and the University of Manitoba Bisons had a chokehold on the third set against the top-ranked University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.

The Bisons had already won the first two sets against the six-time defending champions. They were chess matches each, with 16 ties between them and eight swaps of which team was in the lead. But now, deep in the third set, Milne had just come off the court after serving her final rally at 23-19. She sat down on the bench next to fellow middle Sarah Klassen, a plucky second-year player from Winkler, and that’s when it hit her.

“Oh my goodness, we’re going to do it,” Milne thought, at the moment confidence yielded the way to a dawning inevitability.

In retrospect, it felt like they knew even before the first serve flew. That Sunday morning at a Travelodge in Regina, the Bisons piled into head coach Ken Bentley’s hotel room, a familiar ritual in the hours before a game. They watched some video of UBC, though they knew this opponent well already. The Thunderbirds, led by Brandon’s own Lisa Barclay, had swept the Bisons in three sets at the Canada West final just one week before.

That loss was a familiar story. The Bisons hadn’t beaten UBC in 18 matches since 2007-08, and hadn’t surpassed them in a playoff match for over a decade. But on that Sunday morning, with the bulk of the 2014 CIS championship tournament behind them — they’d won six straight sets against Ottawa and Dalhousie to earn their final berth — the Bisons had an inkling of a better strategy.

Together, Bentley and the players cobbled together their game plan. They needed to vary their attack against UBC, they figured; they needed to keep the Thunderbirds off balance, stop them from locking into a killing rhythm. Most of all, they affirmed to each other, defence needed to be paramount. Balls needed to stay in the air.

When the Bisons left Bentley’s room that morning, they had a good feeling. They were an underdog of sorts going into the final — at least, as much as a second seed can be — and that upstart confidence would become a weapon.

“As a team we just decided, ‘Hey, we’re going to win,’ ” Milne says now, six months later. “The whole team got on the same page and we just believed it. No matter what anyone else said, we believed it and we made it happen.”

On her way back to her room for a pre-game nap, Rachel Cockrell felt the same surging spirit. Much of the Bisons’ attack would rest on her shoulders, and she knew she needed to execute almost perfectly. “You know what, there was no doubt,” Manitoba’s star right-side hitter says. “Talking to some of the girls after that meeting, we knew. Not knew we were going to win it, but… we knew what we had to do to win. Now it was up to us to perform.”

On the court at the University of Regina that night, they did.

The Bisons won the first two sets, each with a final tally of 25-22. The final set played out as if in a dream. Other than a brief 4-3 UBC advantage, the Manitobans never fell behind; the closest the Thunderbirds ever came to pulling the match back came at 20-18. The Bisons shut that comeback down with a flurry of attacks: a pair of service aces from Mariel Garcia, a couple of electric cross-court kills from Cockrell to bring her to 18 on the night.


One more point, one last rally and Taylor Pischke sent the ball streaking down the UBC sideline for the winning point, 25-20. With that, the Bisons had won their first national title in 12 years, and they’d done it without dropping a single set in the entire championship tournament. They had won, they had won, they had won.

Now, that golden moment comes back to them in flashes. From the stands, they could hear the roar of some 40 family members and Bisons fans who had made the trip out west. On the court, setter Brittany Habing remembers only a blur, a whirlpool of shouts and joy and tears that coalesced around where she stood near the front of the net. If anything was said in that celebration, it’s hard to remember now. Everything was so overwhelming, so loud.

“Honestly there was more emotion and just crying and hugging than words,” Cockrell says, but she does remember one simple phrase tumbling through the tangle of the team’s exhilarated embrace: “We did it. We did it.”

— — —

In the wake of winning a CIS championship, there is no ensuing rush of fame. After the photographs are taken, the medals handed out and the tearful speeches given, athletes roll back home, where their lives settle into their familiar rhythm. They don’t get mobbed for autographs at the grocery store, there is no parade through a city’s veins. The media spotlight flashes, lingers on them for a minute, and then just… wanders away.

Hey, it was busy. The same week the Bisons women made a case for themselves as the best in the nation, the Jets started a five-game winless skid. The Bombers traded for quarterback Brian Brohm and bid adieu to Justin Goltz. Debates about these teams raged on the airwaves and piled up in comment sections. The gears of media turned, churned by the fuel leaking out of the pro leagues.

Underneath it all, sports are stories we tell ourselves about heroes. But most of them are not so unreachable. They walk among us every day.

These are the things you think about, watching the Bisons women practise in the middle of September. For almost three hours straight they labour, biceps veiled in sweat from the effort. They break only briefly to wipe their brows and chug some water. Then it’s back to the court to push through another set of drills, knowing that afterwards they’re going to hit the weight room for hours of squat reps and lifts.

It’s a massive commitment. It is work. It carries the promise of an education and a thrilling experience, but there is no pot of riches waiting for them at the end. Maybe that’s OK. “It would be cool to live the life of an NBA star, but only for a little while,” Habing muses. “I feel like I would get sick of it. It was really cool for the first week to sort of be a superstar around campus. But it’s nice to not have to carry that title with every person you see.”

There is also this: In a society still struggling to raise professional women’s team sports up to the brightest lights, many of women’s greatest athletic achievements happen in amateur competition. Mostly off of prime-time sports television, mostly out of mainstream sight. But these achievements are evolving the script for what the next generation of young women can grow up to be.

So yeah, maybe the media could stand to adjust our priorities. Which brings us back to the Bisons women, on the verge of starting their season for 2014-15.

— — —

On a crisp Monday afternoon, Sept. 22, 2014, Ken Bentley sat in his squat windowless office at Investors Group Athletic Centre, idly nudging a volleyball with his toe. This is his 29th season coaching the Bison women and posters taped to the white cinder-block walls form a de facto museum of his tenure: snapshots of past squads, an old schedule from the 1993-94 season, still in pristine condition. “The legend continues,” it reads.

So it does. The Bisons were deep into training camp already and Bentley had just given them a weekend off from workouts so he could make a quick recruiting trip to B.C. It was a fruitful visit, he told Bisons communications officer Chris Zuk. “In fact,” the coach added with a coy smile, “I got an earlier flight home.”

There was no time to dwell on that, though. Instead, Bentley filed the achievement away in one of the mental compartments every university coach must keep, and turned his attention back to his varsity team. They were set to play their first exhibition tournament in Regina later that week, and the home opener was looming on Oct. 9.

Bentley rattled off the things the team needed to accomplish in the remaining weeks of camp: they need to piece together a starting lineup, so that strategies can be set. The Bisons’ four rookies still need to settle in to the speed and power of the CIS, and the demands that a gruelling university practice and workout schedule makes on the body.

It’s a grind. Twenty hours a week in the gym and the weight room, another 10 hours or more practising with the team. Once a week, they meet in smaller groups with Bentley for more focused coaching sessions. And then there’s school to consider, a fact Bentley hammered home in the season plan he handed out in mid-September.

On the plus side, they can look forward to a 17-day break in December. Then, Bentley wrote, “You can reintroduce yourself to all of the friends and family you have had to put aside for the past three months.” He’s hardly joking, a fact to which groaning muscles attested in the opening weeks of September. At one of their first practices, the players rattled off a list of things that hurt: the arms, from getting back to bumping. The abs. The thighs, after a gruelling squat workout session.

It’s a grind because it must be to get these players writing the same game story. Yes, they are defending champions, with seven of the 12 players returning. But every team is a new beginning and the 2014-15 squad will have to move different from the one that won it all — especially since, early in training camp, Bentley learned they would have to go forward without Taylor Pischke, their star left-side hitter and one of the best passers in the nation.

Her departure was not unexpected. Bentley long surmised Pischke, the daughter of longtime Bisons men’s coach Garth Pischke, would have to choose this year between indoor volleyball and her booming international beach volleyball career. Over the summer, Pischke and her Team Canada partner Melissa Humana-Paredes surged up the international rankings, including earning their second consecutive bronze at the FIVB U23 world championships.

For them, the 2016 Olympics in Rio are now a real goal — but making the Olympics requires total dedication. So when Pischke came into Bentley’s office, the coach was supportive. “You don’t know what 2020 brings,” he said. “If you’ve got the chance now to qualify, who am I to say you should stay back and play another year? Hey, I was grateful to have her, we had a great run. We won, and it was time for her to move on. I think it’s the right move all the way.”

Still, losing Pischke changes things. Last year, the Bisons were a tightly specialized team, leaning heavily on the dual threats of Pischke and Cockrell, with Habing setting between them. Now, Bentley is going back to the drawing board to spread the work around. “People are going to have to do more things than they did last year,” he said. “They’re going to have to have more scope in their game, they’re going to have to take on more responsibility.”

Instead of specialists, he continued, they must be “highly specialized generalists.” That means more court time for some players. It also means more pressure, both in the mind and on the muscles. “When you’re playing all the time, it’s a different animal,” Bentley said. “Fitness is an issue. You have to concentrate and stay engaged… So we’re going to be asking more from some of those people now, but they’re certainly capable of doing it.”

The message was getting through. By the third week of camp, the players were already echoing Bentley’s terms.

“Generalists!” Cockrell chimed in last week, as she packed for their first pre-season tournament. “I think it’s awesome, because everyone is playing a bunch of different positions and learning a bit of everything. It gives us a lot of good options. We’re definitely going to miss (Taylor) for her passing, but we have a strong group, we’ll still be successful.”

It is intriguing for players who had spent their university career locked into narrower roles. Milne, a middle, can remember passing the volleyball just once in her CIS career, during an exhibition game last year. Now, she might be doing it on a regular basis, and dealing out more power hits, too. “It’s a challenge, for sure,” she said. “I really want to get better at it. I have the abilities, I just have to get my confidence there. It feels good to try new things. I love a challenge.”

When the first challenge came for the team, the results were instructive. The Bisons dropped their first two exhibition games in Regina last weekend, winning just one set against Alberta and none against Regina. But they came back and won their final three matches, dropping Calgary, Grant MacEwan and the Winnipeg Wesmen in succession.

Though the results were mixed, Bentley was pleased. He tried a few different lineup combinations over the weekend, got a handle of which ones were best, and he thought the players’ fitness held up well. “We left a lot better than when we got there, so that was good,” the coach said. “It just kind of helped propel us forward to (the) goal of getting to a more secure lineup, I suppose. Really I thought the weekend served its purpose.”

It’s a start. It must be, because when the season opens in earnest next week, the Bisons’ opponents will be waiting and hungry. Such is life at the top. “We know there’s a target on our backs, that’s to be expected, and we kind of love it,” Dobie said. “If it changes anything, it just means we have to go 10 times harder. Definitely it’s motivation for working a lot harder, going to the gym a lot more, lifting more. Everything needs to be amped up.”

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.


Updated on Thursday, October 2, 2014 5:55 AM CDT: Adds photo, adds missing text, adds video

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