Healthy Bisons looking for upset against No. 2-ranked Cougars Wesmen women face challenge in top-seed Spartans
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Raya Surinx was heralded as one of the top first-year players in Canada West when she started the 2022-23 women’s volleyball season with the University of Manitoba Bisons.
The 6-foot left side from J.H. Bruns Collegiate has certainly made good on that promise.
Earlier this week, after finishing the conference regular season fourth in kills (3.49 per set), third in points (4.19 per set) and third in service aces (0.54 per set), Surinx earned a spot on the conference’s second all-star team and also earned all-rookie team honours.
Last weekend, she carried the sixth-seeded Bisons to a quarter-final upset of the third-seeded UBC Thunderbirds, contributing 23 kills, 14 digs and three aces in the decisive match.
On Friday, the Bisons will be underdogs again when they face the No. 2-ranked Mount Royal Cougars in conference semifinal action in Calgary. The best-of-three series continues Saturday and Sunday, if necessary.
“I think it would be tough to have a better rookie season than she’s had, generally speaking,” Bisons head coach Ken Bentley said Wednesday. “She’s just been really consistent. On the weekend, she didn’t miss a serve until the fourth set of the second day, and that’s spin serving. That’s jumping and getting after it. Her consistency has just been so impressive this year.”
While Surinx’s reputation as a fearsome attacker and server has grown, so has the extra attention from opponents.
“I think it was when we played Alberta (in January) and I noticed there’s definitely a difference,” said Surinx. “I was getting blocked a lot more and they were trapping towards the outside. I think that’s helped me learn how to hit against bigger teams… it was a turning point for me. I was super upset with how I played personally and I was like, ‘I don’t want to feel like this again.’”
CANADA WEST WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL FINAL FOUR
Manitoba Bisons (6) vs. Mount Royal Cougars (2)
• Friday Game at Calgary, 7 p.m. CST
• Saturday Game at Calgary, 6 p.m. CST
• Sunday Game (if necessary) at Calgary, 4 p.m. CST
Winnipeg Wesmen (4) vs. Trinity Western Spartans (1)
• Thursday Game at Langley, B.C., 8 p.m. CST
• Friday Game at Langley, B.C., 8:45 p.m. CST
• Saturday Game (if necessary) at Langley, B.C., 8 p.m. CST
Surinx was forced to adjust her tactics.
“I’ve been trying to swing high and not down as much and go off hands and get the roll shots,” she said.
Surinx’s more polished game has boosted Manitoba’s hopes. So, too, has a healthy lineup, something the visiting Bisons didn’t have when they lost by scores of 3-1, 3-1 to the Cougars Dec. 2-3.
“I feel we’re a much better team than we were in December,” said Bentley, who last guided the Bisons to the conference final four in 2013-14, a season capped by a gold medal at the national championship. “The first set was really tough for us. I mean, we were filled with flu and some COVID and we didn’t have (the same) lineup for two straight matches — I don’t think — for any part of the of the (first) term.
“And that weekend, too, we lost (left side) Andi (Almonte) for the majority of that weekend and she’s a big player for us. At this point, outside of a little bit of a head cold here and there, we’re pretty dang healthy.”
Mount Royal is a formidable foe, with a trio of first-team conference all-stars in the lineup, including setter Quinn Pelland, middle Nyadholi Thokbuom and outside hitter Haley Roe.
Thokbuom missed the earlier series with Manitoba because of an injury.
“They’re pretty tough, especially because they have a player back who was injured when we played them before, but I think we’ve progressed a lot as a team and we’re ready,” said Surinx.
“We’re the team now I felt like we could be,” added Bentley, who also lost key returnees Keziah Hoeppner and Simone Crevier to early season-ending injuries. “So, better late than never.”
The Bisons’ return to prominence has coincided with a tremendous season by their cross-town rivals at the University of Winnipeg.
Led by first-team all-conference left side Emma Parker, the Wesmen finished the regular season in fourth place.
Last weekend, Winnipeg went the distance with the Fraser Valley Cascades before prevailing in a five-set deciding match in the best-of-three series to advance to a semifinal with the top-seeded Trinity Western Spartans.
“They’re ranked No. 1 in Canada for a reason,” said Wesmen head coach Phil Hudson of the Spartans. “They’re solid. They’ve got no weak spots in their lineup. They’re all big, they’re athletic and they can all attack the ball really well. I think they’re the most aggressive serving team in Canada, too, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Parker, a fifth-year senior from St. Adolphe, will need to be at the top of her game if the Wesmen are to dethrone the defending national champions.
“She’s in great shape, she’s got a great attitude and she just leads by example on the court,” said Hudson. “We’re really fortunate to have her as a member of our team and I can’t wait to see how she plays this weekend and moving forward.”
A semifinal win for either the Wesmen or Bisons would send them to the U Sports national championship but a loss won’t end their season.
A third-place match will be held the weekend of March 10-11, possibly between Winnipeg and Manitoba, to determine Canada West’s third entry at the nationals. Host UBC has an automatic entry to the tournament.
Joining Surinx on the all-rookie squad was Winnipegger Natalie Lemoine-Sells, an outside hitter with the Fraser Valley Cascades. Lemoine-Sells played her high school volleyball with the Jeanne-Sauve Olympiens.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.