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This article was published 1/10/2018 (1207 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The power and size of university volleyball players made a huge impression on Emma Parker last year.
Accustomed to using her prodigious leaping ability to great effect as she overpowered blockers at the high school level, the 5-10 St. Norbert product's rookie season with the University of Winnipeg women's team hit a wall. She was getting shut down by blockers four and five inches taller — some kind of an adjustment was needed.
"That was the biggest thing because I played on the Canada Games team and I’d never had that issue," says left side Parker, the daughter of former U of W volleyball star Ardith Lernout and ex-Wesmen basketball ace Will Parker. "Then I kept getting stuffed. I thought, ‘OK, this is new. What do I do now?’ I never hit off hands (before). If I did, it was a fluke."
And so, in a conference dominated by taller, powerhouse squads from UBC, Alberta and Calgary, the Wesmen took their lumps in 2017-18. Winnipeg's undersized women (only two players on the current roster are 6-0 or taller) are determined to be smarter, faster and better when the Canada West regular season opens later this month.
"Our big thing is wiping off," says Parker, who hit the weight room in the off-season and added 20 pounds of muscle. "Hitting just a roll over (shot), we try to use the block as much as we can because that gets (an opponent) frustrated. That’s what we have to do."
Head coach Diane Scott likes Parker's mindset.
"That’s her new mantra and she’s getting better at it," says Scott, whose team finshed third at its own Unrah Realty Volleyball Challenge last weekend. "But that has to our game. We have to be greasy, we have to be old-school '80s, use the block, be tenacious, pass well, dig and be gritty."
Here's a look at how the local women's university teams stack up for 2018-19 Canada West season:
2017-18 finish: 13th in Canada West (1-23), missed playoffs
Key departures: middle blocker Maria Colvin.
Newcomers: setter Mikaela Cameron; left side Kely Warmington; left side Bella Gierys; middle blocker Jessica Thorkelson.
Outlook: A return to the Canada West playoffs seems like a long shot but the youthful Wesmen, with 10 first- and second-year players, have plenty of upside.
"We learned what we’re up against," says second-year left side Kalena Schulz. "We lost a quite a few games last year and from that we could see where we needed to be to beat a few teams and the work we needed to put in."
It was a tough slog last season but Scott says the rough going revealed a high character bunch that was tight on and off the court
"Our level of compete is much higher and our skill set is better than a year ago or even at the end of last season," says Scott. "We’ve definitely taken a step up."
Schultz, along with Parker and left side Ashleigh Laube, are expected to provide the bulk of the finishing but Rylie Dickson, a fourth-year setter, is crucial to the mix.
"She’s taken a step up and she’s able to do more things," says Scott. "It was a big step when she came out of Killarney to come here."
2017-18 finish: sixth in Canada West (12-12); eliminated in quarter-finals
Key departures: setter Brittany Habing; middle blocker Emily Erickson; left side Tory Studler.
Newcomers: middle Grace van der Meer (transfer from Grant MacEwan); libeiro Jordan Hamm.
Outlook: Head coach Ken Bentley's crew made a late-season charge last spring before a first-round playoff exit but he returns a squad blessed with veteran leadership and a sprinkling of young talent.
The central question is who will replace Habing, Manitoba's veteran setter? Sydney Booker, a 5-8 fourth-year player, and 6-0 sophomore Kelsey Jordan appear to be in dead heat for the No. 1 job.
So, who has the edge?
"To be determined," says Bentley. "We have two really good ones. I'm going to play them straight up pretty much through through pre-season and see where we go with it. They're both ready, either one of them. On the experience side we lose, that's the biggest piece but in terms of ability, I'm not losing anything in the country to those two."
Adds third-year middle Jocelyn Koswin: "Last year Brittany Habing was a huge leader for us and both of them are still finding their role on the team. Our systems are changing, the way we’re running plays is changing... but I love playing with both of them.
The game's most demanding job is pressure-packed at the best of times.
"I don’t know if anybody ever gets really (confident)," says Jordan. "I think every year you learn a new aspect of the game and you realize there’s more to know, there’s more to know. You might think you’re getting the hang of it and coach throws another aspect at you, and you’ve gotta be a little bit better, a little more mentally intuitive on the court."
Jordan and Booker both want a return to the playoffs, but expect bigger things.
"I think it was a good start to the season," says Booker, whose team went 4-1 record at a pre-season tournament in Regina and 2-2 at the Ottawa Gee-Gees Classic last weekend. "There were a lot of good things but we can still improve some aspects in of our play. Hopefully, when we’re in Ottawa this weekend it reflects how much we’ve improved since last year."
Bentley has a deep roster and a recent change in U Sports rules in women's volleyball allowing two more substitutions per set has come as welcome news.
Manitoba generates much of its attack from the combination of twins Josie, a left side, and Kearley Abbott, a right side. However, Kearley suffered a severely sprained ankle in Regina and could miss up to a month of action.
Koswin and fourth-year left side Laura Findlay are also big offensive contributers while the Bisons lean heavily on defensive ace Cassie Bujan, a fifth-year libeiro, who was second in digs per set in the conference a year ago.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.