April 9, 2020

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Out of the darkness

Once-mighty U of W Wesmen women's volleyball program showing signs of life again, as players slowly gain confidence under interim coach after years of futility

There was a time when the Winnipeg Wesmen ruled the women's volleyball scene.

They were a juggernaut in the 1980s and won a remarkable six consecutive national titles starting in 1983. The Wesmen capped off their dominance by winning 123 straight games, a streak that started in January 1987 and lasted two years.

U Sports update

With it being the holiday break in U Sports, we take a look at how all the university teams in the city are looking at the midpoint of their seasons.

With it being the holiday break in U Sports, we take a look at how all the university teams in the city are looking at the midpoint of their seasons.

Wesmen women's volleyball

Record: 5-7

After opening the season with four straight losses, the Wesmen have rallied back to win five of their past eight contests. Four of their wins have come against their provincial rivals as they started November with a pair of victories against the Brandon Bobcats before they dealt the Manitoba Bisons two defeats later in the month. Fifth-year setter Rylie Dickson has been leading the charge as her 9.27 assists per set average is the fourth-best in the Canada West conference. They currently share the final playoff spot with UBC Okanagan.

Bisons women's volleyball

Record: 2-10

The Bisons finished the preseason on a 10-game winning streak, capped off by winning the Gee-Gees Classic in Ottawa. However, those results came at a price as they lost their star left side attacker Laura Findlay to a season-ending shoulder injury on the trip. Clearly, the team hasn't been the same since as their 2-10 record is in a four-way tie for last place in the conference. There's some talent on the roster with fifth-year middle Allison Alcock and fourth-year right side Kearley Abbott, but with 10 rookies on the team and their best player out of action, the Bisons find themselves in a rebuilding year.

Wesmen men's volleyball

Record: 4-6

The Wesmen enter the holiday break under .500, but they're holding onto the eighth and final playoff spot in Canada West. While they've beaten the Bisons twice, the biggest win of their season came against Brandon (11-1) who have only dropped six sets so far this season. The offence has gone through fourth-year attacker Daniel Thiessen who averages 3.88 kills per set which is the highest mark in the conference. They've also enjoyed some strong defensive play from third-year libero Darian Picklyk who leads Canada West with 88 digs.

Bisons men's volleyball

Record: 5-5

If the Bisons can start winning at home, they could be dangerous. They're an impressive 4-1 on the road, but they've only one once at the Investors Group Athletic Centre so far this year. Right side attacker Kevin Negus, a fifth-year player, has been a force for the Herd as his 4.19 kills per set lead the conference. Third-year setter Jack Mandryk is third in the Canada West in assists per set with 9.77.

Wesmen women's basketball

Record: 6-4

Losing star forward Faith Hezekiah to a potentially season-ending knee injury early in the year was a major blow to the Wesmen. But this group deserves some credit as they've hung in there and head into the break with a winning record. It's been a balanced scoring attack as third-year guard Robyn Boulanger, fifth-year guard Lena Wenke and freshman guard Anna Kernaghan all average slightly over 10 points per contest.

Bisons women's basketball

Record: 3-5

Manitoba finds themselves two games out of the final playoff spot at the break. They've leaned heavily on fourth-year guard Taylor Randall who has 17.3 points per game. Fifth-year forward Emma Thompson has also helped in the scoring department as she averages 12 points. They're 0-2 against the Wesmen this year and are winless against their cross-town rival since 2014.

Wesmen men's basketball

Record: 4-6

They went on an ugly six-game losing streak, but they head into the holidays on a positive note as they beat Brandon twice to stay in the playoff chase. The University of Northern British Columbia is currently holding the final spot with a 4-4 record. Fourth-year guard Narcisse Ambanza is having another stellar year as he's in the top five in scoring with 19.9 points per game.

Bisons men's basketball

Record: 7-1

This team has been the most impressive out of all the local squads so far. Fourth-year forward James Wagner has been superb as he's averaging 16.9 points and 10.3 rebounds. Fifth-year guard Rashawn Browne is having another dominant campaign as he leads the team in scoring with 18.8 points per game. The Herd are a perfect 5-0 at home and are currently riding a four-game win streak. They only trail the Alberta Golden Bears (9-1), Calgary Dinos (8-0) and the UBC Thunderbirds (8-2) in the standings.

Bisons women's hockey

Record: 5-11-0

After two straight trips to nationals, it was well known this would be a down year for the lady Bisons as they said goodbye to nearly a dozen players from the 2018-19 season. This year's group, which features 10 rookies, has fared OK at home with a 4-4 record, but their inexperience has shown on the road where they're 1-7. Third-year forward Emilie Masse leads the team with four goals.

Bisons men's hockey

Record: 7-9-1

They've already surpassed last year's win total as they were 6-22 a season ago. The Bisons have played seven teams this season and have split the two-game series with each of them except for the Saskatchewan Huskies. The Huskies (11-3-2) won both meetings against the U of M. The Bisons are currently in fifth place in conference action. Fifth-year Adam Henry has six goals which are the most by a defenceman in the Canada West this season.

Obviously, it would be impossible to maintain that success forever, as every university program has its ups and downs. But for a program with seven total national titles (their last coming in 1993), which is second to only the UBC Thunderbirds, who have 12, it's almost unfathomable to see how far the Wesmen plunged over the years. In their past three seasons, the lady Wesmen were a combined 7-65.

Now, the U of W is still some distance from returning to national title contention, but the good news is the program appears to be heading in a positive direction. Under interim coach Phil Hudson, who took over for Diane Scott — who was relieved of her duties after 24 seasons — the Wesmen women's volleyball team finds themselves at 5-7 at the holiday break.

"It's a huge accomplishment for the group of girls compared to what they've done before. I think the biggest thing is having a little bit of success in the pre-season and winning some games early," said Hudson, who helped lead the team to a 6-4 record in exhibition games prior to Canada West conference play.

"Success sort of breeds confidence and confidence breeds more confidence and it transfers into performance on the court. You can never underestimate the power in self-belief in themselves and each other."

Fifth-year setter Rylie Dickson (left) and first-year left side attacker Selva Planincic (right), Wesmen volleyball players, are looking forward to this month's Wesmen Classic featuring women's volleyball. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Fifth-year setter Rylie Dickson (left) and first-year left side attacker Selva Planincic (right), Wesmen volleyball players, are looking forward to this month's Wesmen Classic featuring women's volleyball. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Fifth-year setter Rylie Dickson admitted all the losing took a toll on the team mentally, but Hudson has helped them believe in themselves once again.

"I think we're just playing to win this year," said Dickson, a Killarney native. "In previous years, we were kinda playing to lose. This year, everybody believes that we can win and it really shows in our playing."

Hudson spent the past 31 years at Dakota Collegiate, where he coached their varsity boys to five provincial championships. In the 1980s, he guided West Kildonan Collegiate to two titles. He said his style has always been to get his teams to learn by playing, as opposed to focusing on individual drills. While Hudson's system appears to be working so far, the school still plans to conduct a nationwide search for a head coach starting in January. The 63 year old, who retired from teaching in 2018, hopes he can shed the interim label and stay on as the head coach moving forward.

"I've wanted to do it for a long time," Hudson said. "Even though you're retired from teaching, you're not really retired from coaching. You want to just keep doing the stuff that you love. I think that's what retirement is about, is getting a chance and spending as much time as you can doing something that you like doing. This is a very positive experience for me so far working with the Wesmen (women's) team. I've really enjoyed it."

Wesmen volleyball players Selva Planincic (left) and Rylie Dickson have already won more games this year at the midpoint compared to all of last season. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Wesmen volleyball players Selva Planincic (left) and Rylie Dickson have already won more games this year at the midpoint compared to all of last season. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The head coaching decision aside, the team will have some solid young pieces to work with, such as first-year left side attacker Selva Planincic. The Sturgeon Heights Collegiate product was the No.1-ranked high school volleyball player last year and despite having several offers on the table, she elected to rep the red and white.

With Dickson and left-side hitter Kalena Schulz as the only seniors on the team, Planincic believes the Wesmen have a strong young core that can help turn things around. The freshman also gave the interim boss a vote of confidence.

"With Phil's coaching, I do believe that there's a lot of potential to really grow as a team," said Planincic, who's appeared in four matches. "Just being on the bench and watching the team play, there's so much to learn from them. Every day I learn a lot from them and Phil."

Dickson is finally enjoying some success at the U Sports level, especially against the team's provincial rivals — they're 4-0 against the Manitoba Bisons and Brandon Bobcats this year. As much as Dickson has enjoyed that, she and her teammates are especially looking forward to this month's Wesmen Classic (Dec. 28-30) featuring women's volleyball. Dickson hopes a strong showing at the tournament will give the team a boost heading into the second half. The Wesmen are currently in a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference with UBC Okanagan.

"It would be pretty amazing," Dickson on finishing the season in the playoffs. "After the last couple of years, I didn't know if that was ever going to be an option for this team but this year, it definitely is."

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

Read full biography

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