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This article was published 12/3/2020 (260 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The best men's volleyball program in the country might be in Langley, B.C., but Manitoba has a whole lot to do with it.

To say the Trinity Western Spartans are dominant would be an understatement. With an overall record of 34-6 this season (20-2 in Canada West), the Spartans are the No. 1-ranked team in the nation and heavily favoured to win this weekend's U Sports Men's Volleyball Championships in Winnipeg at the Investors Group Athletic Centre. The team is aiming for its fourth national championship banner in five years.

Trinity Western University men’s volleyball player Eric Loeppky, right, is in his last season with the school and will be turning pro next season.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Trinity Western University men’s volleyball player Eric Loeppky, right, is in his last season with the school and will be turning pro next season.

But Trinity Western aren't just the kings of the north, they might just be the best university team in North America. At the Can Am Holiday Volleyball Showcase event in Toronto back in December, a tournament featuring the top U Sports and NCAA programs, the Spartans defeated the UCLA Bruins and the winners of the last two Div. I national titles, Long Beach State.

So, what makes Trinity Western so good? Well, having Steinbach native Eric Loeppky sure doesn't hurt. Loeppky was named the U Sports Player of the Year on Wednesday night.

"Coming back to my home province is pretty special. I've won a provincial championship with Steinbach in this same gym so it'd be pretty cool to win a national one." — Eric Loeppky

The six-foot-five outside hitter was the only player in Canada West this year with a hitting percentage above .400 as Loeppky finished at an incredible .433. He also drives opponents insane with his jump serve, making even the best passers in the game look foolish, as he made history this season by becoming the conference's all-time leader in career aces with 153. The only positive for his opponents this weekend is that this will be the last time they see Loeppky at this level. The fourth-year player will be skipping his last year of eligibility to go play professionally next season.

The Elite Eight

1. Trinity Western Spartans (20-2)

The defending national champions beat Alberta in the Canada West final.

Player to watch for: Fourth-year outside hitter Eric Loeppky is the best player in the country. It doesn't matter where he is on the court, the Spartans find a way to get him the ball.

1. Trinity Western Spartans (20-2)

The defending national champions beat Alberta in the Canada West final.

Player to watch for: Fourth-year outside hitter Eric Loeppky is the best player in the country. It doesn't matter where he is on the court, the Spartans find a way to get him the ball.

2. Montreal Carabins (15-1)

The Carabins had their best season in school history and won the RSEQ championship.

Player to watch for: Fifth-year passed Gabriel Chancy was named a U Sports first-team all-star as he led the nation with 11.10 assist per set.

3. Queen's Gaels (14-4)

The Gales beat Toronto in five sets to capture the Ontario University Athletics conference title.

Player to watch for: They have the U Sports Rookie of the Year on the team as outside hitter Erik Siksna claimed the award after finishing the season ninth in the conference in points (201.5) and 10th in kills (164)

4. Alberta Golden Bears (18-4)

Alberta is the No. 2-ranked team in the nation but due to being the fourth-seed, they find themselves on the same side of the bracket as TWU. Alberta has qualified to nationals for a 20th straight year but finds themselves searching for their first title since 2015.

Player to watch for: Setter Max Elgert led Canada West with 786 assists this season and set a new program record with 41 aces.

5. Toronto Varsity Blues (17-1)

Toronto finished the OUA regular season in first place before dropping the conference final to Queen's.

Player to watch for: Left side hitter Chris Towe recorded double-digit points in 11 matches this season and was named a U Sports second-team all-Canadian.

6. McMaster Marauders (15-2)

McMaster had to settle for bronze in the OUA conference after losing the semis to Queen's.

Player to watch for: Outside hitter Nathan Delguidice was named a second-team all-Canadian after finishing the season sixth in the nation in kills per set at 3.83.

7. Laval Rouge et Or (11-5)

Despite battling injuries to key players all season, Laval remained competitive and grabbed second place in RSEQ.

Player to watch for: First-year hitter Nicolas Fortin averages 4.8 points per set and was named to the U Sports rookie all-star team.

8. Manitoba Bisons (8-14)

The hosts find themselves as major underdogs after failing to make the Canada West playoffs.

Player to watch for: Fifth-year hitter Kevin Negus leads the charge on offence as his 3.57 kills per set was the fourth-best average in Canada West.

For Loeppky, there would be no better way to cap off his time at Trinity Western than winning a national championship in a building he's very familiar with. Only this time, it will be much quieter as U Sports and the U of M announced Thursday afternoon the tournament would be played with only team members and essential staff in attendance due to the evolving global situation regarding COVID-19.

"It's really cool. I grew up playing in these gyms and I wanted to be a Bison when I was younger," said Loeppky, who will play his childhood team today in the quarter-finals at 6:30 p.m inside the Investors Group Athletic Centre, in an interview after Wednesday's practice.

"Coming back to my home province is pretty special. I've won a provincial championship with Steinbach in this same gym so it'd be pretty cool to win a national one."

Loeppky, who played setter at the time, led the Steinbach Sabres to their first-ever AAAA high school volleyball title in 2014 in his Grade 11 season. But Loeppky was already on Trinity Western head coach Ben Josephson's radar two years before that.

Trinity Western's head coach, Ben Josephson.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Trinity Western's head coach, Ben Josephson.

"The kids that come out of this town are just tough and they know how to play. So, we've been trying to recruit this town for years." — Trinity Western head coach Ben Josephson

Josephson has kept a close eye on the Manitoba volleyball scene for quite some time. Before Loeppky, the coach was able to land top local recruits over the years from Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute such as Devyn Plett, Adam Schriemer and Carter Bergen. Josephson's strong bond with Manitoba continues today as the Spartans also have first-year outside hitter Isaiah Olfert of Dakota Collegiate on the roster. He's hoping to land more recruits from the Keystone Province moving forward.

"Well, this city is the mecca for volleyball. When it comes to skill development, toughness and volleyball I.Q., there's probably no better city training the game," said Josephson, a Strathmore, Alta., native.

U Sports Volleyball Nationals cancelled

Click to Expand

U Sports, in conjunction with the University of Manitoba, announced late Thursday night that the 2020 U Sports Men's Volleyball Championship has been officially cancelled due to the evolving global situation regarding coronavirus (COVID-19).

It was announced Thursday afternoon the event would go on, but fans wouldn't be able to attend. A few hours later, they decided to pull the plug on the event entirely.

"There is mixed emotion in this news," said Gene Muller, Director of Athletics and Recreation for the University of Manitoba, in a release.

"Obviously we are disappointed for the teams participating and for the fans who were excited to see the top men compete, but we understand the exceptional circumstances that COVID-19 has created and we believe that this decision is in the best interest of public safety."

"The legendary high school coaches in the city are unbelievable. Like every one of these guys like Brian Plett (MBCI), Jim Schreyer (Selkirk), Lloyd Voth (St. Paul's), and oh my gosh, I'm missing a bunch. But like, these legends of the game develop player after player after player. Phil Hudson (Dakota, now University of Winnipeg) is another great one. They have this really competitive high school season and then these really competitive club seasons. The kids that come out of this town are just tough and they know how to play. So, we've been trying to recruit this town for years and it wasn't until we got Devyn Plett to come (in 2011), MBCI coach Brian Plett's kid, then we actually had an inroad and we were starting to build some relationships."

Seeing those players make the trip out to B.C. and have major success played a huge role in Loeppky's decision to take his talents out west. The fact that Trinity Western is a Christian liberal arts university also factored into the decision as Loeppky comes from a faith background.

"I heard about the school and Ben talked to me at nationals in Grade 10. And then, Garth (Pischke) actually almost got me to commit (to the U of M) in Grade 11 because I didn't know if Ben was still interested in me. And then I actually messaged him on Twitter and he was like 'Oh no, we're still interested in you. We just didn't think you'd be committing this early.' They flew me out and I was like 'Wow, this place is pretty sweet.' I ended up taking some time and deciding what I wanted and it ended up being Trinity. I'm so glad I went there."

The Bisons weren't the only team in town who had their hearts broken.

"The University of Winnipeg was actually really close later," said Loeppky, whose dad Greg coached Steinbach's junior varsity boys volleyball team to a provincial title this year.

"I played under (Wesmen coach) Larry McKay for club volleyball so I almost switched back to U of W, but for some reason, I just felt like Trinity was the right place for me."

Josephson originally recruited Loeppky as a setter but he quickly saw the Steinbach native would have a higher potential as a hitter.

"He's just too dangerous of a weapon to set. You can't let that shoulder not see the light of day. And then we flipped it and started recruiting him as an outside," said Josephson, who's also an assistant coach with Canada’s senior women’s national team.

Loeppky goes for a spike in match against the Brandon University Bobcats. The six-foot-five outside hitter was the only player in Canada West this year with a hitting percentage above .400.

NATHAN LIEWICKI/THE BRANDON SUN FILES

Loeppky goes for a spike in match against the Brandon University Bobcats. The six-foot-five outside hitter was the only player in Canada West this year with a hitting percentage above .400.

"Really, it was up to him. He couldn't decide, but he's got so much of a higher-end as a spiker. Anybody can set a ball, not everyone has that shoulder."

Former Trinity Western setter Schriemer, a Winnipeg native who won the U Sports player of the year award for the 2017-18 season, is now an assistant coach on the team. Schriemer played with Loeppky for two seasons and said it was evident from Day 1 that he was going to do big things.

"I think Eric will go down as one of the best players to ever play U Sports. I honestly think he's that good," said Schriemer, who played professionally in Germany last year. "Obviously, I've spent the past couple years around the guy and I don't think anyone is close to as good as Eric."

"I think Eric will go down as one of the best players to ever play U Sports. I honestly think he's that good. Obviously, I've spent the past couple years around the guy and I don't think anyone is close to as good as Eric." — Trinity Western assistant coach Adam Schriemer

It didn't take long for the Bisons to find out what they missed out on. On March 11, 2017, the Herd, who were stacked with fifth-year players, hosted the Spartans at the IGAC for the Canada West final. The building was packed, creating one of the best atmospheres for an amateur sports event that this town has seen in ages. The two schools were the top-ranked teams in the country at the time.

"That was one of my favourite games I've ever played in," Schriemer said.

Friday's schedule (quarter-finals)

Click to Expand

12:30 p.m. - Laval vs. Montreal

 2:30 p.m. - McMaster vs. Queen's

 6:30 p.m. - Manitoba vs. Trinity Western

 8:30 p.m. - Toronto vs. Alberta

Of course it was, as he and Loeppky, a freshman at the time, were phenomenal in a 3-2 victory over the Bisons. The Herd failed to get their revenge at nationals a couple of weeks later as Trinity Western won that as well.

This weekend will be the last time Loeppky can torment the Bisons and the six other teams at nationals. The fourth-year player will be skipping his last year of eligibility to go play professionally. The crazy thing is Loeppky could've skipped school to play at the pro level even earlier. Following his second season in B.C., he made Canada's senior national ‘A’ team and trained with them in Europe. He'll spend most of this summer in Gatineau, Que., at Volleyball Canada's National Training Centre and hopes to make the team once again.

But right now, he's focused on defending TWU's title and becoming a three-time national champ.

"I don't think you could have written it any better," said the 21-year-old. "If we win, that'll be just so special to me."

His resume after a few short years is already impeccable, but Loeppky is hoping his U Sports career is only the beginning.

"I just really like improving my game and pushing the boundaries of being the best I can be with volleyball and who knows, maybe change the game, if possible," he said. "I think that'd be like a dream for me."

UPDATE: It was announced late Thursday night the U Sports Men's Volleyball Championship at the Investors Group Athletic Centre has been cancelled due to the global concerns surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19)

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.

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