Despite making some big changes, the high expectations remained for the Brandon University Bobcats men’s volleyball team this season.
For the most part, the Bobcats met those expectations during the first semester of the season, sitting in third place in the Canada West conference with a 9-3 record and ranked seventh in the country.
The most successful of BU’s four teams so far this season, men’s volleyball is where we start our annual midterm reports.
COACHING: In a bit of a surprise, BU athletic director Russ Paddock elected to take a one-year leave from his head-coaching role with the team to focus on his AD duties and the construction of the new Healthy Living Centre. Grant Wilson, who had been Paddock’s assistant since the program was founded eight seasons ago, was handed the team’s reins.
The players didn’t expect a lot to change as Wilson has the same philosophy as Paddock and ran the team when Paddock was away due to the faculty strike last season. Wilson also kept the likes of Warren Birch and Pat Thompson on the coaching staff, adding Ed Zalusky from Assiniboine Community College and former Bobcat Luke Reynolds, who exhausted his eligibility last season. Just as everyone expected, the transition has been smooth and Wilson has the Bobcats in a good position right now.
STARTING SEVEN: Wilson has driven home how important it is to serve well and make a good first pass. Brandon’s starting seven have taken it to heart and their statistics show it.
Brandon has served strongly all season. They are led by third-year Australian middle Brendan White’s 0.38 aces per set, which is second-best in the conference.
That has set up Brandon’s blocking system, which is the second-best in the conference, and put the Bobcats in good defensive positions, which is part of the reason why fifth-year libero Scott Neufeld is seventh in the conference with 2.59 digs per set.
The Bobcats’ solid passing game has allowed fifth-year setter Garrett Popplestone, who’s fifth in Canada West with 9.76 assists per set, to distribute the ball all over the court, which has led to second-year left side Sam Tuivai of New Zealand leading the conference with 4.20 kills and 4.76 points per set. Fourth-year middle Dan Boutwell is third in the conference with a .397 hitting percentage.
"I think it’s just an accumulation of a lot of hard work from everybody," Wilson said. "They’re starting to reap the rewards for the hours they’ve put in over the years."
SUBS: Another reason the Bobcat starters have improved is the squad’s depth. This Bobcats team may be the deepest in the program’s history, and has shown it throughout the first semester. Second-year Brandonite D.J. McCharles and rookie New Zealander Roy Ching have battled for the starting spot at right side and replaced each other during matches. Ching has also filled in for Popplestone on occasion when Brandon moves to a bigger lineup during a set.
Rookie American Randy Preval has also shown he’s capable of filling in at middle and Australian Craig Lowe had two solid matches when he replaced import Rob McLean at left side because of an injury.
"Not everybody’s going to be on the court reaping the benefits every time we play, but with the way we practice and the way we play and the way guys push each other, it’s pushed some guys to another level," Wilson said. "Certainly some people can’t get too comfortable in their role knowing there’s somebody right on their heels looking to take their spot, and that’s benefitted the whole team."
LOOKING AHEAD: The good start is a blessing in disguise for the Bobcats, as they have one of the toughest second-half schedules in the league. Upon returning to action in January, Brandon will have to visit the third-ranked Trinity Western Spartans (10-2), the eighth-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies (7-5) and the winless UBC-Okanagan Heat. Their home contests will be against the top-ranked Alberta Golden Bears (12-0), who have lost only four sets all season, and the sixth-ranked UBC Thunderbirds (8-4).
"We’re definitely going to have to continue to improve to have a good second half," Wilson said.