The Brandon University men’s volleyball team celebrate their Canada West championship in February.
Sometimes it’s the most unlikely thing that brings a team together and helps it find success, and for the Brandon University Bobcats men’s volleyball team last season it was an injury to their best player.
The Bobcats looked like they were a team heading in the wrong direction during the second semester of their Canada West season after having dropped six of their first eight matches, and things looked even bleaker when Sam Tuivai missed their final two matches with a hamstring injury. However, Tuivai’s absence required others to step up and helped bring the team together. He returned the next weekend for what turned out to be the beginning of a special playoff run.
Brandon upset the host Saskatchewan Huskies to sweep their best-of-three quarter-final series and then shocked the Alberta Golden Bears — the No.1-ranked team in the country — in the conference semifinals. The Bobcats went on to beat the Trinity Western Spartans to win their first-ever Canada West conference title and followed it up by winning a bronze medal at the national championship.
For adding two banners to the rafters of the Healthy Living Centre, the 2012-13 Bobcats are the recipients of the Brandon Sun’s 2013 Mike Jones Team of the Year Award.
There were a lot of challenges for the Bobcats in the 2012-13 season, and it started at the top. Russ Paddock, the team’s head coach, took a year’s leave of absence from the team to focus full time on his duties as the school’s athletic director. The team was passed over to Paddock’s longtime assistant Grant Wilson, who remains as head coach after Paddock decided not to return to the team after last season.
It could have been difficult for players to adjust to a new coach, but Wilson felt comfortable right from the start.
"It was my first year as a head coach but I had a lot of familiarity with our team and I was comfortable with it," he said. "The second half of the season we went on a tremendous run and aside from one game it went according to plan. I couldn’t have asked for much more other than the national semifinal."
The Bobcats got off to a tremendous start by winning nine of their first 11 matches, and they had a 9-3 record at the Christmas break. Then things went downhill, but it was Wilson’s change to the lineup when Tuivai was injured that created new chemistry on the court. He moved fifth-year libero Scott Neufeld to left side and gave rookie Jeremy Davies his first start as the defensive specialist.
The move worked as the Bobcats responded to sweep the host UBCO Heat, and it wouldn’t be the last time that Wilson went with that option.
With Craig Lowe struggling at left side in the first match of the conference quarter-finals, Wilson took him out, moved Neufeld to left side and brought Davies in at libero in the fourth set and it sparked the Bobcats to win in five sets. Wilson stuck with that starting lineup and it resulted in Brandon sweeping Saskatchewan in the second match and earning a 3-1 (24-26, 25-23, 25-23, 27-25) triumph over Alberta the following weekend in the conference semifinal and a 3-1 (25-21, 25-22, 23-25, 25-15) triumph over Trinity Western in the final.
"I think guys bought into their roles by the second half of the season and we did have to tinker with the lineup a little bit and once we made the changes we did, people filled those roles really well and people just started to believe," Wilson said. "When that happens, good things happen and it certainly did for us."
The Bobcats went to nationals in Quebec City as the top seed and Tuivai — who led the conference with 4.35 kills per set — was named a second-team all-Canadian at the awards banquet. They struggled in their first set against the Montreal Carabins, but bounced back to win
3-1 (23-25, 25-18, 25-19, 25-20).
The national semifinal is where Brandon’s dreams of a first national men’s volleyball title died. The host Laval Rouge et Or fed off the boisterous hometown crowd as the eventual national champions squeaked past the Bobcats 3-2 (21-25, 26-24, 24-26, 25-23, 15-13). But the Bobcats bounced back for a 3-2 (21-25, 34-36, 25-23, 25-18, 15-12) win over the Western Mustangs to come home with bronze medals. Tuivai, who had 17 kills in the bronze-medal match, was named a tournament all-star.
Although the season didn’t end the way the Bobcats would have liked — with a national championship — they still take a lot of pride in seeing their Canada West championship and CIS bronze-medal banners hanging in the Healthy Living Centre.
"I think it was a great accomplishment, and it’s a reflection of all the time that Russ and everybody who’s ever been associated with our program has put into it other the years," Wilson said. "To be able to achieve that and see the (Canada West championship) banner in the HLC is a great feeling. Certainly it’s a moment we’re proud of and at the same time it provides some motivation for us to try to want to get back there and get a national banner to go with it."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 2, 2014