The return of former CIS top libero Donata Huebert has improved the Bobcats’ defence in the back row. (FILE PHOTO)
Experience has been one of the most important things for the Brandon University Bobcats women’s volleyball team this season as it is in a solid position to host a home Canada West playoff series for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign.
The Bobcats, who are ranked second in the nation, posted a 9-3 record and sit third in the Canada West standings after the first semester. It’s with them that we begin the series of midterm reports.
The Bobcats didn’t lose many players this year, but one addition was key. Libero Donata Huebert returned to the team after playing professionally in Europe for a few seasons, and her experience helped solidify the team’s back row. The extra year of experience for the returning players seems to have calmed the Bobcats’ nerves as they don’t seem to get rattled very easily, although each time they lost their confidence they lost their matches.
Brandon has gone from being one of the younger teams in the league to one of the more experienced, with a pair of fifth-year starters in setter Kellie Baker and middle Lexi Loewen, two fourth-year players in middle Meaghan Robertson and right side Victoria Dakin as well as third-year left side Shanlee McLennan. Although Huebert is only in her second year of eligibility, the 25-year-old from Germany brings a ton of experience, and Vaovai Aiono, a rookie left side from New Zealand, has lots of potential.
"I think (the reason for the team’s confidence) is a lot of key players that are in their third, fourth and fifth year. It’s a big difference," said Bobcats head coach Lee Carter. "They’ve been through it and understand what’s coming up and expect it rather than reacting all the time."
Another strength for the Bobcats is that it’s hard to guess where the ball is going to go when they’re on the attack.
McLennan is seventh in the conference for kills, with 3.46 per set, while Dakin, Robertson and Aiono all average more than two per set. Robertson is also very efficient, putting. 35.1 per cent of her attacks onto the floor.
Baker has done a solid job distributing the ball and is third in Canada West with 9.90 assists per set. She has also been solid from the service line, where her average of 0.42 aces per set is fourth-best in the conference. When Baker was out with injuries, second-year Mary Thomson did a solid job filling in to run the offence.
The Bobcats have been so good offensively that they are ranked in the top four in Canada West for every team category.
Defensively, their block has been impressive. They sit third in the conference with 2.70 per set, and Loewen is registering 1.35 of those, which is sixth-best in Canada West. However, Carter feels the team has to improve a lot behind the block to compete with some of the top teams in the conference.
"I would say that would be our most important need to improve right now," he said. "Our offence is pretty good. Our defence is good, it’s acceptable, but if we want to compete with the best we need to improve that part.
"Just reading and understanding the concepts of where to position, whether we’re blocking cross-court or where we need to be to see the tip and things like that. Sometimes we’re hiding behind the block rather than playing around it."
Brandon benefitted from a favourable schedule in the first half. Only four Canada West teams are above .500 right now, and the Bobcats only played one of the other three, which was in the comforts of the Healthy Living Centre. The Bobcats won both of those matches and posted an impressive 8-1 mark on home court.
However, that means when the team returns from its trip to Barbados during the semester break, the players will have to become road warriors, with their first four matches taking place in B.C. and seven of their 10 contests away from the Wheat City. Brandon will also face some tougher opponents, visiting the six-time defending national champion UBC Thunderbirds (12-0) before the Trinity Western Spartans (8-4) visit the Wheat City in late January.
The Bobcats currently have a three-match lead over Alberta and Manitoba for a home-playoff spot, and they are focused on earning the right to host a quarter-final for the second time in the team’s history.
The Bobcats should be able to accomplish that feat by winning at least half their matches in the second semester, but the expectations are growing as the Bobcats look good enough to earn their first-ever trip to nationals, which will be held from Feb. 28 to March 2 in Regina.
"Every year it’s in conversation," Carter said. "It’s one of the steps along the way in the season, but we said from the start it all hinges around this ball, this game. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 6, 2013